No need to be a social butterfly to benefit from human connection.
Maybe your idea of fun is gathering 27 of your closest friends for a rambunctious dinner party complete with high-energy card games and music thumping in the background. Or perhaps you’d rather sit at home, in the peace and quiet of your lonesome, with a bowl of air-popped popcorn, a Jane Austen novel, and a cat at your feet.
Regardless of which scenario sounds ideal to you, science knows the truth that may unite introverts and extroverts once and for all: Everyone benefits from human connection. Although everyone may require different amounts of interaction, researchers have found a number of ways that socializing benefits physical and emotional health.
1. Socializing may improve your brain health.
One of the most studied aspects of social relationships is how it affects cognitive health in older adults. Cognitive decline is a somewhat normal part of aging in which memory, language, and thinking become less sharp. However, certain factors—like social relationships—can make the decline better or worse.
A 2017 study by researchers in Dublin, Ireland, assessed how access to social activities affected adults over the age of 50. Those who belonged to social communities, participated in social activities, and had support systems were found to have healthier cognitive function. In particular, they had better emotional regulation, processing speed, working memory, and verbal fluency.
Another perk of better brain health? A reduced risk of dementia. Since social interaction and community seems to reduce cognitive decline, researchers are curious how it affects dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. One 2015 study from International Psychogeriatrics journal followed 1,715 adults over the age of 65 for 16 years, and those who had more visits with friends had a lower incidence of dementia.
2. Social relationships may boost mental health.
Even if you think you prefer your own company most of the time, chances are, too much time alone will start to backfire eventually. After all, social isolation has long been used as a form of torture for prisoners of war. A weekend alone may feel nice at first, but may soon transition into unnerving loneliness.
Human connection helps provide a sense of belonging and that you’re supported and cared about, which is something that helps both extroverts and introverts thrive. When people feel supported, they tend to have better self-esteem and a greater sense of purpose, which may reduce the risk for depression and anxiety disorders.
What’s more, your friendships and club meetings are likely to get you smiling and laughing. Research shows that laughter itself has proven health benefits as well, such as reducing stress and improving sleep quality.
Of course, this may go without saying, but this perk is only true for healthy social relationships. “Toxic” friendships or marriages may have the opposite effect: lowering self-esteem and increasing mental health disorders.
3. Positive social bonds may lead to a stronger immune system.
A boost to your immune system could stem from a number of factors. First of all, as #2 demonstrates, a healthy social life can help reduce stress. Chronic stress compromises hormone regulation in the body, and your hormones control a number of bodily processes.
In other words, chronic stress hurts your body in several ways, and one of those consequences is a weakened immune system.
But that’s not all: The stress from having no or negative social relationships has been shown to contribute to poor health habits, such as alcohol abuse or a sedentary lifestyle. These habits may also weaken the immune system.
On the other hand, positive social bonds may *encourage* positive health habits (although not always, of course). Your social support system might provide you with running buddies, motivation to get out of bed and hike on a Saturday morning, and maintain basic hygiene. (Psst … Find out here if a doctor would approve of your hygiene habits.)
Even if you’re an introvert, having a sense of community has major perks. You don’t have to give up your “me time” to still get the benefits of socializing. Just find activities and groups for you, like structured book clubs, watching movies with friends, running groups, or art classes. And yes, you can still give yourself plenty of time to “recharge.”
Kelly ME, Duff H, Kelly S, McHugh Power JE, Brennan S, Lawlor BA, Loughrey DG. The impact of social activities, social networks, social support and social relationships on the cognitive functioning of healthy older adults: a systematic review. Syst Rev. 2017 Dec 19;6(1):259.
Mora-Ripoll R. The therapeutic value of laughter in medicine. Altern Ther Health Med. 2010 Nov-Dec;16(6):56-64.
Sorman DE, Ronnlund M, Sundstrom A, Adolfsson R, Nilsson LG. Social relationships and risk of dementia: a population-based study. Int Psychogeriatr. 2015 Aug;27(8):1391-9.
Umberson D, Montez JK. Social relationships and health: a flashpoint for health policy. J Health Soc Behav. 2010;51(Suppl):S54-S66.
Webber M, Fendt-Newlin M. A review of social participation interventions for people with mental health problems. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2017;52(4):369-80.