Although living alone can offer conveniences . . . physical health is not among them – Julianne Holt-Lundstad

North Dakota residents Clifford and Eva Vevea were happily married for sixty-five years, and in 2013 they died within a few hours of each other. That same year Illinois residents Robert and Nora Viands who had been married for seventy-one years died on the same day. A year earlier in the United Kingdom, Marcus Ringrose died twenty-four hours after his wife’s funeral. Stories like this are reported in newspapers with sensational headlines like, ‘You Really Can Die of a Broken Heart.’ This is an exaggeration, because broken hearts rarely actually kill us. Yet research is beginning to prove there is some truth beneath the overblown headlines. Of course, poets have known for millennia that bad relationships are bad for our health. Shakespeare’s Lady Montague dies of a broken heart after her son is banished in Romeo and Juliet; Psalm 69 states that broken hearts can make people weak; and the great Persian poet Rudaki put it most romantically:

Look at the cloud, how it cries like a grieving man

Thunder moans like a lover with a broken heart.

Social relationships and health

Recent scientific research is revealing that having (good) relationships with family, friends, and social groups is good for our health. Sheldon Cohen, of the Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh, is one of the world’s leading researchers of the relationship between social support and health. In one of his most interesting studies, he gave a group of people a virus that causes the common cold. He also asked them whether they:

  • were married
  • had a parent with whom they had contact
  • had a family member with whom they had contact
  • had a neighbour with whom they had contact
  • had a friend with whom they had contact
  • had a workmate with whom they had contact
  • had a schoolmate with whom they had contact
  • volunteered
  • were part of a wider group with or without religious affiliation

Participants who ticked at least six of the roles listed above (basically, the people who had good social networks), were only half as likely to develop a cold in the days after being exposed to the cold virus, compared with those who were less socially integrated.

Cohen’s study has been generalised in a mega-review of over 300,000 people, which showed that good social relationships can make use live 5 years longer. Five years is a long time. It is as good as smoking is bad. Smoking reduces your life span by an average of five years.

Why are social networks good for health?

Good social networks can improve our health in three main ways. First, friends can offer direct help. You might take a disabled friend for a walk, lend an ear to someone who is feeling sad, or inform a relative with an illness about a new treatment of which they have not heard. Researchers call this the main effects hypothesis.

Second, helpful friends and family can make you feel protected and less anxious, thus reducing the harmful effects of stress. This is called the stress buffering hypothesis. This was shown in a fascinating study of over 700 Swedish men. Researchers assessed the men’s health and also handed the men questionnaires about:

  • Whether they were experiencing stressful events in their lives, such as financial trouble, divorce, problems with the health of a family member
  • Whether their social networks were providing emotional support

After seven years, forty-one of the men had died. When the investigators looked at the causes of death, they found the usual suspects such as cholesterol levels, obesity and heart disease had not been the major killers. Obese people with high cholesterol were as likely to die as slim people with normal cholesterol. However, those men who reported having lots of stress in their lives were three times more likely to die sooner than those who did not.

The results became even more interesting when the researchers looked more closely at the men’s questionnaire responses to see what happened to the men who had good social networks. They found the stressed-out men who had strong social support were just as healthy as the men who were stressed out. So stress only increased the chances of an early death in those without strong social networks. Think back to stressful events in your own life and you might find this chimes with your experience. Having good people around does not simply provide assistance and advice; it makes you feel more relaxed and less anxious, because you feel supported.

There are many reasons why good social networks can buffer us against the harmful effects of chronic stress. First, friends can help us reframe negative events as less threatening, or offer advice about how to cope. Contact with good social network also seems to elicit physiological changes such as boosted immune system, lower blood pressure, and lower cortisol (stress hormone) levels.

The third reason contact with people can reduce stress is that social bonds boosts the amount of a hormone called oxytocin, which affects the body in numerous positive ways, including by making us feel less fearful, anxious, and stressed.

The last thing to say is that while good social networks help, bad ones can harm. If you choose a criminal gang who engage in violent activities and substance abuse as your social network, you are unlikely to reap the benefits of good social networks.

Three ways to improve your health by improving your social networks

These are three things that are based on the evidence that you can use them to reduce stress and boost your health and overall wellbeing.

  • Join a group that interests you. There are so many options, from hiking or singing, to playing chess or eating cheese.
  • Connect with a family member or friend. Invite them over for lunch, tea, or dinner, or even give them a call. If you feel there isn’t an available family member or friend, then…
  • Volunteer to help others. There are many volunteering organisations that will help you connect with others, including volunteer organisations geared towards reaching out to isolated individuals. Volunteering will connect you to people and may have independent health benefits.

Photo by Matheus Ferrero