Last weekend I had lunch and took a long hike with a close friend. We spent most of the afternoon winding along a single-track trail in China Camp State Park, on the edge of San Pablo Bay in Marin County. We talked about life, work, health, relationships, and everything else that matters—and we also laughed, enjoyed the beautiful views, and soaked up the fresh air and sunshine.
With all of the craziness in my life lately, I haven't had much time for this kind of social connection. And as important as I know it is, I didn't realize how much I'd been missing it.
A central idea behind the ancestral health movement is that there's a mismatch between our diet and lifestyle and the one humans adapted to. The quality and quantity of close relationships and social connection is yet another way that this mismatch manifests in the modern, industrialized world.
And while you might suspect that diet and other lifestyle factors, like sleep and exercise, would have a far greater impact on health than social support, research suggests otherwise.
A landmark study published in 2010 involving more than 300,000 participants found that social support was a stronger predictor of survival than physical activity, body mass index, hypertension, air pollution, alcohol consumption, and even smoking fifteen cigarettes a day!
The researchers found that people with adequate social relationships had up to a 90 percent greater likelihood of survival than those with poor or insufficient relationships.
Why is social support is so important to health? One theory is that social relationships help buffer the effects of chronic stress by providing emotional and other forms of support. Another theory holds that social relationships directly influence health through their effect on physiology, behavior, and mood.
This shouldn't be surprising; for the vast majority of our evolutionary history (and still today in many parts of the world), humans lived in close-knit, tribal groups. We are social animals; it's in our DNA.
Regardless of the reason, one thing is clear: if you want to live a long and healthy life, you need social support.
But how do you find that support in an increasingly fast-paced, fragmented, modern world? Here are a few ideas:
Putting yourself out there and forming new friendships and connections is not always easy, but according to the research, making a new friend may have a bigger impact on your health than starting a new exercise routine or losing weight. (Don't take that as a recommendation not to be physically active or maintain a healthy weight, but as an indicator of just how important social connection really is!)
- Cultivate friendship. Only 25 percent of Americans say they are truly satisfied with their friendships. Check out Alia McKee and Tim Walker's free book, Lifeboat: A Field Guide to Awesome Friendships for tips on how to cultivate meaningful and rewarding relationships with friends.
- Put yourself out there. Join a book club or some other activity group; play on a soccer, softball, or ultimate frisbee team; learn ballroom dancing; go to parties; and get out and about!
- Volunteer. People who give social support have lower blood pressure, and they're more likely to report having greater social support (what goes around comes around!). Volunteering is also a great way to meet like-minded people that you're likely to connect with. Try a service like VolunteerMatch to get started.
I'd love to continue the conversation on my Facebook page. Are you surprised by this research? Have you noticed a direct connection between social support and your health? Do you struggle with finding the time for friendships or have trouble finding like-minded people?Let's talk about it!