The Importance of Social Relationships

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Research has shown that interpersonal relationships are associated with mental health, physical health, and mortality outcomes. The quality and quantity of our social connections, and the rate of involvement within them, has shown to shape our health outcomes throughout life, thus increasing the importance of interpersonal relationships.

Humans are a social species that seek:

  • The presence of people whom they can trust
  • People who give them a goal in life
  • People whom they can plan, interact, and work together with
  • People whom they can survive and prosper with

People develop social relationships in the form of family, peers and significant others. According to the Health Resources and Services Administration (HRSA), three out of five Americans classify themselves as lonely. Loneliness can contribute to:

  • Physical dysfunction
  • Psychiatric dysfunctions
    • Depression
    • Aggressive behaviors
    • Social anxiety

According to a 2020 National Academies of Science, Engineering, and Medicines (NASEM) report, social isolation, and loneliness represent significant, under-appreciated public health problems. Not surprisingly, loneliness appears to have increased substantially since the outbreak of the global pandemic. For this reason, family, peers, romantic relationships, and companionship, in general, have a significant effect on an individual’s psychological and physiological health.

One of the ways our social relationships affect our health is through the influence we receive from them in the selection of behaviors or habits that affect our health. For example, a group of friends may persuade you to get involved in a local gym to prepare for a fitness competition and directly affect your physical well-being and health.

Some healthy behaviors that could be determined or induced by our social connections are:

  • Exercising
  • Having a balanced diet
  • Receiving frequent medical examinations

On the other hand, some unhealthy behaviors that are subject to be influenced by friends, or family are:

  • Substance abuse
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Negative eating behaviors

Social relationships can support good health by implementing a sense of responsibility or concern over our friends or family through persuading and supporting them to engage in positive habits. As humans, we tend to model the conduct of the people we are surrounded by.

For example, if we consistently interact with friends that frequently play sports, there is a tendency or probability for this activity to be copied or modeled by us. Scientific research suggests a link between our social relationships and the benefit to our mental health.

Social support, for example, creates a perception that one is cared for, loved, and helped — a perception that helps mitigate the impact of stress and, consequently, enhance mental health.

Words of encouragement and support from our social relationships can also improve our mental health state by developing a higher self-esteem and minimizing anxiety symptoms. The emotional support transmitted by social ties will reduce stress levels and, in turn, decrease poor physical health by the reduction of stress and negative behaviors.

Physiological processes, also known as processes, that occur within our body are proven to be positively affected after spending time with friends, family, or romantic partners. Substantial research suggests that strong social ties are linked to recovery from disease at faster rates and lengthen our life.

Some physiological benefits obtained from our social interactions are reflected on our:

  • Immune system
  • Cardiovascular functions.
  • Lower risk of cardiovascular disease.
  • Reduction of stress.
  • Metabolic system.
  • Mobility limitations

Though Valentine’s Day is coming up, one does not need a romantic relationship to enjoy this holiday. The true motive behind holidays is to enjoy and spend quality time with the people we love and appreciate. Let’s celebrate the true meaning of this holiday by being grateful for the everlasting social relationships that make us feel loved and cared for.

(Co-Authors include Dr. Mercado’s Mental Health Lab at UTRGV: Gonzalo Vidales, Pablo Ruiz, & Andy Torres)

Dr. Alfonso Mercado