Even casual ties to others can improve your health
CLOSE relationships with family and friends, we know, are important for our health and well-being. But what about the people who make up our broader social networks: the parents at school drop-off, the neighbour down the street or that colleague in another department who always makes you laugh?
While research on the benefits of social connections has generally focused on the importance of “strong ties,” or the intimate relationships we have with family and close friends, a growing body of research is shedding light on the hidden benefits of casual acquaintances, too. Surprisingly, these “weak ties” (that funny colleague, for example) can serve important functions such as boosting physical and psychological health and buffering against stress and loneliness, researchers have found.
“While most people can only keep up a few strong ties because of the time and investment they require, weak ties can number in the hundreds,” says Karen Fingerman, a professor of human development and family sciences at University of Texas at Austin, who has been studying the impact of such “peripheral” ties for the past 20 years.
People with high levels of what psychologists call social integration - those who participate in a broad range of relationships that consist of both intimate and weak ties - tend to be healthier and happier. Fingerman says that we don’t know why wide networks have so many ben- efits, but a variety of reasons have been proposed: They help buffer against stress, keep us calmer and encourage positive health behaviours. At certain stages of life, they also can
provide novel information that might land us a job or get us to the doctor faster.
New research highlights one way that diverse networks may influence our physical health. In a study published recently in the journal Health Psychology, researchers analysed data from more than 4,000 people, ages 52 to 94.
The researchers wanted to see whether high levels of social integration were associated, over time, with less age-related loss of lung function, an important indicator of health and longevity. (Reduced lung function predicts mortality and disease outcomes, such as cardiovascular disease, asthma and other lung disorders.)
Participants’ lung function was assessed at the start of the study and again four years later. The researchers also asked participants to report their various social roles, which required a minimum of at least one interaction a month and were limited to eight roles total. After controlling for age, education, sex, weight and height, the researchers found that the more social roles people engaged in, the better their lung function four years later.
“We found that social integration has a graded effect, so that every additional social role protects you that much more,” says co-author Sheldon Cohen, a professor of psychology and the director of the Laboratory for the Study of Stress, Immunity, and Disease at Carnegie Mellon University. “Surprisingly, our data also found that low-intimacy roles, like being a volunteer or a club member, were as equally effective in protecting lung function as high-intimacy ones, like having a spouse or being a parent, which highlights the big impact a wide social network can make on your health,” he says.
Cohen explains that belonging to all of these networks often motivates people to stay healthy so they can fulfil responsibilities to the people in their lives. And people in a wide network tend to encourage each other to engage in healthy behaviours. “For these reasons, highly integrated people tend to smoke less, exercise more and have more positive emotions than negative ones,” says Cohen.– Washington Post.
We found that social integration has a graded effect, so that every additional social role protects you that much more. Co-author Sheldon Cohen