The Hard Facts: Survival of the Friendliest

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“Social connections—friends, family, neighbors or colleagues—improve our odds of survival by 50 percent. Here is how low social interaction compares to more well-known risk factors: Equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, equivalent to being an alcoholic, more harmful than not exercising, twice as harmful as obesity.” (“Relationships Improve Your Odds of Survival by 50 Percent, Research Finds” Science Daily, 7/28/2010)

I’ve been discussing the health benefits of friendship on this blog for some time now, but to see the impact of social connections quantified so specifically is kind of shocking. Low social interaction is the same as smoking 3/4 of a pack a day? And of being an alcoholic?? That’s some serious business.

This latest report analyzed data from 148 studies of human interaction and health—which involved more than 300,000 people worldwide. Basically it’s the mother of all health-and-friendship research.

After reading it I had a few thoughts. 1) Since I’ll be doing some good social interacting tonight, does that mean I can skip the gym this afternoon? Verdict: Probably not. 2) What qualifies as low social interaction? It’s a very cryptic phrase, don’t you think? Do you need a specific number of friends? Plans at least three times a week? I like tangibles, researchers. You can’t drop a bomb like I could be the equivalent of a chain-smoking alchy and dead before my 40th birthday and not tell me how exactly to avoid such fate. (What, me? Melodramatic? Never.)

These days I would qualify my social interaction as quite high. Though I still don’t have that “let’s sit around and watch The Soup and laugh at nothing and everything” other half locally, I’ve made a good number of new Windy City friends. My calendar is healthily full of playdates. But just because I say I have high social interaction doesn’t mean researchers would. Who knows? So many studies about friendship talk about people with “minimal social networks” or “low social integration” and then don’t elaborate on who qualifies for said label. At least if you’re smoking 15 cigs a day, you know it.

When I launched this project I was all, “Me want more friends nearby! Someone to watch The Biggest Loser with—someone who loves Bob like I do!” It wasn’t about anything as profound as increasing my chances of survival. I just needed a partner in crime to invite over for a glass of Pinot Grigio on a lazy Friday night. But maybe that’s survival of the fittest right there. If loneliness is a protective reflex a la pain, maybe my bizarrely strong desire to track down a Chitown local to honor with the other half of my BFF pendant (come on, you totally remember these) was some sort of deep-seeded biological urge.

Nah. I think it was about The Soup.

What do you think about the new study? Do those comparisons surprise you? And what do you think qualifies as low social intergration? Hypotheses encouraged…

17 Comments

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17 responses to “The Hard Facts: Survival of the Friendliest

  1. megan

    There has got to be something about the quality of interactions, not just the quantity, right? Or is it really as simple as meeting a quota? Are all those ‘Love Languages’ books wrong? Yes, I’m aware they apply mostly to romantic couples but the whole premise is to prove that people have different love styles – and that’s got to carry over into all relationships at least a little, right?

    • I think you’re probably right. In this study, I think it’s about feeling connected to a group and feeling somewhat responsible for other people. I can’t imagine that it is a specific number of people that protects you….From the studies I’ve read, I think quantity helps, but quality very much as well

  2. Callie

    It seems to me, that these researchers are talking about real loners. People who have no interest in socializing and literally spend all their time by themselves (without a significant other I would imagine, because i would think that interacting with your significant other is a form of socializing, however minimal). J.D. Salinger comes to mind perhaps? So Rachel, I don’t think you have anything to worry about! (Also love the reference to the best friend pendant, though Bowie and I had best friend telephone rings, one part was the receiver the other the base of the phone- they were amazing.)

  3. SAP

    I agree with Callie, Rach: you are all good on the social interaction scale. But I see the notion of quantifying social interaction has something to do with the other studies that came out this year about happiness and deep conversation (i can’t create an internal link apparently – http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2010/03/17/talk-deeply-be-happy/). And I can’t remember if you posted about this phenomenon already, but I think it is an interesting and relevant one in light of today’s research. Is it low social interaction if you are not fulfilled by the interaction?

  4. I guess I’d better talk to the mortician, since I’m already obese, and have pretty much no social interaction, except watching TV with my husband at night.
    The study results make me sad, because I miss having friends and contacts. My husband, however is as solitary as an oyster. . .

    • Hi Trece — even if your husband’s not into socializing, it’s never too late if you want to. There are lots of groups on MeetUp.com, Girlfriendcircles.com and the like to try out.. or you could join a class. I take an improv every week and even though I don’t see the people outside class, it always becomes a fun night of socializing. My mom does the same thing with her quilting group. The first step is just signing up and getting out the door!

    • Mary

      Trece, I am in the exact same boat as you are. Let’s pick up our paddles, row to some highly populated island and share a drink or two. It may not fix all our problems but at least we won’t be alone. lol

    • Fanfan

      Haha, talking about oysters, I think I am one. I feel I am just fine friendless for most of the time. However, I do do lots of fun things with my boyfriend. We salsa dance, hit the gym together and we go on dinner & movie dates even though we live together now!
      I guess I learned some hard lessons from my previous relationships. You have to work on it constantly.

  5. What I want to know from that study is how does virtual socializing fit in. If you’ve made a good group of friends on the internet or blogs, does it count when you chat with them on Twitter, email, or an instant messaging platform? Do texts count? This seems like important information, with the way the world is going. Will this keep us alive longer, or are we all going to die by 50 because all our friends come to us over the internet?

    • Such a good question and one I wanted to get to down the road.. So far, the researchers haven’t studied how virtual friends fit in entirely, though their hypotheses seem to be that online friends don’t have the same positive effect as in-real-life friends.

      Here’s a whole article on this: http://www.aolnews.com/nation/article/friends-can-help-you-live-longer-but-will-facebook/19572283

      To quote the key points: “Holt-Lunstad [the lead researcher] doubts that virtual connections could take the place of the ones examined in the studies. She said some of the biggest health advantages came from both intense, intimate relationships and broad-reaching support networks — which she doesn’t believe are replicated online.”

      Another researcher in the article says that while technology can help amplify already existing relationships, but can’t replace them because technology can further isolate people who are prone to loneliness…

  6. I heard this on the radio last week while you (and I, actually) were on vacation, and instantly thought of your blog!

    I think this is talking about not having any kind of social network set up as support. It can be so hard to go through any kind of stressful situation and feel like you have no one to talk to or no one to distract you from your troubles for a little while, so I can definitely see how that could be bad for you.

    I don’t think any researcher would consider you to have low social interaction by any means. If they did, we’re all in trouble!🙂 You have friends all over the place, a wonderful husband, great mom and plenty of people who look forward to reading your blog everyday. That’s a pretty expansive social network.

  7. Yeah I already have health issues, so I totally avoid stressful situations.

    No matter who it is.

  8. Ana

    From a purely scientific viewpoint, I would have to say that “enough friendship” is what YOU feel is enough friendship. I can imagine that loneliness and lack of connections can stimulate stress hormones that are bound to result in increased physical stress on your body & take its toll on your health. On the other hand, the endorphins and stress relief caused by satisfying interactions with others should prevent that stress and even improve your health. So if YOU are feeling lonely and don’t have a confidante or sounding board, or just someone to share a laugh with—that can be bad news. If you are have those kinds of satisfying connections—whether spouse, kids, family, church, co-workers, or “friends” then you will be fine. Heck, even petting a dog has been “scientifically proven” to lower your blood pressure and improve your health.
    Bottom line, I can imagine that what quantifies as “enough friendship’ is in the “eye of the beholder”. And in doing those studies, (though I admit I haven’t read them), I can imagine they took subjects’ own impressions on whether they considered themselves “connected” or not (via a survey or questionnaire or similar tool)—certainly the researchers weren’t going to actually follow these people around and see who were really their friends and count how many they ACTUALLY had.
    Thus someone with 5 good friends who felt very connected would be scored higher than someone who was always at parties and gatherings but stated that they felt lonely.
    So, Rachel, you are DEFINITELY fine!

  9. pamela

    It’s the times when I am alone that I am best able to reflect on life and the experiences it brings.

    Not everyone is inclined to socialize.

    Think about the grandpa who yells at the kids to stop running. He seems fine to me.🙂

  10. Lynda

    I agree with Ana. It depends on what each individual feels as enough, and satisfying. I’ve always been the type of gal who enjoyed a couple friendships, at a time. Can only date one guy at a time, too. However, never put all your eggs in one basket, I’ve learned, though, because should that/those friendships break apart, you’re worst off than ever. Still, the depth, and closeness that comes along with being responsible, and connected with a friend, or two, regularly, is enough to keep my heart super healthy.🙂

    Hanging out in big gatherings every month or so, to catch up with acquaintances is cool, but to be able to juggle lunch/dinner dates with anything more than 5 friends every other week is impossible! Unless I was writing a blog, and on a seriously amazing search like yours, of course.😉 I’ve tried mixing and mingling at the regular weekly parties, and hanging with 30 of my closest local friends way too often, but I found it exhausting, and ironically, lonely, really fast.

    So, I definitely think it’s all in the connection– to have friends to go out, sit at home, watch reality tv with, talk to, not talk to, and just to know you’re not alone, that counts in the end.

    Be it one, or if you’re lucky, ten.🙂

  11. Pingback: You’re Damned If You Do… « MWF Seeking BFF

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