Ask most people about their favorite part of the recent Super Bowl or Barack Obama's presidency and you'll get lots of different answers. Possible Super Bowl favorites include Big Ben's game-winning pass to Santonio Moss, Conan O'Brien's Bud Light commercial, or Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band's delightful half-time performance. The greatest hits from the Obama presidency may include his inauguration speech, his order to close Gitmo, and his support for an economic stimulus plan aimed at creating millions of new jobs. But these highlights neglect a crucial aspect that events such as the Super Bowl and Obama's presidency can have on people. These events may have the power to save lives.
Why? One reason is that the Super Bowl and Barack Obama both have an uncanny ability to bring people together. Nearly 100 million people watched this year's Super Bowl. An estimated 37.8 million people watched Barack Obama's inauguration ceremony. Health and social connection are intimately linked. Loneliness is related to all sorts of negative health outcomes, such as deficient immune system functioning, poor quality sleep, and increased risk for mortality after myocardial infarct. Simply living with someone, compared to living alone, is related to having a longer and happier life. In terms of its negative effects on health, a lack of social connection even trumps smoking. (See John Cacioppo's excellent posts on these and other effects of loneliness in his blog "Loneliness.")
Of particular relevance is the link between social connection and suicide. Thomas Joiner, an eminent clinical psychologist, proposes three factors that help us understand why people die by suicide. First, people who die by suicide feel socially disconnected from others. They don't perceive that they have positive or lasting relationships in their lives, which makes life not seem worth living. Second, suicidal people feel that they're a burden on others. They don't feel like they matter and hence won't be missed if they were to cease existing. Third, people who die by suicide have an acquired ability to inflict lethal self-injury. Exposure to physical pain, such as previous suicide attempts or breaking bones can put people over the edge in terms of being able to seriously harm themselves.
Let's get back to the Super Bowl and Barack Obama. Given what you now know about how having social connection promotes good health-and how a lack of social connection can make people feel that life isn't worth living-it seems plausible that events that bring people together might actually reduce suicide rates. Think this is a stretch? Think again.
Joiner and his students investigated the relationship between suicide rates and various sporting events, including previous Super Bowls. What they found was staggeringly strong support for the power of social connection. The more people watched the Super Bowl over the years, the fewer suicides were reported on those days. Joiner and colleagues found similar reductions in suicide rates during the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" (i.e., U.S. Olympic hockey team defeating the Soviet team) and high ranking of local college football teams. By coming together through mass sporting events, people were less likely to feel that life was no longer worth living.
To date, we don't know whether Barack Obama's presidency has reduced the number of people who have died by suicide this year. It's simply too early to tell. What we do know is that humans have a basic instinct to connect with others-and that satisfying this instinct through coming together is related to people having more hope to live for.