You can already intuitively feel that connecting with others boosts your health.
Think of how much better do you feel after a warm hug from a friend, the comforting squeeze of a partner’s hand, or the joy of laughing around a dinner table with your children. Sharing space with a loved one for even one minute is enough to completely turn a bad day into a good one.
But it’s not just something you intuitively know, it’s something that has been medically studied and shown to actually protect you health. Medical studies have even shown that increasing your connection to others not only improves your health, it actually increases your longevity. Connecting to others is so important that it even helps provide anesthesia to pain… that’s how much physical closeness helps.
A medical study (published in 2018 in the Proceedings Of The National Academy of Sciences) showed that simply holding hands provided significant analgesia during pain. Physical touch calms brain activity during distress, which helps explain why it reduces the brain’s perception of pain, a study (published in 2006 in Psychological Science) found. In this study, brain activity was measured via a functional MRI while partners held hands with their spouse — hand holding significantly reduced level of brain activity during painful stimuli. Another study, published in 2019 in Pain Management Nursing, found that simply massaging a patient’s hand reduced pain and provided longer pain free intervals in critically ill patients in a surgical intensive care unit.
Physical touch even has the power to calm your heart rate and respiratory rate, as well as lower blood pressure. A study published in 2017 in Scientific Reports found when evaluating patients who had a pain event while being monitored via an ECG… patients holding their partners hands had significant analgesia which resulted in lowered blood pressure, lowered heart rate response, and a lowered respiratory rate.
Even without physically touching others, just having friendships with others helps you live longer.
There was an interesting medical review, published in 2010 in PLOS Medicine, that looked at over 300,000 participants in over 145 medical studies pertaining to social relationships and mortality. This review indicated that no matter your age, sex, health status, disease status, or cause of death, having social ties (like friends, family, neighbors and colleagues) increased your survival rate by 50%.
This protective health boost is dramatic, meaningful and significant. The study also found that having low social interactions is actually a risk factor for death similar to other well known health risk factors. Having less social interactions was equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, equivalent to being an alcoholic, more harmful than not exercising, and twice as harmful as obesity.
It makes sense that if having social ties protects your mortality, having low social relationships drops it. And that’s exactly what researchers found in a medical study published in 2015 in Perspectives on Psychological Science. They found that isolation, loneliness and living alone each increases likelihood of mortality rates by 29%, 26% and 32%, respectively.
This may seem upsetting if you feel alone, but it actually doesn’t matter if you have friends reaching out to you as much as if you reach out to others. You are in control of the positive health benefits of connecting to others, because it is initiating contact with others that is so healing.
So the good news is this — even if you feel lonely, by reaching out to support others, you actually boost your own health, regardless of if you are getting the same support in return. It turns out that it is the giving of social support, not the receiving of social support, that really benefits your health, at least as far as your brain is concerned.
Researchers postulate that one reason being connected to others is protective to our health is that giving support actually helps mitigate the body’s stress response.
In a study published in 2019 in Psychosomatic Medicine, researchers used functional MRI imaging to examine what happens to the brain when one receives social support, and when one gives social support. It turns out that key areas of the brain are restructured to protect you against stress — but only when you are giving social support, not receiving it.
Receiving support was not related to these beneficial, protective brain changes, but giving it was associated with significantly reduced activation of the brain in areas of stress response. In other words, giving support to others might actually buffer your experience of stress, reducing the impact that trauma and stress have on your health by supporting areas of the brain that would typically activate during stressful situations.
So since it is your reaching out to connect (as opposed to waiting for others to reach out to you) that is so beneficial, today I wanted to share with you a few different ways you can boost your connections to others, and in turn boost your own health.
Here we go:
8 Ways To Boost Your Health By Boosting Connection:
1. Connect with yourself:
Ok so this first one isn’t about connecting to others, it’s about feeling more in touch with yourself. That’s because the best connection you can ever foster — first and foremost — is your connection to yourself. Evaluating your own desires, fears, truths, boundaries, triumphs, needs daily allows you to walk through your days feeling centered and intentional, which is the basis for deep containment and alignment with your personal values and morals. It also helps you spark ideas about what new emerging interests you may have, that will help you find new friendships, classes and groups to join (more on that later in this article.)
To constantly be evaluating and re-evaluating who you are in each present moment takes courage. It means you might change course. It means your relationships might need to evolve. It means you might outgrow old things. It means you might find out new things about yourself and your desires for your future. It’s worth it.
Certainly you have changed from just a year ago. Certainly you have changed from just a month ago. Certainly you have changed from just a day ago. Certainly you have changed from just an hour ago. To find out who you are right now, and what might serve you best moving forward, you can cultivate some intentional practices that will help connect you to you, by:
- making gratitude lists
- writing in a daily journal
- writing your memoirs or autobiography
- writing letters to your younger self
- writing letters to your future self
- releasing clutter and old items in your living space that no longer bring you joy
- releasing clothing items that do not make you feel beautiful in the current moment
- starting a creativity journal (my favorite is It’s Never Too Late To Begin Again, by Julia
2. Connect through texting:
While medical studies show that social media can dramatically decrease mental health, direct texting is different, allowing you to stay in touch with people who are meaningful to you in real life, in real time.
Make a list of one, two, three, or twenty people you love and miss, and make a point to start each day off with a text to each, touching base with them. Their responses throughout your day will help you feel connected. Repeat daily.
3. Connect through writing letters:
Yep, snail mail is still a thing. Write a letter to someone you love and send it in the mail. You can even include a folded up self addressed envelop and a request that they write you back!
For a special gift to my son, when he graduated high school a few years ago, I asked family and friends to each write him a letter, then collected them all and put them into a special binder. He told me that opening it and reading the letters, page after page, was the best gift I had ever given him.
Hate to write? Of course calling over the phone is a classic way to reach out to someone, or you can FaceTime or use any other video or streaming app to stay connected to everyone you want to.
4. Connect by organizing a get together:
Because we know, from the studies mentioned above, that initiating social interactions is actually more beneficial than receiving them, this is the perfect excuse to invite others to come together. It doesn’t have to be fancy, you don’t need to clean your home or cook a stressful meal in order to gather a few friends together.
Host a book club, a potluck dinner, a group picnic at a local park, a beautiful night under the stars around a fire pit at a campsite, an after dinner walk with a group of neighbors, a cocktail party after dinnertime, a costume party on the weekend, a prayer circle that meets in a coffee shop, an art night or a craft night in your backyard, a sewing or knitting circle in your garage, a karaoke or music night gathered on your front porch, there is no limit to the ways you can bring people together.
5. Connect through playing games:
Something as simple as playing a game together can boost your connections to others easily. Card games, board games, golf, frisbee, tennis, video games, gaming apps, hide and seek, tic tac toe, water balloon toss, nerf gun battles… basically any game you think to play can bring people together in endless fun ways.
If you have in person loved ones, you can play cards or a board game together, but even if you live alone, you can connect to others through online platforms. From playing games together through app like Words With Friends or Chess) or even buying multiple copies of the same puzzle and shipping to a few of your friends or family members for a grand Puzzle Race — see who can finish it first! — there are plenty of fun ways to stay playful, even if virtually, connected with those that you love.
For more fun ideas on how to introduce more play into your life, and to take an easy quiz that will tell you your own favorite “play style”, hop over to this article I wrote for you here:
6. Connect through healing touch:
When you were a kid, did you ever walk around in your socks, rubbing them on a carpet repeatedly so you could sneak up to your sibling and shock them? (Or was that just me, LOL? My poor older brother.)
If you’ve ever shocked someone when touching them, you know this on a large scale — you could literally feel the large quantity of electrons passing between the two of you that caused the shock.
On a smaller scale, this is happening with every interaction, all day long.
Because no two bodies are 100% completely balanced and neutral in respect to each other, electrons are always flowing one way or another when you touch someone else, or they touch you.
Although the amount of electrons transferring is such a small amount relative to the amount of electrons in a human body, I believe this is in part why healing touch is so powerful. When you “donate” some of your electrons to someone who is in worse physical condition than you (such as someone in pain, with an inflammatory process going on) you are supporting them in many ways.
I think this is part of what massage therapists, physical therapists, acupuncturists and other healers are doing when they touch you. Even your pet can donate electrons to you when it snuggles up with you while you are sick or have a chronic condition bringing you down.
For more on the healing power of grounded touch (and ways to use it to help your loved one too!) read this article I wrote for you:
7. Connect to your pet:
Don’t forget to stay connected to your beloved pet! As I talked about in this article, pets actually prolong your life!
Snuggles, love, company — your life is absolutely enhanced by your fur baby and that special connection you share.
Spend extra time each day getting into a routine of connecting with them at least morning and night. From walking your dog to playing with your cat to letting your guinea pig or bird out of his or her cage for a little play time, enjoy spending time with someone who absolutely loves you unconditionally.
8. Connect through a class or group:
From online classes you can join into from the comfort of your own home, to in-person gatherings, one easy way to meet new people and make new social connections is to join a group or sign up for a class.
From a meditation or breath work class, to an exercise class, to a cooking class, to learning a new language at your local community college, to taking classes to learn a new musical instrument, to taking voice lessons, and so much more… there are lots of classes just waiting for you to sign up for.
Or, instead of signing up for a class, you might consider just joining an established group. There are lots of ways to find a new group to join in person, for example, Meetup ( meetup.com ) Meetup can search your local community by city or zip code to find you anything from a local improv group, a toastmasters group, a yoga or tai chi meet up, a group to go running or biking with, a coffee lovers meet up, a local foodies group, a hiking club, a book club, a wine club, a gardeners club, a beekeepers club… you name it, if you have even a passing interest in an activity, there’s a club for that!
Stay open to others.
Yes, even if the person next to you at your thanksgiving table is getting on your last nerve because they chew with their mouth open, or uncomfortable political debates arise, or you just feel yourself regressing around your family and falling back into roles you have long since outgrown… stay open.
These people love you. The people in your life can help boost your health just by being in your life, period.
Just say a gratitude toast, clink glasses, and soak it in while you can. Here are a few to pull out of your back pocket when you feel holiday tensions creeping in around the table:
After a good dinner, one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relations. — Oscar Wilde
“Feeling gratitude and not expressing it is like wrapping a present and not giving it.” – William Arthur Ward
“I do not think of all the misery, but of the glory that remains. Go outside into the fields, nature and the sun, go out and seek happiness in yourself and in God. Think of the beauty that again and again discharges itself within and without you and be happy.” – Anne Frank
Happy Thanksgiving, and thank you for being a part of my world as well…
With much love and gratitude!
Xoxo, Laura Koniver MD