One of my greatest take-aways from living and working in Spain for several years was getting to know the culture from more than just a tourist’s perspective.
It stood out to me that people’s family and social connections there seemed to run so deep. Multi-generational living situations were common, if not the norm.
The idea of gathering with your extended family once a week for Sunday dinner was expected. The friends you made when starting kindergarten were likely the same ones you’d be forming retirement social clubs with.
As a wandering American, even with a very close family, this amazed me.
As the holidays approach, bringing us more opportunities to come together with people we know and love, it’s a good time to consider the health benefits we get from our social networks. Science suggests developing social connections can be as beneficial to your health as lacing up your shoes and getting to the gym.
Strong social connections have been shown to help you live longer, have a stronger immune system, experience less depression and even sleep better. These positive outcomes held true even when factoring in the varied health habits of the people studied.
It’s theorized that connecting with others stimulates a positive response in our body that can turn off stress messages that run in the background. If we live with those stress messages long term, they can slowly create markers of disease (high blood pressure, increased inflammation, etc.). When we lack social connection, it’s like we’re missing an essential nutrient to be healthy.
Some of the longest-living people are also well-known for their strong social ties.
In Okinawa, Japan, there’s less cancer, heart disease and dementia than in America, and the women there live longer than women in any other place in the world. They benefit from a lifelong group of friends that supports them through all stages of life, called a “moai.” It’s for social, financial, health and spiritual support, and it is generally credited for being a large part of their positive health outcomes.
You don’t have to wait until you feel lonely to improve your health by being more social. One sleep study showed worse sleep (higher levels of restlessness and sleep disruption) in people with fewer social connections, even if they claimed to be unaware of feelings of loneliness.
Increasing your social connections can be as easy as taking a walk through your neighborhood and saying hi to everyone you pass. You could take a class, volunteer, play a group sport, or strike up a conversation with the person next to you in line. Once you start to reframe the health benefits that come with being social, you’ll be able to see and act on simple opportunities to interact with others that come up throughout your day.
Even if you are an introvert and don’t prefer to be around a lot of people, you can still benefit from connecting with others. The health benefits come from your internal sense of feeling connected inside yourself, which can be cultivated, encouraged and developed even if you are with strangers or alone.
It’s a powerful paradigm shift to view our social/ health link as preventive medicine. While our social ties can improve health outcomes if we are already dealing with a diagnosed health condition, they may also prevent serious conditions from developing in the first place.
When I returned from Spain to practice near my family, I knew I’d be leaving behind my borrowed culture of relaxed 2-3-hour lunches with friends and colleagues. The transition has been made easier by some close family connections here: I live next door to my twin brother now, my sister and I meet weekly at our pottery studio, and my mom walks to my office to get her adjustments.
But there are still times I need to remind myself to make the time for cultivating old and new social connections, both for the fun of it and for the health benefits they bring.