last updated June 30, 2021

How Social Relationships Affect Your Health

by Rob Arthur

Healthy social relationships are vital to a most excellent life.

This article will explore what they are, why they’re important, and how to build them.

If you have any questions after reading, let me know in the comments 🙂

How social relationships affect your health

Having friends, families, and co-workers isn’t just about keeping people around to bug when we’re bored.

To the contrary, such relationships appear to play a major role in several aspects of health.

Social relationships and risk of death

Multiple studies have found evidence of a strong link between the social relationships and risk of death.

For example, a 2010 meta-analysis of 148 studies involving over 300,000 participants found that individuals with stronger social relationships had 50% greater odds of survival (1).

Similarly, a 2020 study following 4100 participants over 13 years found social isolation associated with a 47% higher risk of death (2).

We can see why this might be the case when we look at the associations between social relationships and specific health problems.

Social relationships and risk of disease

Low-quality and quantity social relationships are a risk factor for several negative health outcomes.

These include cardiovascular disease, nervous system dysregulation, cancer, slower wound healing, worse inflammatory biomarkers, and impaired immune function (3).

Poor social relationships aren’t only a risk factor for poor physical health, but also poor mental health.

For instance, a 2020 study found low frequency of confiding in others to be the strongest predictor of depression, out of over 100 modifiable factors (4).

There’s even evidence linking the perception of social isolation, or loneliness, to poor health.

In fact, loneliness is a risk factor for high blood pressure, metabolic syndrome, poor sleep, increased HPA activity, chronic inflammation, poor immunity, and impaired impulse control (5).

Of course, not all social relationships are created equal and “more” is not always “better.”

Ways our social relationships might harm our health

Just as the people with whom we spend our time can improve our health, they can also have the opposite effect.

For example, a 2007 study revealed a strong link between our social relationships and our risk for obesity (6).

  • If one spouse becomes obese, the likelihood that the other spouse becomes obese increases by 37%.
  • When one sibling became obese, the risk of the other becoming obese increases by 40%.
  • If a person’s friend becomes obese, his or her own chances of becoming obese increases by 57%.

Many of these connections between social relationships and health might be a reflection of our social ties affecting our habits and behaviors (7).

However, our relationships can also affect our health through our mood and sense of well-being.

For instance, another 2007 study following 10,000 participants over 12 years found that adverse exchanges and conflict in close social relationships increased the risk of heart disease by over 25% (8).

So, it’s worth paying attention to how your friends, relatives, and coworkers are influencing you.

How supportive are the people around you of your efforts to be healthy and happy?

Are your relationships with them enriching and making your life better?

Do they model the health behaviors you’d like to adopt for yourself?

What are the health effects of social media?

You might be curious whether digital and/or online relationships have the same effects as relationships in real life.

Research on the effects of social media use on physical and mental health is inconclusive, revealing a variety of beneficial and detrimental effects (9).

For example, a 2019 study found routine social media use to improve social well-being, positive mental health, and self-rated health, whereas emotional connection to social media appeared to do the opposite (10).

So, it’s on each of us to determine what role social media plays in our lives, specifically how we let it affect our emotions.

Let’s dig a bit deeper into what you might look for in a “healthy” relationship, whether digitally or in real life.

What are healthy relationships?

Defining what is or isn’t a “healthy relationship” isn’t always straightforward.

In fact, Northwestern University’s Center for Awareness Response and Education (CARE) makes a distinction between relationships and behaviors (11).

That is, relationships are made up of behaviors, and those behaviors can be characterized as healthy, unhealthy, or abusive.

Furthermore, CARE points out that what’s unhealthy for one person may be abusive or healthy for another.

That said, they do offer a list of core healthy behaviors and signs of healthy relationship:

  • Mutual respect
  • Open and direct communication, without fear of manipulation or reprisal
  • Emotional intimacy
  • Feeling supported and supporting of the other
  • Feelings of security and comfort
  • Equal power
  • Being able to have your own life apart from each other
  • Conflict is resolved respectfully
  • Many basic values are shared
  • A significant degree of trust and honesty
  • Commitment to a healthy relationship

So, you might take a look at your own social relationships and see how they align with these core characteristics.

Then, you might consider what to do about those relationships that may need some work.

Do you stick with them and try to improve them, or are they not worth the effort?

Only you can make that decision.

How to build healthy relationships

If you’re struggling to find and maintain social connection, you’re not alone.

Many of us find building new relationships and even fostering old ones challenging.

Here are some ideas, though, to help you cultivate more meaningful social relationships in real life.

First, take a look at your existing relationships.

Consider maintaining regular contact with family members.

Reach out to old friends, even if only by phone or text.

Next, look into opportunities to form new relationships.

Explore local interest groups, volunteer opportunities, or spiritual gatherings.

You might even simply get out of the house to spend time in public around other people.

Whatever strategy you choose, you might even schedule your efforts to help you make it a priority.

Don’t forget to consider how those around you influence your thoughts, emotions, and actions.

That is, this isn’t simply about quantity, but quality, too.

Recognize also that social support isn’t only a one-way street.

Sure, your social relationships and the support you get from others improve your life.

Likewise, though, the support you provide others improves theirs.

Finally, understand that it’s up to you how many people you want in your life.

If you prefer a ton of close relationships, awesome.

On the other hand, if you prefer just a handful, that’s cool, too.

It’s your life and only you can live it.

You decide how to make it most excellent.

You are worthy of that.

You’ve got this.


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