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Stay Socially Connected for Optimal Health

Much of the advice we get these days about becoming and staying healthy involves eating nutritiously and being active. However, one piece of advice doesn’t get as much play as it should, which is to stay socially connected for better health. As an eating disorders therapist, for decades I’ve encouraged clients to seek and maintain healthy attachments to increase emotional well-being—including reducing emotional eating.
Research concludes that deep attachments bolster physical well-being as well. In “The socially connected live in a virtuous circle” (Sarasota Herald-Tribune 6/20/17, E25-26), Jane Brody tells us that “Social interaction is a critically important contributor to good health and longevity.” She cites a Harvard Women’s Health Watch report: “‘Dozens of studies have shown that people who have satisfying relationships with family, friends and their community are happier, have fewer health problems, and live longer.’”
Moreover, she gives us this surprising result from California researchers: “‘…those with close social ties and unhealthful lifestyles’—such as smoking, obesity, and lack of exercise—‘actually lived longer than those with poor social ties but more healthful living habits.’” Studies tell us that socially isolated people have increased probability of elevated stress and inflammation, “undermining immune function” including that of our brains.
Take time to assess the quantity and quality of your social connections. It’s not enough simply to have numerous intimates. You must have people in your life with whom you can be yourself, get honest feedback, feel trusting, have fun, and deeply share your life experiences. My clients often have acquaintances to do things with, but lack close-knit bonds. This happens when people move or move a lot, graduate from college, change jobs, or even when they partner up and don’t see as much of their single friends. It may not matter how you stay connected—phone, text, Skype, email, etc.—as long as you have people on whom you can depend and share life’s ups and downs.
I can’t recall where I read it, but I recently learned that having close friends benefits us more than having close family relations. That makes sense to me. We choose our friends as we change and grow, but family members don’t always grow in the same direction as we do (if they grow at all). They often have a set, narrow view of the world (not to mention the emotional baggage that comes from family), and it becomes harder over time for us to relate to them and them to us. So being close with family members is not necessarily as beneficial as seeking, finding, and maintaining solid friendships along the way. After all, how many of us would pick our family members as friends?