Having a tight-night group of friends and family does more than make you feel good—it actually can improve your health. In the second of a three-part series on resilience technology, Fred Dillon, Director of Product Development at HopeLab, shares research on how healthy social connections impacts individual lives.
Healthy Social Rewards
Feeling deeply connected to others puts us on a path to happiness and a healthy immune system. In fact, having healthy social connections has been scientifically proven to improve both our psychological well-being and our physical health.
“Healthy social connections” doesn’t mean having 500 Facebook friends, which is fun, but superficial. What I’m referring to is deep, authentic relationships that make you feel supported and loved.
Without deep connections with other people, we grow lonely. And science tells us that loneliness can make us sick. In fact, it can be lethal.
First, let’s be clear about what we mean by loneliness. In this context, loneliness is not the dissatisfaction from a bad month with your lover or friend. It’s not the realization that you only have two or three truly close friends. By loneliness, we mean the long-term condition of wanting and not having social intimacy. Not feeling like you belong. Anywhere.
Science demonstrates that a feeling of loneliness wreaks havoc on the body. A published study done at the University of California, Los Angeles, co-authored by Dr. Steve Cole, head of R&D at HopeLab, found that the most reliable predictor of death in HIV-positive gay men was whether or not he was “out,” or open, about his sexuality.
Think about what it feels like to be in the closet about something, and how incredibly lonely that would be. You hide behind a false identity. You impose sharp limits on intimacy and live in constant fear of exposure. At the biological level, stress hormones flood your body and your tissues swell up as your white blood cells swarm to protect you against assault.
In the study, closeted men with HIV died an average of two to three years earlier than men who came out. Researchers found that the feeling of loneliness was more predictive of an earlier death than whether someone had support in maintaining his health. When AIDS-infected white blood cells were added to the stressful situation, the virus replicated three to 10 times faster than it did in cells in a control condition.
Safety is Happiness
What does this mean for everyone? It shows that when we feel connected and safe, our body feels safe. When our body doesn’t feel safe (and gets stressed as a result), we get sick.
This suggests an opportunity for developers of digital social apps. There are plenty of apps that allow us to casually meet and share with people, but far fewer that help us cultivate deep connections with others. Imagine how we might be able to use apps, in our everyday lives, to foster healthy connections with other people.
Check back for the final post on resilience technology, where remarkable research is showing how having a sense of control can support physical well-being. Tell us how your connections with friends and family help decrease stress in the comment section below.