When we think about health, we often think in terms of nutrition, hydration, exercise and other aspects of physical health. We may also consider mental, spiritual and emotional health. However, do we often overlook the absolute importance of our relationships in regards to our wellness?
Studies show time and again that relationships matter. While quantity and quality of relationships may not seem equally important, some research suggests otherwise.
Quality and Quantity
Poking around the Internet, it's pretty easy to find articles about the power of social connection, relationships and personal networks.
Some studies point to the fact that having a variety of satisfying and healthuy relationships and social connections can decrease the risk of developing dementia. (Think about it: if you only saw one person every day and were cut off from interaction with others and had no other social outlets, what would happen in the part of your brain having to do with social interaction and relationships?)
Other studies show that satisfying marriages and intimate relationships can decrease women's risk of cardiovascular disease.
Additional research links negative social interactions with poorer health, and having few social connections seems to significantly increase the risk of cognitive issues, depression, and even potential longevity.
It's also been shown that being on the giving or receiving end of caring behaviors and actions cause the release of dopamine and other chemicals that make us feel happy and uplifted, so social interaction and kindness actually have physiological gifts that they bestow.
These studies together paint a picture that underscores the importance of relationships and their effects on long-term and short-term health outcomes.
So, if positive, healthy relationships and social connections improve our health and help us to live longer, what can we do to make sure we reap the many benefits of a vibrant and satisfying social network?
Relationships at Home
At home, it's important to maintain open communication and healthy interactions with members of your family. We can all get annoyed with family members and get into relationship "ruts" that may poison our relationships with resentment, anger and ill feeling, but good communication skills can go a long way towards fostering more harmony and a sense of connection.
Marriage and intimate partnership can be stressful, so learning skills and tools that you and your partner can make use of in times of stress is important. Marriage counselors, therapists and relationship coaches can offer plenty of tools to put in your "communication toolbox", and going to see one of these helping professionals for some assistance is not a sign of weakness--it's a sign of strength.
Children, parents, aunts, uncles, siblings and other family memebrs also offer us a great deal of richness in terms of our social connection and network of support, so maintaining the health of these relationships is also crucial.
Relationships At Work
At work, relationships can have their stressors, and maintaining good relations with your colleagues and coworkers is a key to personal and professional satisfaction, not to mention your health. While work friendships are different than friendships outside of the workplace, they're still important, especially since, in many case, you spend more time with your colleagues each week than you do with your family.
Friendships are so important, be they local or long-distance. Old friends know you well and share history with you that newer friends do not, but making new friends is also important as your life changes and you grow as a person. Feeding both new and old friendships takes time, commitment, skill and thoughtful action on your part, and the dividends of such investments of time and energy are enormous.
Social Media and Technology
Social media sites like Facebook make it easier to keep in touch with old friends and those in far-flung places, but many researchers feel that the potential for superficial connections on social media cannot in any way replace the intimacy of relationships "in real life".
Having said that, I use social media to stay connected with many individuals both near and far, and I find that those connections can be quite supportive and powerful if they're nurtured and fostered with careful attention. Let's face it, you may rarely see a dear friend who lives on another continent, but keeping in touch with short posts, messages and photos can go a long way towards keeping that connection alive.
Video phone services like Skype and Google Hangouts also make it easier to nurture relationships with those who are far away, so you can even have a video chat with that old friend in Europe once in a while, making the face-to-face connection that feels so good and provides a deeper sense of closeness.
Reach Out And Touch Someone
For those of you who grew up in the 60s or 70s, you may remember a television or radio commercial for one of the major telephone companies that used the slogan, "reach out and touch someone". Advertising doesn't always get it right, but the notion that the telephone could foster and nuture relationships was reflected in those ads, and the telephone certainly has provided many benefits to our social relationships since its invention (as well as the new iteration of the phone, including video phones).
You can reach out in so many ways, and others can reach back. And bear in mind that those social connections, networks and relationships not only make you feel good on an emotional level, they actually have physiological health benefits that are almost beyond measure.
If you want to be healthy and long-lived, give your relationships and social connections the attention they deserve. You'll be happier, others will be happier, and you will all be healthier too!