If you had to identify one lifestyle habit that you could change to improve your physical health, what would you think of? Would you decide to stop smoking? Reduce your alcohol consumption? Would you give up your car and ride your bike to work instead?
Indeed, these behaviors are helpful in achieving or maintaining good health. However, research has identified that beyond smoking, drinking and physical activity, having satisfying social relationships - that is, being part of a community and receiving material and emotional support from loved ones - has a greater effect on our long-term physical health. According to the results of a study following more than 300,000 adults over several years1 , people who have satisfying social relationships are 50% more likely to stay alive than those who do not feel part of a community, or who receive and perceive less support from their loved ones. This means that having a good support system significantly reduces our risk of mortality.
How can we explain these results?
Two main theories have been put forward to explain the beneficial effects of social relationships on physical health. The first refers to the stress buffering effect of social support2 . According to this hypothesis, the impact of stressful events in our lives is greatly reduced by having support from a loved one. Let's take the example of work-related stress:
As you approach a challenging week at work, knowing that your partner will be there to help you through it can make the obstacle seem more manageable. Your perception of being supported by the other person allows you to interpret the event as less threatening, thus reducing your level of stress. Your social network can also give you access to more concrete resources for coping with stress. For example, during a particularly busy week, family members can help you with everyday tasks to reduce the burden of your work responsibilities.
The stress buffering hypothesis therefore proposes that by being supported, stress has less of an impact on our functioning, which contributes to our health and well-being.
Another explanation refers to the benefits of social integration3 . This theory states that by being part of a community, one adopts certain roles (e.g., caregiving, teaching) that contribute to the maintenance of one's identity (e.g., being a parent, being an employee). In this way, we develop goals to achieve a sense of security and a sense of control over our environment. In addition, when we are surrounded by a group, we are encouraged to respect the norms and habits of others, which may lead us to adopt healthier behaviours. For example, if our friends are in the habit of going to the doctor when they have health concerns, we are more likely to do so as well. If it is valued to be physically active at school, we are more likely to be active. However, on the other hand, if we are surrounded by a group that values unhealthy behaviours, such as smoking cigarettes, we will be tempted to do the same. Thus, being more socially integrated may lead us to act in a way that either promotes or impedes our health which, depending on the group we are surrounded by.
Are all relationships beneficial for our health?
In an ideal world, our relationships would always be supportive and calming, but in reality, relationships with our loved ones can cause us significant stress and obstacles. Recent research has shed light on the harmful effects of relationship tension and conflict on physical health. What conclusions can we draw?
On one hand, it seems that the negative aspects of our relationships, such as conflicts and unpleasant interactions in everyday life (e.g., criticism at work, frustrations with household chores), are linked to poorer functioning of the heart, immune system, energy regulation and hormones4 . In fact, having strained relationships is worse for your health than having few social relationships. Living in a tense interpersonal environment is a form of chronic stress that can disrupt the functioning of many of our body's essential systems, such as the cardiovascular, immune, and hormonal systems5 .
When we experience interpersonal stress, such as receiving a hurtful insult, our body perceives it as a threat. In order to escape or fight the threat, a physiological activation occurs (e.g., our heart starts beating faster). Eventually, when the threat stops, our body returns to a calm state. When this type of stress occurs rarely, our body can adapt and return to a state of equilibrium fairly easily. However, when this stress occurs frequently and over a long period of time, our body may experience difficulties in returning to its original state of equilibrium (e.g., our resting heart rate may be higher even when we are not experiencing stress).
On the other hand, our close relationships, such as those with our intimate partners or our family, are generally more strongly linked to our health than our more distant relationships, such as those with our colleagues. Thus, interpersonal difficulties experienced in an intimate relationship or with one’s family have greater negative effects on health than conflicts encountered at work.
What you need to remember
In the last few decades, several studies seem to have reached the consensus that our interpersonal relationships, whether they are synonymous with satisfaction or dissatisfaction, have significant effects on our physical health. Despite the popular belief that physical exercise or our consumption habits can have a greater impact on our health trajectories, it now seems clear that the quality of our ties with our loved ones has as much or more of an impact on our biological functioning.
With this in mind, here are a few things we can do to encourage the presence of satisfying social relationships in our lives:
- Naming our support needs and making requests. In order to be satisfied with the support offered by our loved ones, it is important to identify our needs and then name them to increase the chances that they will be met. For example, when you feel lonely, it may help to stop and notice what you are feeling and call a friend to seek support.
- Identify and communicate our boundaries. In an effort to preserve harmony and avoid conflict, many people will put the needs of others ahead of their own and disregard their personal boundaries. Yet, this can create stress and dissatisfaction in relationships. To ensure that our relationships remain satisfying, it is important to learn to communicate our boundaries. For example, at work, it can be helpful to be transparent with colleagues about how much time you will need to complete a task, even if you are likely to disappoint them.
- Reduce our sources of interpersonal stress. Sometimes, despite our best efforts, certain relationships can be sources of stress to which we cannot adapt. In order to preserve ourselves, it may be appropriate to reduce the time we spend with these people.
- Find a community. Being part of a group with whom we share interests or values is a good way to increase our sense of belonging and access to support. If our work environment or family doesn't meet this need, we can join a book club, sports team, or video game community.
By adopting these behaviours, you are likely to promote your psychological well-being, in addition to investing in your long-term physical health.
To cite this article: Jacmin-Park, S., Bergeron, S., & Juster, R-P. (2022, October 5). Are satisfying social relationships a guarantee of good physical health? TRACE Blog. https://natachagodbout.com/en/blog/are-satisfying-social-relationships-guarantee-good-physical-health
- 1Holt-Lunstad, J., Smith, T. B., & Layton, J. B. (2010). Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine, 7(7), e1000316.
- 2Cohen, S., & Wills, T. A. (1985). Stress, social support, and the buffering hypothesis. Psychological Bulletin, 98(2), 310.
- 3Thoits, P. A. (2011). Mechanisms linking social ties and support to physical and mental health. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 52(2), 145-161.
- 4Seeman, T. E., Gruenewald, T. L., Cohen, S., Williams, D. R., & Matthews, K. A. (2014). Social relationships and their biological correlates: Coronary Artery Risk Development in Young Adults (CARDIA) study. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 43, 126-138.
- 5Rouxel, P., Chandola, T., Kumari, M., Seeman, T., & Benzeval, M. (2022). Biological costs and benefits of social relationships for men and women in adulthood: The role of partner, family and friends. Sociology of Health & Illness, 44(1), 5-24.
Silke Jacmin-Park is a doctoral student in psychology - research and intervention profile at the Université de Montréal, under the supervision of Dr. Sophie Bergeron and Dr. Robert-Paul Juster. Her research interests include stress regulation in intimate relationships and LGBTQ+ health.
Sophie Bergeron is a full professor in the Department of Psychology at the Université de Montréal, where she holds a Canada Research Chair in Intimate Relationships and Sexual Well-Being and directs the SCOUP Team - Sexuality and Couples. She is the Scientific Director of the Centre for Interdisciplinary Research on Marital Problems and Sexual Assault (CRIPCAS), Associate Editor of the journal Archives of Sexual Behavior, and Past President of the Society for Sex Therapy and Research.
Robert-Paul Juster is an assistant professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Addictology at the Université de Montréal and holds a CIHR Sex and Gender Research Chair. His research focuses on the effects of sociocultural gender, biological sex, and sexual orientation on chronic stress.