Twenty-first century life, for many of us, has become a hectic whirlwind of activity, sensory stimulation, stress, and overload. We are constantly seeking a balance of what we have to do and what we want to do. We try to pursue our health and well-being in the same manner that we pursue our technology. We believe that the latest diet plan, nutritional supplement, medication, exercise regimen, or self-help book will provide the blissful nirvana that we hope to find. While some of these help, we often find ourselves falling short. Maybe we are looking for health and wellness in all the wrong places.
Over the past 35 years, some compelling research done by sociologists and psychologists has indicated that people who have strong connections to others through traditional institutions such as marriage, family, and friendships enjoy health benefits equal to or greater than those that doggedly follow the latest exercise and health trends. A 2011 study cited in the “Journal of Social Behavior” stated that, “Social relationships, both quantity and quality, affects mental health, health behavior, physical health, and mortality risk.” The article was supported by research that indicated a direct link between social relationships and health outcomes. Their conclusions were that our physical and emotional health are undoubtedly affected by our sense of connectedness to significant others.
Captors have long used social isolation as a means of punishment and torture for prisoners of war. Social isolation of otherwise healthy individuals eventually results in physical and psychological deterioration, and even death. In the past few decades social scientists have gone beyond evidence of extreme social deprivation to demonstrate a link between social relationships and health in the general population. Adults who are socially connected live longer, more satisfying lives than their more isolated peers. The University of Chicago researched the impact of marriage in a 40 year longitudinal study and concluded that married men and women are significantly more likely to live longer, be physically and mentally healthy, be happier, recover from illness more quickly, and take better care of themselves.
These research studies, while providing compelling statistics, should be no surprise. The human animal has relied on each other for survival and support since the first tadpoles began to evolve into homo sapiens. The reasons were more obvious millennia ago than they are now. There is survival and safety in groups. While modern man is less likely to be threatened by wild animals, famine, and natural disasters, we still turn to each other in times of difficulty. Despite our modern day sophistication, we remain essentially pack animals that function best when surrounded by and are supported by others we feel connected to. When we are under stress due to life events beyond our control, group support is often built into our culture. Humans tend to come together for the more extreme life events, both happy and sad. We amp up our social relationships when we celebrate marriages, births, graduations, and rites of passage such as baptism and bar mitzvahs. We come together for support in times of tragedy and suffering as well, through visiting the sick, wakes, and funerals. Group support at this time often becomes the glue that makes the unbearable bearable.
Research study after research study has concluded that:
1. Social relationships have significant effects on health
2. Social relationships affect health through behavioral, physiological, and psychosocial pathways
3. Relationships have costs and benefits for health
4. Relationships shape health outcomes throughout the lifespan and have a cumulative impact over time
5. The costs and benefits of relationships are not distributed equally in the population
Marriage, family, clubs, and support groups are the modern-day tribes that we need to seek out and belong to to maintain optimal physical and mental health. Having that “soft place to land” has incredible value, both to ourselves as well as others. Cultivating these tribal connections should not be confined to the extremes of life such as celebrations and tragedies, but should be built into our daily routine in the same manner that we make time for exercise and watch our diet. Research indicates that “going tribal” is among the most important and reinforcing things that one can do to improve life satisfaction. Don’t underestimate the importance of quality time with your tribe.
“All things are connected like the blood that unites one family, all things are connected. – Chief Seattle
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