1) They’re good for the heart
Positive experiences with friends and family produce the hormone oxytocin. Research shows that oxytocin helps to lower blood pressure and also helps keep the chemical precursors to cardiovascular disease at bay. It is a ‘cardioprotective’ hormone (protects the cardiovascular system) and therefore good relationships with friends and family are also cardioprotective.
In fact, a 1960’s US census found substantially lower levels of heart disease in people from the town of Roseto. After years of scientific investigation into the seeming anomaly (no one under the age of 50 in the town had ever died of heart disease), it turned out that their social connectedness was they key to this. This was a highly ‘connected’ small town, where everyone knew everyone else and many households had 4 generations of family living there.
2) They help us to live longer
Most longevity research in the past has taught us that among the keys to living a long, healthy life are that we eat well, sleep well, exercise well, and manage our stress levels. But more recent research is now telling us that social interaction is actually one of THE most important factors in living a long, healthy life.
In fact, a 2010 study that looked at 188 Australians over the age of 100 found that a close network of family and friends was highly significant in determining their lifespan.
And here’s one for the men: Large-scale studies that compare men in relationships with men who are single show that cardiovascular health is better in married men, and as cardiovascular disease is a major cause of reduced lifespan, being in a relationship actually helps us (especially men) live longer.
3) They’re good for our emotional health
Having positive interactions with friends and family make us feel good. We laugh more, we feel joy, we smile more. Our spirits are generally lifted compared with not having these relationships.
Research that examines the connectivity in social networks has found that people who are more connected tend to be happier than people who have less interaction with friends and family.
And an added bonus is that we tend to be contagious when we’re happy; not in the infectious disease way but in that happiness spreads from person to person. It’s known as Emotional Contagion. Positive interactions make us happier and then we spread that happiness in the rest of the interactions we have.
4) They buffer the difficult times
Friends and family help us through difficult times in our lives. They provide shoulders to cry on when we’re struggling and they help us to find emotional and spiritual strength. Most people have lent on that shoulder and have also been that shoulder for someone else. The connection is something that is necessary for our thriving.
One study where people were given a stressful task found that they recovered faster if they were simply reminded of some of their positive relationships.
5) They’re good for the immune system
Connections with others are important for the human species as a whole. Having relationships actually ensured the survival of our species over millions of years of evolution. It’s why the oxytocin gene (which produces oxytocin and helps us bond with one another) is one of the oldest in the human genome (500 million years old).
It should be no surprise to learn, then, that having good relationships is linked with the immune system, since it is so crucial for the human species.
Indeed, a simple study where 334 volunteers were exposed to the common cold found that those who had strong relationships were about 50% less likely to develop symptoms.