When someone sets out to improve their health, they usually take a familiar path. They start a healthy diet, adopt a new workout regimen, improve upon sleep patterns, drink more water. Each of these behaviors is important but they all focus on physical health. A growing body of research suggests that social health is just as, if not more, important to overall well-being.
One recent study published in the journal PLOS ONE, for example, found that the strength of a person’s social circle—as measured by inbound and outbound cell phone activity—was a better predictor of self-reported stress, happiness and well-being levels than fitness tracker data on physical activity, heart rate and sleep. That finding suggests that the “quantified self” portrayed by endless amounts of health data doesn’t tell the whole story, says study co-author Nitesh Chawla, a professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Notre Dame.
“There’s also a qualified self, which is who I am, what are my activities, my social network, and all of these aspects that are not reflected in any of these measurements,” Chawla says. “My lifestyle, my enjoyment, my social network—all of those are strong determinants of my well-being.”
Social Support versus Social Isolation
Plenty of prior research supports Chawla’s theory. Studies have shown that social support—whether from friends or family—is strongly associated with better mental and physical health. A robust social life, these studies suggest, can lower stress levels; improve mood; encourage positive health behaviors and discourage damaging ones; boost cardiovascular health; improve illness recovery rates; and aid virtually everything in between. Research has even shown that a social component can boost the effects of already-healthy behaviors such as exercise.
Lustig says the report underscores the importance of carving out time for family and friends. This is especially true since loneliness was inversely related to self-reported health and well-being. Reviving a dormant social life may be best and most easily done by finding partners for enjoyable activities like exercising, volunteering, or sharing a meal, he says.
“Real, face-to-face time with people [is important], and the activity part of it makes it fun and enjoyable and gives people an excuse to get together,” Lustig says.
Lustig emphasizes that social media is not a replacement for in-person relationships. He stresses its use should be judicious and strategic. Instead, he says, we should use technology “to seek out meaningful connections and people that you are going to be able to keep in your social sphere. It’s easy enough to find groups such as Meetups, or to find places to go where you’ll find folks doing what you want to do.” That advice is particularly important for young people, he says, for whom heavy social media use is common.