Our stress response system is intimately connected to our immune system. Think about it—you’re in a forest and you stumble on a mountain lion. Your body is not only preparing to fight or run, it’s (wisely) preparing to get hurt. A series of cascading hormonal reactions occur, one of which sends signals to the immune system to ramp up the kind of inflammatory processes that will help heal wounds. Interestingly, our stress response also downshifts the production of immune cells that guard against viruses and bacteria. If you’re facing off with a lion, what’s smarter, sending out the troops that heal wounds or the battalion that fights influenza? Unfortunately, having an acute, temporary stress response works out well for us only when we are actually facing the equivalent of a lion. When we are living as if every shadow and twig breaking is a lion, that is a chronic stress response—which is not where our bodies like to hang out, because it is so physiologically taxing. When we are chronically activating that stress response, researchers have found that we are inviting chronic inflammation (those first‑responder immune cells just don’t stop), which is linked to higher rates of cardiovascular disease, cancer, and autoimmune disorders. This is all evidence of an immune system gone awry. When your body is in a chronic state of stress, it becomes its own worst enemy, disrupting the normal immune processes and functioning that we depend on.
It’s well known that loneliness and lack of social connection can impart a huge amount of stress, triggering the kind of immune dysfunction that results from an overactive stress response. In that sense, it’s not surprising that social isolation can make you more prone to illness. In one study, researchers even found that people who were socially isolated were 45 percent more likely to get sick with a common cold. It doesn’t take a Nobel Prize to figure out that the opposite is probably true—meaningful connection with others can improve our immune systems. In an article in Psychology Today, Emma Seppälä, PhD, wrote, “Social connection strengthens our immune system (research by Steve Cole shows that genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation), helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life.” It’s no surprise that love is powerful medicine.
How Positive Relationships Can Boost Your Longevity
The science of longevity has some important things to say about social connection as well. In our interview, Zaraska referenced studies that demonstrated exercise lowers your mortality risk by 20 to 40 percent, and having a good diet is more or less the same at about 30 percent. But, remarkably, being in a good romantic relationship, having friends, and being connected to your community can lower your mortality risk by 45 percent (similar to the 50 percent lowered risk found in Holt‑Lundstad’s meta‑analysis). Even though diet and exercise are critical to health and life span, these numbers suggest we are really missing something when we exclude social connection from the menu of healthy living practices. The wellness world is so focused on nutrition and exercise that it’s easy to lose sight of our mental, emotional, and spiritual well‑being. Humans are social beings. We evolved together, and we are still facing threats together, sharing discoveries together, and finding meaning together. It makes perfect sense that our physical health remains dependent on the strength of our connections to our tribe, whoever they might be. Science is just beginning to understand how critical these relationships are to our gene expression, stress response, immune system, microbiome, and even sleep.
While we wait for all the data to roll in about the mechanisms of this social and physical health connection, we have a pretty strong basis for action already. So then the next question is, how do we strengthen our social ties?
First, let’s start with some definitions. Researchers and scientists who study human relationships and their intersection with our health define social connection a number of ways. In the previously mentioned meta‑analysis of social connection and mortality risk, Holt‑Lundstad describes the aspects of social connection that are most studied: @JasonWachob @ColleenWachob Co-CEOs @mindbodygreenWhile those measures are used in scientific studies, it’s not all that helpful for those of us who want to know exactly what kind of social connection benefits health and happiness. So, this is what we’ll say: On a personal level, most of us know what it feels like to be in a relationship, whether with a friend, family member, or romantic partner, where we feel seen, supported, and connected in a way that makes our lives better. A strong social tie is the friend you know you can always call when things get really bad, even though they live three thousand miles away. It’s a romantic partner who knows exactly what it means when your voice goes up an octave during a hard conversation with your brother and knows how to make you feel better after he leaves. A cohesive community is a web of individuals who act as a net, holding you up when it feels like everything else is dragging you down. Positive relationships are ones that challenge you, help you learn more about yourself, support your values and goals, and help you reach them. They make you feel physically, emotionally, and spiritually safe and strong. Put simply, healthy relationships make you feel good. Not all of the time (relationships are not supposed to be a cakewalk), but most of the time.