In modern city life, where thousands or millions of people live very close to each other, the funny thing is that people interact less socially. With television, computers and mobile phones capturing our attention for hours, true, face-to-face social interaction is sometimes overlooked. However, research suggests that social interaction can has a real impact on life expectancy. Those who are more social end up living longer than loners.
An article in the Wall Street Journal looked at the research of Julianne Holt-Lunstad and others at Brigham Young University, which focuses on the link between loneliness or social isolation and early mortality.
The researchers performed a meta-analysis of 70 studies that included data from over 3.4 million adults. Their conclusion was that the amount of real social interaction a person gets can be a predictor of how long they will live. They identified three types of isolation to watch out for: living alone, spending much of one’s time alone, and feeling lonely often. People who match one of these categories have a 30% higher probability of dying within the next seven years than those who are similar in other ways but have more social interaction.
The research further showed that social isolation has an impact on a person’s health regardless of the person’s preference for social interaction. This contradicts the previous understanding of the role of loneliness, which held that only people who felt lonely were susceptible to illness, even if they were around people often or had a partner. Feeling lonely raises the blood pressure which in turn compromises the immune system.
Holt-Lunstad said, “I’ve spent almost my whole career studying social support, and I absolutely know the strong effects that our perceptions have on our physiology. But, there are other determinants of health that are independent of our perceptions.”
The new thinking is that being physically close to people while interacting with them triggers the release of hormones which benefit health. Two hormones, oxytocin and vasopressin, are secreted when we are near enough another person to hug them, even if there is no physical contact. These hormones reduce stress and pain and help us feel less guarded. These factors help us be more resilient.
There is also a direct, life or death benefit of having people around. It increases the chance that someone will be around to help in case of an emergency.
Having so many people close together does make it easier to find others who share an interest, whether it’s board games, hiking, music or cooking. Thus even if meeting other people doesn’t sound appealing at first, it may be worth the effort. Your life depends on it.
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The research was published in Perspectives on Psychological Science in March 2015.