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Harvard research suggests that meaningful relationships can improve your health

“Shared joy is a double joy; shared sorrow is half sorrow.”

—Swedish Proverb.

What if at your next visit to the doctor you were given this prescription: “Make time for your friends and family. Strengthen your relationships. Build new ones.”

Your doctor may not prescribe relationships as one of their tips for healthy longevity, but research is showing that people who have warm, loving relationships live longer, are happier and enjoy better physical, mental and emotional health.1

The Harvard Study of Adult Development conducted an 80-year health study on 700 men. The surprising result has been that strong social connections provided more protection against mental and physical decline than wealth, education, IQ, genetics or social class.2 It turns out that one of the ways to promote healthy aging is socializing!

How Relationships Protect Your Physical Health

Inflammation. Humans are designed as social creatures and our physical health benefits from relationships. During times of stress and illness, your body produces higher levels of inflammation. This inflammation makes you want to withdraw from the larger society and huddle close to those who love you and will care for you.

If you have no social support, your level of inflammation will increase to protect you from further disease. The lonelier you are the more inflammation your body produces which results in compromised health and depression. Often causing more isolation and loneliness.3

Being engaged in strong relationships will increase your immune system, making you less likely to experience the following:

  • Colds
  • Flus
  • High Blood Pressure
  • Cardiovascular disease

The scientific thought is that the health benefits of connection helps to relieve the damaging effects of stress. When you care for somebody and are cared for your body releases hormones that counter the effects of stress and inflammation.

Social Pressure. Do you know you eat healthier and are more likely to be active and take better care of yourself when you are around others? Spending time with others who are also trying to implement positive habits will make you want to be healthier. Health is contagious!

When you have a sense of connection to a group around you, you feel responsible for others. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, a professor at Brigham Young University, states in a report in the journal PLOS Medicine that you have a sense of purpose that translates to taking better care of yourself and taking fewer risks.4

You can benefit from something as simple as a friend or family member mentioning that they are taking an evening stroll. As social creatures you will want to mirror that behavior and can be inspired to be more active.

How Relationships Protect Your Mental and Emotional Health

Mental Health. Our brains are naturally protected by our community. Research has continually found that if you have a strong social network you will experience less mental decline.5 Good relationships keep you sharp! Talking with a spouse, friend or family member forces you to think more. You are challenged with new ideas. You force yourself to remember little details.

Essentially, relationships are exercise for your brain. A recent study6 by Robert Waldinger, published in the Journal of Clinical Psychological Science, has shown the women in a strong relationship with their partners experienced less depression and had better memory function.

When you know you have someone to count on your memories are protected. Relationships that are high in conflict have the opposite effect. The quality not the quantity of your relationships matters the most.

Did you know you feel more pain when you are lonely and unhappy? Research has found that people who reported having a happy marriage also reported that on days when their physical pain was high that they didn’t feel they suffered as much.

Emotional Health. Dr. Waldinger states that “Loneliness kills”. Our longevity is directly connected to the warmth and affection we experience in our relationships. Relationships support your emotional health not only in what you receive from others but more importantly what you give. The life-giving benefits of social support is seen when you offer to help others or are the one to express care and to be a support for others.

Caring for others is one of the easiest health tips to add to your life! It is free and doesn’t require any new equipment. When you care for somebody else you focus less on yourself. You have less time for your own worries and regrets. They are still there but when you are with other people you think less about yourself. Being less focused on your own troubles helps you to feel happier.

How to Have Better Relationships

The truth is that relationships matter to your health. Not just any relationship but strong, supportive, caring relationships. How you engage with your relationships will have an impact on how beneficial they are.

Dr. Waldinger states that people who work on their relationships and stay in relationships are happier, even if your relationship has conflict. The most important aspect is knowing you can count on somebody else to be there for you when life is hard.

There are some key ways you can strengthen the relationships you have: 7

Show Interest in Others. Make an effort to be interested in what is happening in the world of the people around you. Ask questions about what is happening in their day and listen to the answer. This simple step is easy to start but can have amazing results in creating a deeper level of connection with those you love.

Take the first step. Make a phone call. Ask if you can talk to a grandchild on Skype. Invite a new friend to join you for coffee.

Be Gentle When You Disagree. Disagreement is natural in relationships, but you can still be gentle and kind. Avoid statements that criticize or blame the other person. A better way to handle conflict is to focus on what you need. Don’t say “I am so lonely, you never come to see me, it seems like you are always too busy you don’t even care.” These statements can make your loved one shut down and become defensive.

Instead, try to address your feelings with humor and respect. Acknowledge what your loved one is thinking and feeling. Try saying “I feel lonely on the weekend, I would like it if I could talk to you. Are you available on Saturday morning for a phone call?”

Seek to Repair. Every good relationship will have conflict. Don’t hide from it! But when you make mistakes, hurt somebody you love or feel a rip in your relationship be the first one to try and repair your relationship.

Dr. Gottman, a well-recognized relationship expert, says that conflict gives us an opportunity to learn how to love each other better over time. When you run into problems in a relationship and you can work it out together, your bond becomes stronger.

Dr. Waldinger states that good relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time, some of the longest and happiest married couples would bicker all day. But at the end they still felt that they could count on each other and were loved. That knowledge protected both their happiness and their memories.

A repaired relationship is of more value to your health than a relationship that experiences no conflict. Working through conflict lets you see that no matter what problems come up, you are loved, accepted and safe in your relationship. THAT is how relationships protect your health and boost your longevity, because you feel and give love and safety.



About the Author(s)

Crystal Jo is a Registered Nurse who is passionate about helping older adults live happy, healthy lives at home. As a freelance writer, she enjoys educating and inspiring seniors, and those who love them, to choose a healthy life.

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