The golden, glorious ball of fire in the sky has thawed the frost off our bones, and with that comes a strong pull to gather with our good friends and loved ones. Depending on your temperament, this might mean going to summer festivals or concerts as a group, hitting a few parties and barbecues or simply sitting down together and washing away the aftertaste of recent lockdowns—not to mention the countless stresses of life—with some cold beverages.
The promise of summer fun is reason enough to get together with your people, but there’s a huge bonus to this: Social bonding is good for you! In fact, it might be essential to survival. Sounds a little dramatic, you say? Science tells us otherwise.
Social Distancing? Hmm … Perhaps Not
The data is in: People with strong social relationships tend to live longer and to stay in better health.
You want proof? For starters, these researchers found a link between higher levels of social connection and lower blood pressure, as well as lower body mass index. They also observed that “social isolation increased the risk of inflammation by the same magnitude as physical inactivity in adolescence, and the effect of social isolation on hypertension exceeded that of clinical risk factors such as diabetes in old age.”
Consolidated data from 148 different studies indicates that individuals with stronger social relationships had a 50 percent greater chance of survival than those with weaker ones. “This finding remained consistent across age, sex, initial health status, cause of death, and follow-up period,” the researchers maintained.
That study also concluded that social connection has as much bearing on the risk of death as factors like smoking and drinking, and that it has an even greater influence on mortality than obesity or lack of exercise. The researchers added that their findings on the connection between social bonding and mortality “might be an underestimate,” and that the medical and educational establishments, as well as the media, “should take social relationships as seriously as other risks that affect mortality.”
As well as supporting physical health, spending time with your friends is good for your psychological well-being. Among other things, it makes you less prone to depression, strengthens self-esteem and fosters a sense of belonging. Depression, or the absence thereof, also seems to play a crucial role in the correlation researchers have found between close relationships and improved sleep.
Social bonding may be especially important for older adults. In a study of roughly 1,500 people aged 70 and above, those who maintained strong friendships were 22 percent less likely to die during the 10-year course of this trial than those who didn’t.
Social isolation among older people can also have a strong effect on hypertension and can bring the risk of not only chronic disease, but also cognitive impairment (including dementia) and lowered immunity.
The link between friendship and immunity isn’t limited to the elderly. The 334 participants in this study were exposed to a virus that induces the common cold. Those who had the strongest social bonds exhibited the highest resistance to the virus. Factors such as baseline immunity, health maintenance and stress did not appear to alter the test subjects’ resistance levels.
Supportive personal relationships have also been shown to diminish stress. This, in turn, decreases the risks of compromised immunity. Stress reduction may also help explain why people with strong support networks tend to heal from wounds more quickly.
Conversely, clinical trials like this one and this one suggest a connection between social isolation and a weakened immune system. Loneliness can also change the behavior of your white blood cells, which can promote inflammation and lower the body’s immune response.
You Can Pick Your Friends …
The takeaway here is simple and obvious: Getting together with friends isn’t just fun—it’s literally a lifesaver. It may sometimes be even more important to physical and emotional well-being than family or marriage.
With all that said, make sure you’re hanging out with the right kind of people! That’s especially true if you’re working to break unhealthy habits. In that situation, it can help a lot to have friends around who will act as positive influences. The opposite is also true: The wrong friends can nudge you in the direction of depression, suicidal ideation, obesity and the use of cigarettes, alcohol and other harmful substances.
What more encouragement do you need? In a time of global strife and ever-increasing division, human contact is all-important, so think of connecting with your friends and loved ones as a gift to others and to yourself. Now go get the party started!
Damon Orion is a writer, musician, artist, and teacher based in Santa Cruz, CA. He has written for Revolver, Guitar World, Spirituality & Health, Classic Rock, High Times and other publications. Read more of his work at damonorion.com.
Photo by Rijan Hamidovic
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