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6 Root Cause Series – Part 2: Social

Article Overview
Problem: No or Low-Quality Social Connections
Solution: Good Relationships
Lifestyle Prescription®: 7-day Relationship Remedy

Summary: Our social environment is the second of Lifestyle Prescriptions® University’s 6 Root Causes that we will highlight in this series. This article will explore how our social life is deeply connected to our health.

Loneliness and unhealthy social networks are harmful to our health as well as our overall sense of well-being. Strong healthy relationships are linked to a happier and healthier life. We can increase the strength of our social life by identifying positive ways to connect with others, adjusting the frequency of our social interactions, and shifting our mindset about relationships.

Problem: No or Low-Quality Social Connections

Recent scientific research is bringing to light the power that our social life has on our health. On May 3rd, 2023, the United States Surgeon General Dr. Vivek H. Murthy declared an epidemic of loneliness and isolation. He states “Loneliness is far more than just a bad feeling—it harms both individual and societal health. It is associated with a greater risk of cardiovascular disease, dementia, stroke, depression, anxiety, and premature death. The mortality impact of being socially disconnected is similar to that caused by smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and even greater than that associated with obesity and physical inactivity”.[1] These negative health outcomes are in part to do with the fact that our social experiences affect our stress hormones, inflammation, and gene expression. [2]

Several scenarios demonstrate the link between social connections and stress. For starters, it is stressful to be alone because we will have to carry our daily survival burden by ourselves and there is no one to weather the hardships of life with. But not any relationship or group will be positive for our health. Having people in our life that are negative or cause us harm increase our stress levels as well. Groups who influence us to partake in risky behaviors, such as excessively drinking or doing drugs, will end up making our survival harder. These types of social interactions lead to stress hormones being released into our system which degrade the body when this cycle becomes chronic and/or excessive.[3]

It is important to note that we don’t have to just live alone to be lonely. Individuals surrounded by many people can also feel this deep void of meaningful positive connection with others. Loneliness is not just about how many relationships we have but the quality and our perception of those relationships. Just a few strong connections can be enough to relieve this loneliness.

Solution: Good Relationships 

There is a fascinating study on happiness called the Harvard Study of Adult Development that points us to a simple solution, good relationships. Harvard researchers have followed individuals in real-time since 1938 throughout their lives collecting in-depth information about their occupations, relationships, mental health, and physical health. The study is still ongoing, but their finding thus far was recently published in January 2023 in the book The Good Life. The current director and the associate director of the study make this bold statement; “In fact, good relationships are significant enough that if we had to take all eighty-four years of the Harvard Study and boil it down to a single principle for living, one life investment that is supported by similar findings across a wide variety of other studies, it would be this: Good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.” [4]

Good relationships can decrease our stress which improves our health. The stress of our daily burdens and negative life events is relieved by the different resources we have access to through our social network. [5] Other people can offer us mental, physical, and/or financial support. This support dampens the mental and physical stress of the unavoidable hardships of life. These relationships also decrease our stress by simply increasing our happiness. Take a moment to think about someone who leaves you feeling uplifted and energized. These types of positive supportive relationships provide a sort of protective effect for bad times and magnify the good times in life.

We have identified the root cause problem as no or low-quality social connections and the solution to be good relationships. Now let’s look at some options we have to receive the health supportive benefits that our social life can give us.

Option 1: Identify Connections

Most relationships exist on the basis of something that bonds two people together. These can be shared passions, hobbies, work, school, and/or current stages of life. We can increase our connection with others by having conversations about these shared interests and spending time to enjoy doing them together. If we are looking to develop new friendships then we could try out a class, event, or group that is focused on the specific thing that brings us joy. We can also increase our current relationships by doing the things we love with the people we love. Some examples are going to a music concert, a sports activity, a study session with a classmate, or a playdate with another new mother. We feel closer to others by focusing less on what disconnects us and more on what we have in common.

Option 2: Adjust the Frequency

We must make time for our relationships to sustain them and the amount along with the quality of time we spend makes a difference. It is to our benefit to increase interactions with our existing high-quality relationships that uplift us. If we feel short on time then we can reduce distractions to be more present during the time we already spend with one another. There are simple changes such as not using our phones while together or eating at the table instead of in front of the television. Without frequent interactions, we may find that people we love fade away into the distance.

We can also decrease the frequency of interactions with our current low-quality relationships to improve them. Some people are great for us in smaller portions and when there is too much time spent together it creates a strain on the relationship. Perhaps talking daily is too much, but talking weekly or monthly is more enjoyable with certain people. Simply adjusting the frequency of time spent with one another can help us find the sweet spot that allows the quality of our tougher relationships to increase.

Option 3: Change your Mindset

Some mindsets become mental barriers that prevent us from developing high-quality relationships with others. These could be unrealistic expectations of relationships in general, other people, or ourselves. There can be spoken or unspoken relationship agreements and boundaries that are creating conflict. A great place to start is to ask ourselves what mindsets are preventing us from connecting and spending time with others. For instance, thinking that we need to connect on everything in a friendship could prevent us from fostering the connections we do share. Two people can fight badly when talking about politics but have a blast talking about music. Another example of a limiting mindset is thinking we don’t have time for our relationships. Maybe we have 5 minutes for a brief conversation with a friend that brightens up our day. By removing these mental obstacles, we may find positive relationship opportunities that we have had easy access to all along.

Lifestyle Prescription®: 7-day Relationship Remedy 

The science is clear that we need to make time for our relationships to improve our health. This week’s Lifestyle Prescription® is to take 5 minutes out of each day for the next 7 days to focus on your relationships. Choose between the two options below or do a combo of both.

Set an alarm on your phone to help you remember. Comment below about how your personal experience went and if you noticed any changes in your relationships.

Lifestyle Prescription® Health Coaching:
Do you need extra help in creating more fulfilling relationships? Lifestyle Prescription® Health Coaches are trained to support you in exploring your social health to come up with inner and/or outer solutions to improve your social connections. They will help you create Lifestyle Prescriptions® that are tailored to your specific relationship needs.

Click here to get connected to a health coach today

Author: Ashley Layle is currently studying with Lifestyle Prescriptions® University to get her Master’s in Lifestyle Medicine and is a certified Lifestyle Prescriptions® Health Coach. In 2014, she became certified in Massage and Hydrotherapy then was a Licensed Massage Therapist in Colorado for 2 years. In 2020, she received her certificate of expertise in Culinary Nutrition. She enjoys reading books, exploring nature, cooking, and spending time with her family in her free time.

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[1] Office of the Assistant Secretary for Health (OASH). “New Surgeon General Advisory Raises Alarm about the Devastating Impact of the Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation in the United States.” HHS.Gov, 3 May 2023, www.hhs.gov/about/news/2023/05/03/new-surgeon-general-advisory-raises-alarm-about-devastating-impact-epidemic-loneliness-isolation-united-states.html.

[2] Murthy , Dr. Vivek  H. “Chapter 2: Individual Health .” Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation; The U.S Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community , edited by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Susan Golant , U.S Department of Health and Human Services , pp. 31–33, https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-social-connection-advisory.pdf. Accessed 6 Sept. 2023.

[3] Yaribeygi, Habib, et al. “The Impact of Stress on Body Function: A Review.” EXCLI Journal, 21 July 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5579396/

[4] Waldinger , Robert. “Chapter 1: What Makes a Good Life? .” The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Largest Scientific Study of Happiness, edited by Marc Schulz, Simon & Schuster , New York, New York, 2023, p. 10.

[5] Murthy , Dr. Vivek  H. “Chapter 3: Community Health .” Our Epidemic of Loneliness and Isolation; The U.S Surgeon General’s Advisory on the Healing Effects of Social Connection and Community , edited by Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Susan Golant , U.S Department of Health and Human Services , pp. 36-43, https://www.hhs.gov/sites/default/files/surgeon-general-social-connection-advisory.pdf. Accessed 6 Sept. 2023

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