When Child Protective Services (CPS) placed 6-year-old Antonio with his grandfather Miguel (“Mike”), I couldn’t believe it. I don’t want to say my neighbor Mike was antisocial, but the only time anyone saw him was on his four-times-a-day walks to the corner store for beer.
Mike rarely talked with anyone, and he had been slowing down for years. He wore the same old jeans and jacket every day. I really thought he was on his way out. But CPS must have seen something we couldn’t see, because he accepted his grandson and seemed to care for him pretty well.
Mike started sitting out on the steps to watch Antonio play, and then he started walking around the block with him and taking him to the park. Of course, he had to stop to talk with people who wanted to fuss over his cute kid. Gradually, he came out of his shell. He cut the beer down to one bottle a day. He started to look better, livelier, less depressed.
That’s what having other people in your life can do. And they don’t even have to be cute. Any positive social interaction is good for your health.
Research on Social Connection
Loneliness kills. James J. Lynch, PhD,, author of The Broken Heart: The Medical Consequences of Loneliness, has found that “suicide, cancer, tuberculosis, accidents, mental disorders, and especially heart disease — all are significantly influenced by human companionship.” Probably, diabetes is too.
I’ve been researching the health effects of social connection for my book on reasons to live. I found interesting studies like this one, showing that male surgical patients with more social contacts have less pain and faster recovery from surgery. Another found that lonely college students had potentially harmful blood pressure rises in response to stress, compared to students who were not lonely.
A study of nearly 7,000 people in Alameda County, California, found that men who had few social contacts had a death rate 2.3 times higher than those with many connections. Isolated women were 2.8 times more likely to die. The findings were independent of smoking, alcoholic beverage consumption, obesity, and physical activity.
Actually, there are dozens of such studies, and I got tired of looking. I also found that not all connection is good. Just as people can help you be well, other people can make you sick. The questions are: how can connection with other people help your health, and how can you get more of the good kind of connection and less of the harmful kind?
Sheldon Cohen, PhD, who has been researching social support for decades, says that people who build up your self-esteem and make you feel loved are good for you. So are people you feel you can count on in time of need. Just hanging around people casually is less valuable. Having people who tear you down or wear you out is not good for you at all.
According to researchers Gina Sylvestre, PhD, and Leslie Gaudry, MRP, of University of Winnipeg, people can help by getting you more involved in activities and in the community. “The chances of aging successfully can be improved by physical and mental activity and community involvement,” they say.
There are also dozens of practical ways people can help. Sociologists at UCLA developed a lovely (partial) list of possible ways people can help each other. You can see it here. It includes everything from feeding your pet to complimenting you on a skill to loaning you money, along with nearly 40 more.
It Works Both Ways
Even more important than what other people can do for you, is what you can do for them. I doubt that young Antonio was giving Mike much practical support. But having the little guy depending on him pushed Mike to take care of himself. Having someone to care for, someone to be there for is one of the best reasons to live.
Of course, it helps if others appreciate what we do for them. If you’re working hard to help someone, and they don’t appreciate you or give back in any way, it might be good to care for someone else instead.
Do you have enough people in your life? Do you have opportunities to receive help and to help others? Having an illness such as diabetes can cut into your social contacts by taking up time and energy. Has that happened to you?
If you are feeling isolated, you might want to make it a priority to change that. You may need to get out more. Family, neighborhood activities, religious groups, and volunteering are good ways to start. Perhaps there are people in your life who you have drifted away from. Consider giving them a call and/or getting together. Having children in your life can make you younger, as it did for Mike. By the way, he’s still going strong now, and Antonio is getting ready for college!