The number one reason adventure women say they like traveling “women-only” is the opportunity of meeting new friends on our trips. From sharing stories and common experiences to comparing ideas and perspectives, the potential for connecting with other interesting women in an engaging atmosphere is a big draw for them. But it turns out, being social and being part of a community are associated with a host of additional benefits – from better health, to being happier, to a longer life.
“People who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected”
Dr. Robert Waldinger is a psychiatrist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital and Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, an ongoing longitudinal research project that’s followed more than 700 study participants since 1938. His research points to the strong association between social connections and health status and morbidity. “People who are more socially connected to family, friends, and community are happier, healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected,” says Dr. Waldinger.
BETTER HEALTH: BENEFITS OF BEING SOCIAL
Studies show that social engagement is associated with a stronger immune system, especially for older adults. This means that you are better able to fight off colds, the flu, and even some types of cancer. And increased social connections may reduce the risk of heart disease, hypertension (high blood pressure), and even some infectious diseases. Researchers at Duke University Medical Center have also shown that social ties can reduce deaths among people with serious medical conditions. Finally, increased social interaction can enhance good health as friends influence their friends’ living habits (e.g. if your friends don’t smoke, you are less likely to smoke).
Alternatively, loneliness can actually impair physical health. And loneliness is becoming a significant public health issue in the U.S. In 1985, it was reported that Americans stated having an average of 3 friends with which they felt comfortable sharing a personal problem. In 2004, this number dropped to zero, with over 25% of Americans saying that they have no one to confide in.
“People who are more isolated than they want to be are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain function declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely,” explains Dr. Waldinger. People who are chronically lacking in social contacts are more likely to experience elevated levels of stress and inflammation. These, in turn, can undermine the well-being of nearly every bodily system, including the brain. Studies show that lonely people more often suffer from cardiovascular problems, stress and depression. In 2010 in The Journal of Health and Social Behavior, Debra Umberson and Jennifer Karas Montez, sociology researchers at the University of Texas at Austin described how a low quantity or quality of social ties can be associated with the development and worsening of cardiovascular disease, repeat heart attacks, autoimmune disorders, high blood pressure, cancer, and slowed wound healing. And Beverly H. Brummett and colleagues reported in 2001 that in her study of adults with coronary artery disease, the mortality rate was 2.4 times higher among those who were socially isolated. In fact, social isolation has been shown as impactful as high blood pressure, obesity, lack of exercise and smoking as a risk factor for illness and early death.
COMMUNITY, HAPPINESS & MENTAL HEALTH
Fortunately, being more social is also associated with higher self-reported levels of happiness, a more positive outlook, and better brain health. Research has shown that interacting with others boosts feelings of well-being and decreases feelings of depression. One sure way of improving your mood is to work on building social connections and you could even lower your risk of dementia. There is building clinical evidence that socializing is good for your brain health showing that people who connect with others generally perform better on tests of memory and other cognitive skills. And better relationships appear to protect our brains. “Being in a securely attached relationship is protective in your 80s. Those people’s memories stay sharper longer,” says Dr. Waldinger.
“Interacting with others boosts feelings of well-being and decreases feelings of depression”
Emma Seppala, Science Director at the Stanford Center for Compassion And Altruism Research And Education and Co-Director Wellness at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence notes, “People who feel more connected to others have lower levels of anxiety and depression. They also have higher self-esteem, greater empathy for others, are more trusting and cooperative and, as a consequence, others are more open to trusting and cooperating with them. Social connected-ness generates a positive feedback loop of social, emotional and physical well-being.”
MORE SOCIAL = LONGER LIFE
People living in environments with more social support tend to live longer than those who are more isolated, and this appears to be true even after accounting for overall level of health and other risk factors.
The relationship between social and community ties and mortality was studied in the 1965 Human Population Laboratory survey with a follow up review examining mortality in 1979. Researchers Lisa F. Berkman and S. Leonard Syme found that “people who were disconnected from others were roughly three times more likely to die during the nine-year study than people with strong social ties”. This major difference in survival occurred regardless of people’s age, gender, health practices or physical health status. In fact, the researchers found that those with close social ties and unhealthful lifestyles (such as smoking, obesity and lack of exercise) actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more healthful living habits.
PRACTICAL WAYS TO BE MORE SOCIAL
Ok Adventure Women, we’re pretty social already, right? But maybe we can go even further now that we know the many benefits associated with initiating and maintaining good, healthy relationships. Here are some ways each of us can take action in support of better physical and brain health, happiness and a longer life:
- Catch up with family and friends you’ve lost touch with (dial them up or choose your app: Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp, Skype).
- Take a stroll through your neighborhood and start saying “Hello!” to people you meet. Have your neighbor over for a cup of tea.
- Offer to babysit your grandkids or someone else’s or help their kids with their homework.
- Sign up for a class at your local community center, library, or university. Join a gym and take a group class. Get to know your fellow athletes.
- Explore community programs offered by your church, synagogue, or temple or volunteer in your community.
- Join a choir or offer to play music for a group of musicians.
- Research local competitions and tournaments and attend local events or learn how to play a new sport, to play cards or chess.
Enjoy Adventure Women!