A vibrant social life offers myriad health benefits.
Having friends is good for you.
That seems obvious, but what might surprise you is the extent to which meaningful social relationships improve our physical and emotional health. Research shows that staying socially connected with others is essential to leading a healthy, happy, and productive life.
Our relationships in life influence the roles we play, the resources we have access to, and the kind of support we receive from others. An active social life directly correlates to sustained mental acuity and strong physical health. Conversely, social isolation has a profoundly negative influence on our health. In fact, people who are socially disconnected have health risks similar to those who smoke, double the mortality risk of those who are obese, and four times the mortality risk of those who are exposed to high levels of air pollution (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010). The increased stress associated with feeling lonely or socially isolated has also been shown to contribute to the development and progression of heart disease (House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988; Uchino, 2006).
The health problems associated with poor social interaction make it clear that developing and maintaining meaningful relationships is critical to our well-being. If we have a close network of family and friends, we have opportunities to develop emotional and instrumental support systems, with the most adaptive social networks being those that include a balance of close emotional support and meaningful stimulation. It is not just about having more people in our lives, but high-quality and positive relationships that really matter to us (Uchino, 2004).
When individuals feel valued and cared for by others, when they regularly interact with friends and family, and when they participate in activities that provide a sense of meaning and purpose in their lives, they feel socially connected (Cobb, 1976). One way to determine whether or not you are socially connected is to consider what might happen if you needed help in the middle of the night. How many people do you know who would get out of bed and come to help you? If your answer is fewer than two, you might pay closer attention to the emphasis you are placing on relationships in your life. You should treat your social relationships with the same care as your physical health. It is not only important because it helps us feel more valued; it also leads to greater well-being and longevity (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010).
Interacting with others in person is always preferable to talking on the phone or on the Internet. However, technology can help bridge the gap between face-to-face visits with people we love, no matter where they live. In 2014, The Pew Research Foundation conducted a study about technology use among older adults, concluding that America’s seniors have been late to hop on the technology bandwagon compared to younger generations. However, they are increasingly using technology to connect with others and to learn new things, thus staying mentally active.
In a more recent survey, conducted in March 2015, they also discovered that half of all older adults who are online use Facebook, a website for connecting with friends and family, sharing information about daily life, looking at photos, and “chatting” with others online. Older people with smartphones also gave very positive perspectives about their value—in fact, more positive feedback than younger adults. Smartphones provide easy access to communicating with friends and family both with a traditional phone call or through a video call.
While there are certain barriers that make learning how to use these new forms of technology much harder in later life, there are resources designed specifically to that end. Choosing the right device is an important part of making technology work for your daily needs. Tablets, like iPads, have tools that can help those with arthritis or decreased sense of feeling to use the touch screen, and a stylus pen can enhance ease of use. Because tablets can also connect to the Internet and are light and relatively small, it is possible to call a friend or family member from the device using a video so that both parties can converse face-to-face.
No matter the means of communicating, it’s vital that seniors maintain a social life and interact with people in their community to promote better health and happiness. Research shows that time with friends and involvement in a group or common cause has a myriad of health benefits, not only helping us live longer, but to live happier.