Whether you’re a social butterfly with a 24/7, always-on social life, or more of an introverted caterpillar who prefers shorter bursts of connection, chances are your relationships sustain you. They make you feel great.
A feel-good high
It’s no wonder social connection gives you a buzz. It works like a powerful drug, stimulating the production of chemicals that make you feel happy.
When you socialise, the hormone oxytocin is injected into your bloodstream, where it lowers your cortisol levels and therefore reduces stress. It’s been called ‘The Hormone of Love’ because worry and anxiety are replaced by warm feelings of empathy, trust, belonging and even sexual attraction.
Meanwhile, the neurotransmitter dopamine floods your brain with ecstatic feelings of pleasure and reward. It’s so potent, an Oxford University study found that people with more friends have a higher pain tolerance. The endorphins produced when you share a laugh with mates act like a low-grade morphine.
Dopamine does have a bit of a bad rep. It’s the chemical that opioids and cocaine trigger to generate a high. But, unlike your Class As, social connection boasts endless health benefits rather than perilous health risks. The more addicted to friendship you become, the better you’ll feel in body and mind.
A natural antidepressant
Psychologists suggest that our friendships fulfil an intrinsic need for belonging and can provide a ‘social cure’ for mental ill health.
Statistically, people with a greater feeling of social connection experience lower levels of depression and anxiety. Elevated oxytocin and dopamine levels boost their mood, and if they do feel low, they can discuss their feelings with somebody who cares, reaping the therapeutic benefits of a strong support network.
At the other end of the scale, psychological research shows that the happiest people are those with strong relationships and highly social tendencies.
They have higher self-esteem, more empathy, and are more co-operative, which in turn attracts more friendships in a positive feedback loop of social connection and feel-good emotion. The pursuit of happiness is most effective when it is reframed as a pursuit of friendships and connection.
A bodily panacea
Social connection boosts your immune system; it accelerates disease recovery; it can reduce inflammation. People with strong relationships are better able to overcome the flu, a cold, or even cancer.
In comparison, lonely or socially isolated people in one study were 29% more likely to develop heart disease and 32% more likely to suffer from a stroke. Clickbaity claims that loneliness is worse than obesity, as damaging as 15 cigarettes a day, are a dime dozen.
While loneliness is akin to smoking, strong relationships prolong life. People living in Blue Zones, the areas where life expectancy is off the charts, eat different things, experience varying weather conditions, enjoy a range of lifestyles, but they are all highly socially active according to researchers. A review of 148 studies concluded that having strong social connections increases a person’s likelihood of survival by 50%.
Social connection holds the keys to later-stage quality of life too. Socially connected people are also less likely to develop dementia or Alzheimer’s, making those years of increased life expectancy extra rewarding.
Whatever your age, studies show that interactions with other people are food for your hungry brain, improving your memory and cognitive ability one chit-chat at a time. Oh, and they’re plenty fun too.