Over the last few decades, psychological research has confirmed the keys to a long and healthy life. These include a healthy diet, plenty of exercise, sufficient sleep, and lots of social contact with friends and family members.
There’s also a long philosophical tradition of arguing that moderation in all things is the key to longevity and happiness. This seems self-evident. Too much food, even if healthy, isn’t good for you, and getting too much exercise can be as harmful to your body as not enough. Even sleep time has a sweet spot of around eight hours a night, with too much doing as much harm as too little.
But what about social interactions? We humans are a highly social species, and we need interactions with other people. We live and work in groups because we depend on others to meet our needs. And while the daily interactions we have with the other people in our home or workplace can be quite rewarding, they can also sometimes be stressful, so we settle into routines that blunt the rough edges of these relationships.
In addition to the people we deal with on a day-to-day basis, we also seek out social contact with friends and family members who aren’t part of our home or work life. These are the visits, get-togethers, and evenings out in which we momentarily break free of our normal routines. We spend time with these people because we enjoy their company, and doing so boosts our mood.
Research so far suggests that the more social contact we have, the happier we’ll be and the longer we’ll live. But is it possible that the benefits of socializing are greatest when we keep it in moderation, just like with food, exercise, and sleep? This is the question that Dutch psychologists Olga Stavrova and Dongning Ren explored in a study they recently published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science.
The hypothesis that Stavrova and Ren tested was straightforward: Are people with more frequent social contact healthier than those with less? To answer this question, researchers made use of data from the European Social Survey, which examined the attitudes, values, and well-being of nearly 400,000 people living in 37 countries.
Two items were of interest in the current study. The first item was social contact frequency, in which participants indicated how often they met with colleagues, friends, and family members. The response options ranged from 1 to 7, where 1 meant “never” and 7 meant “every day.” The second item was self-rated physical health, which participants rated from 1, meaning “very bad,” to 5, meaning “very good.”
The researchers then looked at the association between these two variables and found that they were positively correlated. In other words, as the frequency of social contact went up, so did the degree of health. This is the same finding that many other researchers have reported and which is used to support the claim that more is better when it comes to social contact and health.
However, as Stavrova and Ren point out, there’s a problem when making inferences from data such as these, in that the correlational method used to analyze these data assumes a straight-line relationship. So they also tested whether a curve would better describe the relationship.
When the researchers examined self-rated health at each of the seven levels of social contact frequency, ranging from “never” to “every day,” they found that a tapering curve best fit the relationship. That is, there was a large increase in health from “never” to “less than once a month,” and likewise from that to “once a month.” In other words, some social contact provides a large boost in physical health.
However, the added benefit decreased rapidly as social contact increased from “once a month” to “several times a month” and “once a week.” Furthermore, there was virtually no difference in self-rated health between those who had social contact several times a week and those who had them every day.
Stavrova and Ren related this finding to a phenomenon that economists call marginal utility. The term “utility” refers to the benefit you get from consuming something. If you’re really hungry right now, then a slice of pizza will have a lot of utility for you. You may even want to eat a second piece, but you probably won’t enjoy it as much as the first. And if you eat a third piece, you might find that you regret it later.
The data from this study suggest that social contact also has marginal utility. Loneliness is a miserable experience, and over time it can do serious damage to a person’s physical and psychological health. And that’s why occasional social contact can be real mood boosters that confer benefits to physical health as well.
Yet, as the researchers point out, solitude is also important for our mental well-being. We all need time alone to reflect on our lives and to do things we enjoy just by ourselves. In the hustle and bustle of modern life, too many of us have our social calendars packed, with too little “me time” penciled in.
And despite the health benefits of social contact, they also bring with them a downside. A social contact, by its definition here, is an interruption of our daily life at home and at work. To the extent that we have developed healthy habits of diet, exercise, and sleep, social contact breaks the routine that maintains them.
When we socialize with friends or relatives, we’re more likely to drink and eat more than usual, and we’re also more likely to indulge in high-calorie, low-nutrition foods. Socializing can break into our established sleep and exercise routines as well. While an occasional break from routine can help us appreciate the benefits of our seemingly monotonous daily lives, an overactive social life prevents us from establishing healthy routines in the first place.
Twenty-five centuries ago, the ancient Greek philosopher Aristotle argued that moderation in all things was the key to a long and happy life. This means eating healthy food but not too much, getting exercise but not overexerting yourself, and getting just the right amount of sleep. This new study by Dutch psychologists Stavrova and Ren shows us that when it comes to engaging in social contact with friends and relatives, moderation is also key.
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Stavrova, O. & Ren, D. (2020). Is more always better? Examining the nonlinear association of social contact frequency with physical health and longevity. Social Psychological and Personality Science. Advance online publication. DOI: 10.1177/1948550620961589