Healthier & Happier - Relationships and Social Connections Really Do Make a Difference

I believe that health and human relationships are inextricably linked. People in loving, supportive relationships (from good friends to companions to spouses) live healthier, longer lives in general, and experience greater overall life satisfaction than people in unsatisfying relationships or those who are socially isolated.

Why am I so convinced about this? It started when I was twenty, and diagnosed with a very aggressive stage 3B cancer. I didn’t know if I would survive it, and I began to think about what I would miss most if I did not. The clear answer for me was loving and being loved.

With that realization, I set to work on my relationships with family and friends, repairing damage that had been done over time and strengthening relationships that were already good. With hindsight, I can see that the work I did and the love that came from that were integral to my healing process.

A couple of years later, I embarked on the professional journey that has taken me to where I am today, a dating strategist and coach, and I still believe deeply in the power of relationships to heal and strengthen our lives. I have seen it so many times with my clients, who often come to me after a loss such as divorce or widowhood. For them, the pain has taken a physical toll. Some have gained weight, others have started drinking or drinking more, they’ve stopped exercising, see friends less, have headaches, are depressed, and in general they’ve just stopped feeling good about themselves and feel stuck.

While I work with my clients from wherever they are when they come to me through when they find the joy of a new relationship (and beyond), it is when they are finally in those life-affirming relationships that I see the most blossoming. And it’s not just my observations; many scientific studies have been borne out of the fact that good relationships are good for you.

A Harvard Women’s Health Watch article pointed to a study of 309,000 people, which found that “lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50% — an effect on mortality risk roughly comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.” Satisfying relationships can be as powerful as the benefits from adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking; people in those relationships are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.

Research has shown other specific health benefits, including lower risk of cardiovascular disease for midlife women in highly satisfying marriages, lower blood pressure, boosted immunity, and better outcomes after heart surgery or cancer diagnoses.

What is it about relationships that makes people healthier? It’s a combination of things, according to this article on WebMD. Couples tend to take fewer risks or engage in substance abuse. Satisfying partners are a constant source of support. And married people tend to help each other maintain healthy habits and are more likely to follow their doctors’ recommendations.

Clearly, relationships are healthy. But don’t despair if you are not currently in one! While marriage seems to have the biggest positive effect on health, strong social connections of many types actually make us healthier as well. The same WebMD article above points out that living together without being married does affect health positively.

According to one University of North Carolina study, “[w]omen who hugged the most daily had the highest oxytocin levels, and their systolic blood pressure…was 10 mm/Hg lower than women with low oxytocin levels—an improvement similar to the effect of many leading blood pressure medications.” But this could apply to anyone, not just the happily married. Think of the people in your life that you feel closest to and how it feels when you hug them. You might already be seeing a result of healthy social connections.

Other caring behaviors also help increase oxytocin production. Psychologist Maryann Troiani, PhD, co-author of Spontaneous Optimism, says, “…a touch on the arm, holding hands, a rub on the shoulder. It only takes a few seconds of contact to stimulate these hormones and to help overcome stress and anxiety.” None of those actions have to be with a spouse.

You might be at a point in your life where you don’t want to find a lover if you are single, but would just prefer someone to spend time with and enjoy walks on the beach, dinner, and movies. Not only do I think that’s a perfectly healthy decision, but research shows that the real magic in relationships is bonding. Brian Baker, a psychiatrist at the University of Toronto, calls the sense that couples have of being united, even during bad times, cohesion. His research shows that “it’s more important to both health and happiness than a good sex life.”

And in my work, I’ve found that both the desire to have a connection with a partner and the actual connection itself, even if platonic, help my clients with their depression, fear, and sadness. I’ve seen huge transformations in clients who started out feeling fearful and vulnerable; even before they find someone, the fact that they are taking care of themselves and opening up to the possibility of finding love makes them healthier and happier.

Dr. George Vaillant, who led a longitudinal study following 268 Harvard graduates over 75 years, sums up my feelings about love and health the best. His words explain why and how I do what I do. He says that there are two pillars of happiness: “One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.” Stay open to love, while you are looking and once you’ve found it, and your life will be better for it.