The influence of social contact on mental and physical health is considerable. People with intact social relationships are happier and live longer.
Social contact is of enormous importance to people’s well-being. But how much do we actually need and how you can you maintain it? Find out more about relationships and social contact and the effect on your body and mind.
It starts as contact, then it becomes a relationship: a connection between two or more people who are similar in their feelings, thoughts and actions. At best, social relationships are friendly and positive. They influence our well-being, performance, mental and physical health.
Social relationships can take a variety of forms:
A family is a complex and challenging relationship system that provides mutual provocation and relief, but also inhibits and even blocks.
In addition to relationships with parents and children, the sibling relationship is one of the longest connections we have in life. In childhood, we usually spend more time with siblings than with parents. While people often grow apart in adult life, studies show that many brothers and sisters have more contact again in older age. Their common history unites them.
We seek these people out ourselves. Partners, friends – people with whom we develop trusting and emotional connections.
The Greek philosopher Aristotle described friendship as “one soul in two bodies”. When we get to know someone, we decide within seconds whether we like the person. But when does an acquaintance turn into a friendship? There are always several factors at play. What has been proven is that the more people have in common, the stronger the friendship can be.
Psychologist and friendship researcher Robin Dunbar has defined seven pillars on which friendships can be built:
Many of us spend more time with our work colleagues than we do with our other relationships. And you can’t choose them or avoid them in a conflict. The most interesting job can become unbearable where there are problems with working relationships.
Promoting corporate culture
The concept of psychological safety is based on mutual trust. Employees can openly communicate their ideas, wishes and uncertainties, knowing that they will be dealt with appreciatively and constructively.
Good social contacts and trusting relationships are an important key to a happy life. This was the finding of a long-term study by Harvard University in the United States. For 80 years, researchers have followed almost 2,000 people from three generations on their journey through life. The director of the study, Robert Waldinger, emphasises these three factors:
Health in older age corresponds directly to the number of interpersonal relationships which still exist. Loneliness has a negative impact on our health – just like smoking or excessive alcohol consumption.
How happy we are in our relationships has a significant impact on our health.
Couples in happy relationships are happier and enjoy better mental health. People in unhappy relationships are more likely to suffer from physical and mental health problems.
Providing support in difficult times
In times of need, good social relationships are an important resource. They provide support and security. Crises are more bearable and easier to cope with if you can talk about them and are comforted or supported. Resilience research has found that people are better able to cope with difficult situations if they have at least one stable relationship in their lives.
How many people someone has contact with is a question of personality. One person might know everyone in town and can’t walk ten metres without greeting someone or chatting briefly. For another, two or three close confidants are enough. What research has found, however, is that our number of friends is not arbitrary.
Our capacity is limited. Once our circle of acquaintances reaches 1,500 people, our memory reaches its limits. We might still be able to recognise faces, but we probably can’t put names to these faces – let alone remember what their children’s names are or what they like to eat.
Loneliness has a negative impact on quality of life and often has health consequences. A lack of social contact leads to stress in the body, making it a risk factor for physical and mental illnesses. This was the result of an international study involving 323,200 participants from 99 countries.
People who feel isolated and lonely have an increased level of the stress hormone cortisol in their blood, even in the absence of a stressful situation. This has a negative effect on the body: the anti-inflammatory effect of this vital hormone decreases owing to this excessive amount and increases the risk of a heart attack or stroke.
Older people in particular should maintain their network of relationships for a long time. A lack of social contact is considered one of the reasons for the loss of grey matter and therefore carries an increased risk of developing dementia in older age.
People with depression often lack the strength to become socially active. It is often unclear whether depression is the cause or the result of loneliness. This creates a vicious cycle which those affected often cannot escape by themselves.
Research assumes that our primal instinct influences sleep: this dates back to a time when humans could only sleep without having to be afraid of wild animals under the protection of the group. In the absence of a sense of social security, this instinctively leads to increased alertness and a sense of insecurity. This can explain tension and restless sleep.
Relationships need to be nurtured. Take time for social contacts and show your loved ones that you are thinking of them.
Check in with people you like but may have lost touch with spontaneously. Maybe you can find old friends from childhood on social media. This is a great way of reinvigorating old friendships.
Even short conversations with strangers, on the bus or in the queue at the supermarket checkout, can have a positive effect on our sense of happiness. The reason for this is our need for belonging. An offhand remark about the weather or a delayed train can lead to an interesting new connection.
Do you like running? Or have you always wanted to sing in a choir? Take the plunge and try something new with like-minded people. This will automatically give you common ground. Tip: take an interest in people and not their position or social status. This is a great way of finding exciting new acquaintances and who knows, maybe even one or two real friendships.
Not only is social contact important for our happiness and well-being, it’s also key to our physical and mental health. Especially in difficult times, social relationships are an important resource for coping with crises. It’s worth investing time and energy in maintaining relationships so you can benefit from the positive effects in the long term.
Expert in the field Astrid Gabriel provided the editorial team with advice and input for this article. Astrid is a resilience trainer as well as a coach and consultant. She works for the Helsana health consultation and assists customers with questions relating to exercise and counselling.