Humans are born into social groups and live their entire lives as a part of society, so the social element can't easily be removed from the evolution of an individual. But how does social contact affect our health?
As human beings, we dream, learn, grow, and work as part of society. The society that we're born into and the societies that we navigate throughout our lives shape our personal identities.
And in fact, so keen are we to communicate with each other — even beyond geographical limitations — that we've developed a plethora of tools to help us achieve that, including pen and paper, telegraph, telephone, and the Internet.
When I asked my colleagues in the Medical News Today office what benefits — if any — they thought that they derived from social connection, most of them said that they found some measure of comfort in social interaction.
Some colleagues said that they enjoyed the shared experiences, whereas others explained that friends kept them motivated to do "some healthful activities from time to time." Others said that being around friends helped them to "destress and put things into perspective."
Even the most introverted among us crave social contact from time to time. But why is that, and does being social bring us any actual health benefits?
In this Spotlight, we investigate why humans thrive in society, and how social interaction impacts our mental and physical well-being.
Why are we a social species?
It may be intuitive to say that being social has helped our species to not only survive but also thrive over millions of years. But why is that so?
A study from 2011, which was published in the journal Nature, argues that being social became a key strength for the primate ancestors of humans when they switched from foraging for food by night (so that they could use darkness as a shield) to carrying out their activities by day (which rendered them more vulnerable to a wider range of predators).
Another more recent study — also in the journal Nature — suggests that early hominids may have evolved a basic form of language because they needed more advanced communication to share ideas. This, they say, helped our ancestors to develop tools that allowed them to live better and evolve further.
Researchers have also suggested that humans are innately compassionate beings, and that our compassion and empathy have served us well — since the capacity to care and share is highly valued by individuals looking for a mate.
After all, in order for a species to survive, its members have to not only procreate, but also be able to shield their offspring from harm and shield peers from injury, so that they can derive strength from collaboration in the face of adversity.
'Face-to-face contact is like a vaccine'
Psychologist Susan Pinker states that direct person-to-person contact triggers parts of our nervous system that release a "cocktail" of neurotransmitters tasked with regulating our response to stress and anxiety.
In other words, when we communicate with people face-to-face, it could help to make us more resilient to stress factors in the long run.
"Face-to-face contact releases a whole cascade of neurotransmitters and, like a vaccine, they protect you now, in the present, and well into the future, so simply [...] shaking hands, giving somebody a high-five is enough to release oxytocin, which increases your level of trust, and it lowers your cortisol levels, so it lowers your stress."
She adds that, as a result of social interaction, "dopamine is [also] generated, which gives us a little high and it kills pain, it's like a naturally produced morphine."
This idea is corroborated by the findings of a study covered by MNT last year, which concluded that the touch of a romantic partner can actually help to relieve physical pain.
Another study from last year showed that those undergoing chemotherapy for cancer tend to fare better if they have access to social support and interaction, suggesting that just by being around family, friends, or peers going through similar experiences can strengthen us both mentally and physically.
Social motivation and brain power
Research has shown that by interacting with others, we actually train our brains. Social motivation and social contact can help to improve memory formation and recall and protects the brain from neurodegenerative diseases.
Prof. Matthew Lieberman — from the University of California, Los Angeles — specializes in the mechanics of what he calls our "social brain," which is the neural activity related to social interaction, and the brain benefits that are afforded by it.
He has seen, for instance, that "if you learn in order to teach someone else, then you learn better than if you learn in order to take a test."
This goes against the prominent beliefs in modern educational systems, in which learning on one's own, for the sake of accumulating knowledge and skills, is typically preferred.
Instead, however, Prof. Lieberman notes that "when you're socially motivated to learn, the social brain can do the learning and it can do it better than the analytical network that you typically activate when you try to memorize."
A study published last year also found that maintaining close friendships later in life could help to prevent mental decline.
The research — led by scientists at the Cognitive Neurology and Alzheimer's Disease Center at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine in Chicago, IL — found that "SuperAgers," defined as people aged 80 and above but who have the mental agility of much younger people, appear to have one thing in common: close friends.
"While both SuperAgers and [their peers with average cognitive performance] endorsed high levels of psychological well-being," explain the authors, "SuperAgers endorsed greater levels of positive social relationships than their cognitively average-for-age peers."
Social context determines healthful habits
Several recent studies have also linked social connection with physical health benefits, and better habits with a more healthful lifestyle. Researchers at Maastricht University Medical Centre in the Netherlands saw that socially active individuals have a decreased risk of type 2 diabetes.
In contrast, individuals who did not participate in social activities, such as going out with friends or joining a club, had a 60 percent higher risk of developing a condition called "prediabetes," which generally predates diabetes.
It might be that just being around people who encourage us to keep healthful habits or achieve challenging lifestyle goals could help us to remain mindful of our eating, exercise, and other lifestyle-related habits.
A recent study has also found that people who exercised in a group rather than on their own had decreased stress levels and had better mental and physical well-being at the end of a 12-week fitness program.
Their peers who went for solo fitness sessions, or who exercised with only one partner, did not experience the same improvements.
"The communal benefits of coming together with friends and colleagues, and doing something difficult, while encouraging one another, pays dividends beyond exercising alone," notes the study's lead author.
A tool for happiness and longevity
Finally, enjoying close social ties — with friends, partners, or family members — can make us happy and improve our overall life satisfaction in the long run.
Similar trends have been observed in the case of older adults. Research published in 2016 revealed that seniors who "liv[e] a socially active life and prioritiz[e] social goals [have] higher late-life satisfaction."
Interestingly, researchers who have studied the inhabitants of so-called Blue Zones around the world — places with a high number of SuperAgers who live to ripe old age while maintaining good health and cognitive function — have noted that while other elements related to diet and lifestyle varied widely, they all appeared to be dedicated to being highly socially active.
Dr. Archelle Georgiou, who studied SuperAgers on the isolated island of Ikaria in Greece, saw that they were constantly surrounded by family, neighbors, and other members of their community, and that they all actively supported each other.
Ikarians, Dr. Georgiou found out, got together almost every evening to destress and shed the worry load of the day.
Similarly, the authors of Ikigai: The Japanese Secret to a Long and Happy Life, who interviewed the supercentenarians of the village Ogimi — in the Japanese prefecture of Okinawa — saw that being socially connected was key in these people's lives.
"It is customary in Okinawa to form close bonds within local communities. A moai is an informal group of people with common interests who look out for one another. For many, serving the community becomes part of their ikigai [life purpose]."
The authors explain that members of a moai "maintain emotional and financial stability," as all the other members of their group help them out if they're in trouble or going through rough times.
Granted, being socially active is not necessarily something that all of us can do all the time. We just need a little space sometimes, and that's O.K.; enjoying our own company helps us to get to know ourselves better and develop some of our inner strengths.
However, at least occasionally, socializing with people — whether they're our close friends or new acquaintances — can allow us to get out of our own heads a little and gain fresh insights about the world.
Being happier, learning better, and living longer are all advantages that should motivate even the most dedicated of loners to get out there and mingle. Now close your browser and give that old friend of yours a call.