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Social Interaction Could Be Great for Your Health

Don't underestimate the importance of seeing friends.

People who enjoy strong relationships have fewer health problems and live longer. In fact, in a study of 7,000 California men and women researchers found that isolation was a bigger risk factor for death over the nine-year study period than smoking, obesity and lack of exercise. If you develop heart disease, for example, strong connections may help keep you alive longer. On the other hand, too few or weak connections are linked to a higher risk of repeat heart attacks, autoimmune disorders, and cancer.

How could a lack of social interaction be detrimental to health? It affects the body, including the brain. Isolated people live in a state of inflammation, a bit as if they always had the flu.

So you might choose a book group or church over going to the gym one night or Sunday morning. Even better, combine socializing with exercise. Invite a friend to join your yoga class or get to know the people at your local gym.

Social interaction has a big effect on mental health at all ages, but our desire to connect seems to hit a peak in our teen years, then decline. Midlife, anywhere from 40 to 50, tends to be a time when people become more interested in socializing than they were in their thirties, some research shows.

Among teenagers, much research has concluded that those who have close friends to talk to are less likely to become depressed or have other mental health problems.

Face-to-face visits, when we're older, may do more to prevent depression than phone calls, email and texting, according to an analysis of survey data for people age 50 and up across the United States. More than 11 percent of the respondents had significant depression symptoms at a two-year follow-up if they saw family or friends in person “every few months or less. “ The figure was 7.3 percent for people who saw close ties every week.

That helps explain the increase in depression. Americans aren’t getting enough face-to-face meaningful interaction to meet their needs. In a 2018 survey, nearly half of Americans report sometimes or always feeling alone or left out. One in five people report they rarely or never feel close to people and 18 percent say they rarely or never feel like there are people they can talk to. Only around half of Americans—53 percent—have a long conversation with a friend or spend time interacting with family every day. We tend to blame long hours at work for lack of social time, but people who are under-employed are lonelier than over-workers—missing out on the feeling of being useful and connected in the workplace.

Social life has its own stresses, especially for people who tend to be anxious about their attachments, or are anxious about social situations with strangers. A teen might worry that her best friend will drop her. You might feel left out of a clique in your office and think it will affect your chances of promotion.

It’s also true that not all connections are worth your energy. Some people treat you badly—or lead you into bad habits. If you’re always hungover after seeing a friend or feel drained in her company, step back and reevaluate. A bad friendship can be bad for your mental health, perhaps especially when you don’t have as much social interaction as you need.

A version of this story appears on Your Care Everywhere.