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Or, why having a social network is very good for you.  Really.

friends

Yes, fine, I’m biased.  I admit it.  I see no harm in the burgeoning everywhereness of social media and stuff.  And I think having friends is awesomely important. As far as I’m concerned, the more friends we have, and the more people to whom we’re connected, the less isolated we feel.  Which is good.  It’s more difficult to condone a war against people you know.  It’s more difficult to do terrible things to yourself or those around you if you’re feeling connected. It’s far easier to feel happy, and to spread it, if you know you’re far from alone.

And yes, I realise that there are some very interesting theories out there about the effect that social media is having on making our relationships more numerous, and more shallow.  It’s not a debate into which I’m going to enter right now, to be honest.  That’s a discussion for another time.

No, the purpose of this post is to talk about social connections (family, friends, partners etc) more generally, and the immense benefits they have for all of us.

In a paper (a meta-analysis, to be precise, of existing literature) published just this morning, researchers have found a very, very strong correlation between having a social network, and an increased odds of survival.  You know, generally.  Or, to put it another way, having low/inadequate/insufficient social interaction/integration ups your chance of dying.  Quite a lot.

So, to the details, then!

To dispense with some obvious assumptions: it doesn’t matter how old you are, whether you’re a boy or a girl, how healthy you are to begin with, or what killed you.  Bear that in mind.*

Depending on how one cuts the data, the review found that social interaction improved a person’s odds of surviving, in general, by 50% at least!  Again, to cut it the other way, it would appear that not being socially integrated is more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being obese, being an alcoholic, or never exercising.  Hmmmmm.

While at least some of this effect could be linked to people who’re connected living healthier lives (physically and emotionally), it’s clear that that’s not all there is to it – there appears to be a suite of biological processes, as yet not understood by us, which come into play too.

So, how do we make use of this information?  Well, preliminary investigations have shown that formal social interventions have some effect.  But the review also points to the fact that it’s integration, not received support, that’s more predictive of mortality.  Which means that, ideally, one wants to facilitate people’s existing connections and help them to improve and deepen them that would be of most use, rather than simply hiring strangers for the job.

It all comes back down to community, whether it’s geographical or not.  Those who have people with whom they feel some connection are likely to be happier, healthier, and also, frankly, better supported and looked after should they fall ill.  So go out.  Make friends and connections.  Enjoy the life you have.

And never, never let anyone feel alone.

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*OK, there are a couple of limitations.  To my mind, the most interesting of these were that all social relationships were taken to be positive.  This is, of course, somewhat unrealistic.  Indeed, research suggests that negative social relationships can be linked to a higher risk of mortality (duh).  Marital status was used as the example here – while it’s often used a measure of social integration, it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s very dependent on the quality of the marriage.  And, of course, since it’s a review of over 140 studies, it’s difficult to get exact parity of metrics over everything. Aaaand, of course, most of the data comes from the West.

References:

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, J. Bradley Layton (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review PLoS Medicine : doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316 (link to abstract)
ResearchBlogging.org