You may have heard that “humans are a social species” and that socializing has many advantages. You may have even felt these advantages yourself. It feels good to laugh with someone, share an inside joke, and know you have someone to turn to when you need to talk about something.
But what has science shown about the emotional and physical benefits of social contact? In what ways does social connection improve our well-being, and what can we learn from studies in order to thrive?
In this article, we’ll break down some of the most commonly declared benefits of socializing and look at some studies that support these claims.
This article focuses on the health benefits of socializing, so if you want to know more reasons why being social is important, check out our other article on the importance of socializing.
Your immune system helps protect your body from external pathogens (such as bacteria and viruses) and physical injury through inflammatory responses. Stress can activate these types of physical responses, which include an increased need for sleep and changes in appetite.
Several studies that followed patients with various diseases support the idea that social support can promote healing and immune function. Social support is linked to increased survival rates of breast cancer, for example.
Having relationships isn’t enough of a protective factor against disease: the quality of the relationships matters. One study followed 42 married couples from the ages of 22 to 77 and the ways they interact. The study found that the couples had slower wound healing after conflicts than when their interactions were those of social support. Couples who had high rates of conflicts and hostility healed at 60% of the rate that couples low in hostility did.
Overall, studies support the claim that stress, including social stress, can affect our immune system. Since loneliness and isolation can be significant sources of stress, increasing social interaction can protect against disease. However, loneliness results not only from a lack of social interactions but a lack of fulfilling social interactions.
Therefore, it’s best to stay away from people who put you down and make you feel bad about yourself.
If you’re not sure whether a relationship is adding too much stress to your life, we have an article with 22 signs it’s time to end a friendship that can help you decide.
Socializing can reduce your risk of Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia. Research shows that both loneliness (how socially isolated someone feels) and low social interaction (measured by small social circles, marital status, and social activity) increase one’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s. A study of 823 older people in Chicago found that lonely individuals had double the risk of developing Alzheimer’s than those who did not consider themselves lonely.
An additional study on 2249 elderly women in the US found that those with a larger social network had better cognitive functioning, which pointed to the fact that social engagement and social activities may act as a protective mechanism against dementia.
Shared meals and support groups have been proposed as methods of increasing social interaction for seniors who have already developed dementia. Since caregivers for loved ones with dementia have higher rates of depression than their peers, supporting caretakers can improve the quality of care and social interactions for those living with dementia by improving the quality of the caretaker-patient relationship.
In one survey of 1,900 Canadians, 30% of respondents said they’re afraid they won’t have anything to do after retirement, while an additional 34% answered that they haven’t planned for retirement and aren’t sure how they will spend it.
Helping seniors retain social connections in retirement through technology, social activities, and other forms of engagement can help them retain their physical and mental health longer.
When we socialize, we rely on parts of our brains that are also important for memory and solving rational problems and puzzles. Social interaction may work out our mind just as well as other activities that we commonly think of as “intellectually stimulating,” such as puzzles, riddles, or word games.
To show this effect in action, one study looked at adults between the ages of 24 to 96 and found that social interaction and engagement positively influenced cognitive functioning across all ages. The most encouraging result of their study found that social interaction as short as ten minutes was enough to benefit cognitive functioning in the measures of working memory and processing speed.
Since our brain controls the rest of our body, maximizing brain health through increased social interaction can only benefit our overall health.
Socializing can help you decrease depression, anxiety, and other mental health disorders and stabilize your moods.
One study that checked up with 4,642 American adults ten years after an initial survey found that those who reported poor relationship quality were more likely to develop depression. Another study followed Japanese adults as they went into retirement and found that many showed an increase in depressive symptoms as they retired. Those who reported that they felt they had a meaning in life through social interaction weren’t as affected.
Social media seems to have both positive and negative effects on mental health, depending on how it is used. One study found that using social media sites for positive interactions and social support was linked to less anxiety and depression. In contrast, negative interactions and social comparison on social media were tied to higher levels of depression and anxiety.
Increasing social support can be an effective way to reduce depressive symptoms. One study showed that peer support groups were as effective in treating depression as other treatments such as CBT (cognitive-behavioral therapy).
Socially integrated people are more satisfied with their life, according to at least one Italian survey.
While other factors also influence our life stratification, such as our employment and physical health, our social health is one part of our life that we can take immediate action to change. And as the previous sections show, improving our social connections can also benefit our physical health, further increasing our life satisfaction.
Socializing may positively influence your health so much that you even live longer. A study that followed the survival of Japanese elders for 11 years found a connection between mortality and a lack of social participation or communication with family and non-family members.
Perhaps learning about the health benefits of socializing convinced you that it’s a healthy habit worth building, but you don’t know where to start.
Try to schedule social interaction as a way of learning how to be more social. You can try to set up a weekly dinner or phone call with an existing friend so you don’t need to think about it every week.
If you don’t have friends you can interact with regularly, consider signing up for a class or taking up a social hobby to meet new people. Seeing people you share interests with on a regular basis is a great way to make new friends.
Utilize technology to keep in touch with friends. While in-person connection has many advantages, it’s not always possible. Video chats, texting, and playing online games together can give you opportunities to connect even when you can’t meet up to hang out. Consider adding an online support group, book club, or hobby discussion group to your schedule for regular social interaction.
Negative social interactions (like with people who put you down) or socializing beyond your comfort level can lead to increased stress and burnout. While there are many benefits to socializing, it’s essential to make sure you have alone time, too.
Socialization activates areas of our brain that are important for daily life, such as areas related to memory, language, decision-making, and understanding others’ emotions. Staying socially active lowers your risk of dementia, hinting at how important socialization is for brain health.
Group living has probably helped humans to survive as a species. Sharing food may have helped early humans share resources and minimize conflict amongst groups. As a result, we have evolved to be social by nature. We mirror others’ emotions and behaviors and use language to communicate.