We’ve known for some time that seniors with a stronger social support system live longer. We’ve known that married middle-aged and older individuals, especially men, are healthier physically than those who are unmarried. But we’re just now finding out how early in life the impact of social connection on health begins, and how pervasive and long-lasting those effects can be.
Last week researchers published a large study that correlated measures of social connection with measures of physical health at various times of life, ranging from adolescence to old age. At every stage of life those with stronger social relationships were healthier physically. And especially intriguing, those with more social ties during adolescence continued to have better health through adulthood and old age.
The impact of these relationships was stronger than many other factors we often associate with health. In adolescence, social isolation was as strong a predictor of inflammation in the body as was lack of physical activity. In the senior years, social isolation predicted high blood pressure even better than other measures such as diabetes.
Studies such as this can’t prove cause and effect: we can’t guarantee that developing good social skills and strong friendships will make you live longer and healthier. But this is more evidence of how interdependent the various dimensions of us are. God built us as whole human beings – physical, mental, relational, and spiritual. One part can’t be separated from another. The quality and quantity of your relationships really does impact your physical health – as well as every other aspect of your life.
I was not a very socially integrated adolescent! I was lonely, unhappy, and isolated. And during that time and into my young adult years I was the least healthy physically that I have been during any time of my life.
But I’m also proof that one can change. In my thirties I grew up in many ways, including socially. Among other things, I learned to value and accept what other people could offer. I learned how to see the world through their eyes at times, and to not worry very much about what they thought of me. I learned to focus more on what I could give rather than what I needed to get. As a middle-aged woman, I’m now happy and healthy – with strong social connections!
How to Develop Stronger Social Connection
If you need to work on developing those social connections like I did, here are some things you can do:
- Don’t worry what others think of you. OUCH! That’s a difficult one. At least it was for me. Remember that people usually aren’t thinking of you much at all; they’re too worried about themselves. Some people will like you, and some won’t. Who cares? It’s a natural human tendency to worry about this, but you can get over it. The more you can not worry about what others think, the happier you’ll be, and the more effective you’ll be in accomplishing God’s purpose for you. (See what God has to say in Jeremiah 1:8, Galatians 1:10)
- Find ways to help others. The more you spend time thinking about doing others good, the more they will be drawn to you. Don’t you want to be around people who care about you and want to help you? Think about what problems or fears those around you may have, and see how you can help them feel at ease. Find ways to add value to their lives. (Philippians 2:3)
- Reach out in friendship. That means asking questions and then listening. It means getting out of yourself and paying attention to what others are concerned about. Not everyone will respond positively, but some will. Don’t wait for others to come to you; you take the risk and reach out to them. In giving of yourself, you’ll connect with those who both need and value you. (Proverbs 18:24)
- Grow your own character. People don’t like to be around someone who is angry, dependent, moody, unreliable, miserable, or self-absorbed. Notice what it may be in your own character that limits how others can connect with you, and then work with God to change it. People are certainly drawn to those who display characteristics such as love, joy, peace, courage, understanding, strength, and integrity. Ask God to help you grow those parts of your character. (Galatians 5:22-23)
Your happiness – and your health – will depend largely on how you connect with people around you. God’s purpose for you on Earth has largely to do with the people He will put in your path for you to serve. Develop a mindset of adding value to other people, and your life will be full and meaningful.
Your Turn: How are your social connections? Have you overcome any roadblocks in learning to connect with people? Leave a comment below.
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