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Research Shows Too Much Socializing Can Harm You

The relationship between social contact frequency and health is examined.

Key points

  • Regular social contact has many mental health benefits (e.g., social and emotional support, sense of belonging).
  • Very frequent social contact, however, provides little health benefit and may even cause harm (e.g., higher stress, greater mortality risk).
  • People need to be mindful of the effects of frequent social contact and to find healthy ways to cope with it (e.g., set boundaries, alone time).
arrowheadcoffeeco/Pixabay
Source: arrowheadcoffeeco/Pixabay

Solitude and social isolation are not good for health, whereas social relationships and social contact have many health benefits (e.g., social support, emotional support, sense of belonging).

Or so we are told.

However, new research by Stavrova and Ren, published in the August issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, suggests socialization may not be good for health if done excessively.

Let us review this research.

Study 1: social contact and health

Data came from nine waves (from 2002 to 2018) of the European Social Survey, a large survey that examines various aspects of people’s well-being. The final sample comprised 392,195 participants (average age of 48 years; 54% female) from 37 countries.

Information on social contact frequency (with friends, relatives, colleagues), self-rated physical health, and demographics were collected.

Analysis of this data showed a nonlinear relationship between physical health and social contact frequency.

Initially, when social contact frequency increased, such as from yearly to monthly, self-rated physical health increased too. Then, the curve gradually became flat, suggesting that increasing the frequency of social contact beyond a certain point (several times a week) had little additional positive effect and did not improve health significantly.

Study 2: social contact and mortality

To learn more about the effects of social contact, a longitudinal study was conducted. Data came from the German Socio-Economic Panel, a nationally representative investigation in Germany.

For analysis of physical health, data from five waves were used. The sample comprised 49,675 individuals (53% female; average year of birth of 1962). For mortality risk analysis, the sample consisted of 52,542 participants (average year of birth of 1960; 53% female). During the longitudinal investigation, roughly 8% of the participants had passed away. The average survival time was 14 years.

Analysis of data showed the highest level of social contact frequency (i.e. daily socializing) was not “associated with substantially better health and longer life than the moderate (monthly) frequency.” And going beyond daily interaction frequency was sometimes even related to “higher mortality risks and lower survival time.”

Health, mortality, and social contact

Let us put these findings in context. Previous research suggests social ties and social support are linked with positive outcomes and healthy living. For instance, people with stronger social ties are more likely to exercise, follow a healthy diet, and comply with medical advice. Solitude and social isolation, in contrast, are linked with worse health.

Yet, as the present review has found, social interactions are not beneficial beyond a certain point. Too much social contact may have no health benefits—or worse, have detrimental effects.

To be clear, isolation and loneliness are not good for health either. Indeed, a greater frequency of social contact was prospectively associated with greater health in the second investigation; furthermore, people who had no social contact had worse health and mortality.

So, when does socializing become unhealthy? In the second study, when social contact frequency was increased to daily, it was no longer inked with better health; instead, it correlated with increased mortality.

Put another way, “Increasing the frequency of contact with friends, colleagues, and neighbors from never to monthly” correlated with a decrease of 10% in mortality risk, but increasing the frequency from monthly to daily was linked with an increase of 8% in mortality risk.

These changes in mortality risk (i.e. 10% and 8%) are quite significant. To compare with other predictors of mortality, being male (vs. female) was related to a 4% increased mortality risk. And being married (vs. not married) was linked with a 3% lower mortality risk.

Thus, very frequent social contact is a major risk factor for mortality.

Free-Photos/Pixabay
Source: Free-Photos/Pixabay

Social isolation vs. frequent social contact

An important question is, why do the benefits of socializing disappear when there is a high frequency of social contact?

For instance, could it be that those who have a high frequency of contact happen to be those with very poor health—such as hospitalized patients who do not choose to have frequent social contact but require it (e.g., with nurses, doctors)?

Not likely. Worse health at Time 1 did not predict a higher frequency of social contact with friends, colleagues, or neighbors, at Time 2 (after controlling for contact frequency at Time 1); in fact, it predicted less contact. The same was true of contact with relatives or family members; for those with the poorest health, contact frequency actually decreased.

Why, then, do high levels of socializing have no additional health benefits (or cause harm instead)?

For one, most health behaviors (e.g., drinking water, sleeping, exercising, teeth cleaning) generally become progressively less beneficial beyond the recommended level.

To illustrate, consider the benefits of vitamins: The difference between taking and not taking the recommended daily vitamin intake is larger and more positive than the difference between taking twice and three times the recommended allowance. Indeed, taking more vitamins may have little health benefits or cause harm.

Second, excessive socializing might mean socializing of a lower quality. Or more stressful interactions. Thus, the health benefits usually associated with social relationships and social interactions might be more than neutralized by the stress they cause.

If excessive socializing is not good for health and is stressful instead, why do some people continue to socialize so often? Perhaps they are not aware of how much stress this constant socializing causes. Or they have little choice in how frequently they socialize (e.g., their job requires it).

Regardless, we can take the present results as a reminder that, like solitude and social isolation, companionship and socialization can have more costs than health benefits too. As with everything, balance is key.

Takeaway

If you have too much social contact on a regular basis and are thus worried about your well-being, do take the time to examine potential solutions available to you.

For instance, consider a meditation practice, alone time at home, quiet time or frequent breaks at work, setting boundaries with friends and colleagues...even changing jobs.

Remember, your health comes first. So, meet your need for belonging but avoid too much socializing whenever you can.

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