Human beings are social animals by nature and have evolved over the course of evolutionary history to thrive best in the company of other humans. According to medical science, the quantity and quality of our social relationships has a deep impact on our levels of physical and mental health, healthy behavior, and mortality rate.
With so much riding on the levels of social health we enjoy, you’d think more people would be aware of this important need.
But social health can be difficult to fully identify and assess because many different factors play into the levels of social health. But because our social relations can be a great benefit or a toxic influence, it is worth considering how your level of social health may be affecting your world.
How Social Health and Mental Health are Connected
The study of sociology seeks to establish the connection between social relations and their effects on the individual. Sociologists try to understand this link by examining social variations, patterns of social relations, cultural aspects, and other interactions of populations across the planet.
Studies that will be discussed further in the article show that social conditions and relations have both long- and short- term effects on mental and physical health. These effects will play a minor role during childhood but mature throughout life to form a cumulative state of social health. Social health can either form a preventative barrier against mental illness or potentially aggravate mental and physical conditions.1
What is Social Health?
A socially healthy person has the capacity to cultivate mutually satisfying interpersonal relationships and the benefits they provide. A good level of social health keeps the personality and behavior flexible and adaptive to different social situations, relationship levels, and intimacies. This allows for each relationship to flourish without undue strain or confusion.
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Social health applies to the relations with close friends, relatives, and significant others as well as acquaintances, co-workers, teachers, and employers. Each of these relations will require its own level of communication skills, trust, empathy, and accountability. Traits like these allow relations to grow and provide good health all around.
Conditions of poor social health can include being withdrawn (to an unhealthy level), spiteful, envious or selfish. All of which will have a negative effect on the relations in which they are applied. These effects can generally contribute to the anxiety, isolation, and despondency they were meant to protect against.
Stress and anxieties are one of the most significant threats to social health and but are also symptomatic of poor social relationships. Many of the links between social health and mental health play into each other in this way, causing either an upward cycle of good health or a downward spiral of social and mental illness.2,3
The Links between Social Health and Physical Health
Increased Life Expectancy
Strong social ties between reliable friends, neighbors, and relatives can add years to your life in many ways. First of all, empathy and compassion are at the foundation of most friendships and relations and this means someone will drop in to make sure their sick friend or aging neighbor has enough wood for their fire or warm soup for their fighting off the flu.
Mental conditions are also ameliorated through good relations. During times of emotional upheaval or mental confusion, like bereavement, separation, or unemployment, good friends pull together. From simple acts of kindness like listening to emotional rants or even helping with solutions, social connections return your sense of belonging and this can restore self-confidence and mental stability.
Furthermore, within a social network information flies faster. Friends and relatives like to share information on healthy practices and make timely recommendations that can boost health for mind and body. This could be sharing terrific comedy and releasing tension through therapeutic laughter or passing along information on flu shots.4,5
Behaviors and Habits
A study posted in the 2007 New England Journal of Medicine suggested that weight gain could be a “socially contagious” condition. This means that as one person in a social circle gains weight, the chances of their friends, relatives, and significant others also increases. This holds true even over great distances too. All members of the same sex are 71% more likely to gain weight if one of them becomes obese.6
There are several reasons for this. The most important reason is that social circles tend to be drawn together for mutual interests, many of which are wrapped around eating and drinking. From movies and pizza to dining out, the eating habits of one person can tend to affect others as they gather together for fun, food, and relaxation.
Another reason for this “contagious weight gain” is that we all tend to compare ourselves with people in our social circle. If one member of our circle is putting on a few pounds, notions of weight gain change for the other members and are suddenly more acceptable. This increases the chances that they too may stack on some pounds, especially if that other person is the same gender.
Studies went on to find that other unhealthy habits can also be spread this way, namely the smoking habit. As one person picks up the nicotine habit, the others are more inclined to pick it up as well. Fortunately, positive habits and healthy patterns can also be communicated through social groups and prove to be just as contagious.
If one friend decides to give up drinking and places greater focus on healthy eating and regular exercise, there is a greater chance that the others will also begin to make healthy improvements as well. So, the habits and choices we make are affected by our social networks, but also affect them as well.
Importance of Quality Relations
A healthy, romantic relationship is like a potent medicine that can keep you from poor health, but the reverse is also true. Studies have shown that those in a happy marriages live longer, suffer fewer heart attacks and strokes, and also have better resistance to mental conditions. Married folks will also catch cancers or other conditions before they reach advanced levels, greatly increasing their potential for successful treatment.7
But being unhappily married will not bring these same benefits. Actually, a bad marriage can have the opposite effect.
In a study done on the effects of a hostile marriage, researchers found that ordinary wounds took longer to heal, by as much as two days. The risk of cardiovascular disease is also increased when living with a hostile mate. Not surprisingly, the risk of depression and poor mental health is also high in a bad romance.8,9
Dangers of Loneliness or Isolation
Loneliness and social isolation are two very different things, but both can have bad effects on humans who thrive off social relations. Loneliness is a feeling of being all alone, something that can remain hanging overhead even when at a party full of people you know. Social isolation, on the other hand, is a lack of social connections and a condition that is increasingly evident in aging adults.
Both loneliness and social isolation can have bad effects on long term mental health. Conditions like substance abuse, sleep disorder, depression, child abuse, and personality disorders have been associated with this isolation. Loneliness has also been associated with an increased risk of strokes, heart disease, and suicidal tendencies.10
Loneliness is Contagious
One study showed how conditions of loneliness can spread through social networks in a contagious manner. As one person began to feel more isolated, they would begin to retreat to the fringes of their social networks and this would create a chain reaction of loneliness that would ripple through the network.
The condition is predictable and as one member of a group reported feeling isolated one full day of the week, other members also fell into feeling of loneliness. Experts suggests that the key to reversing this trend is to begin addressing loneliness at the fringes of social networks. By supporting those in the greatest need, the entire network is protected from the threat of isolation.11
Final Notes on Social Health and Mental Health
As we have seen through extensive research, the level of social health enjoyed by an individual will greatly affect both mental and physical health. This highlights the great need our modern societies have for high quality social relations that provide advantages to those involved.
Building a strong set of communication skills is the best way to begin cultivating better relations and improving your world around you. The key to good communication lies in being a good listener. With practice you will be better able to provide those around you with support.
While it is essential to consider those around you and how you can best strengthen relations with others, much of this begins with considering yourself and your own level of social health. By reaching out and providing support to others, you will also gain the many stabilizing benefits to mental and physical health.
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