Updated: May 8, 2021
We are designed to live in harmony and in connection with others as part of a thriving community.
Evidence shows us we thrive when we are part of a community and have positive relationships with others. Research shows having a social support network improves endocrine, immune, cardiovascular, and mental health and increases longevity.
Just to clarify, this isn’t about having your ‘friends’ in the double or treble figures on Facebook, it is about having others who you are close to; who you share deeper, meaningful conversations with. Equally, it is not about being at parties etc, it is about feeling as though you have a network of people who you can turn to with sharing problems and can rely on and trust.
On the flip side, social isolation is a risk factor with a comparable potency to that of well-established negative health behaviors, such as smoking; It is shown to be more predictive of overall survival versus smoking up to 15 cigarettes per day. Unfortunately, the modern lifestyle is a recipe for disconnection, in the wise words of functional health expert Chris Kresser.
“The modern lifestyle is a recipe for disconnection”
Why do we need community?
Survival appears to always be at the foundation of understanding how our body works. If we are part of a group/pack/tribe, then we have a team of people to use various skillsets to fend off predators, hunt in packs, etc. It makes sense then, that relationship brings about physiological benefits; increased levels of oxytocin and endorphins, which are associated with feelings of pleasure, calm, love; all the good things! Some of which are immediately noticeable like a ‘buzz of positive energy’ and can feel addictive, hence our desired to 'fit in' and be part of a community - its helps us survive at a primal level.
This has been used to the advantage when you look at the strategies of how social media entices us and wants to keep us addicted (see Social Dilemma on Netflix). We seek others’ approval and especially when we feel low, we are more susceptible to those who can capitalize from these innate feelings of wishing to belong.
Nevertheless, we can use it to our advantage when we are looking at how to thrive and boost our mood.
Research supports that helping others can bring you feelings of satisfaction and happiness and improve your self-esteem. Investing time in building deeper interactions leads to better relationship and stronger connection in our communities. Social media can be helpful in this respect to find like minded others and stay connected to existing people in our lives, no matter where they are in the world.
Being open, honest and sometimes vulnerable with others can cultivate deeper friendships and therefore foster strong community links. But in the modern discounted world this can sometimes we hard to find or share.
But there is plenty more we can also do. The following actions have shown to boost those feel good, energising chemicals; oxytocin and endorphins:
· Human touch; a massage for/from a partner or hug from a friend, for example
· Stroking a pet
· Meaningful interactions; listen to others, allow them to share by asking open questions and keeping the focus on them, rather than jumping in with advice or our own experience. Being open to share our feelings with them too.
· Acts of kindness; this could be as simple as holding the door for others, giving up your seat on a bus, sending a card.
· Small positive interactions; Give a ’good morning’ and a smile to the people you pass, or a neighbour (although you need to be resilient to a ‘non-responder’ (!) - other people may not be in a good place for whatever reason, or you catch them ‘off guard’.
Be aware that stress puts us into a fight/flight/freeze mode and therefore our tendency toward being social is reduced (as we are putting all our efforts into freezing, escaping, fighting for survival). This can be a good indicator for us to look at stress management as a priority. Nevertheless, investing time and energy in the people you are close to and/or cultivating close friendships (whilst you may not feel like it at the time) can be an excellent antidote to stress.
Further reading on impact of relationships
For a more detailed account of the way relationships impact our health and the research documenting these, we recommend the article below: