When people talk about having a ‘broken heart’ they are being figurative. Few people are actually suggesting that they suffer from cardiomyopathy, or have any type of profound physiological disturbance. However, around the world there a number of languages that characterise social estrangement with words that are typically reserved for the description of physical pain. More and more research, especially neurological research is suggesting that physical and social pain really aren’t all that different.
This overlap makes evolutionary sense. Originally advanced to explain why opioids are effective for the reduction of both physical pain and distress caused by separation, a now generally accepted idea, suggests that the specific pain mechanisms involved in detecting (and preventing) physical danger have been co-opted by the social attachment system, largely for the prevention of social separation. This is likely due – at least in part – to the critical need for paternal care in infants.
In a more general sense, the importance of being socially connected with others is undeniable. In recent times there has been a flurry of research pointing to the immutable and irrepressible fact that the benefits of physical intimacy are considerable for both psychological and physical health. Research has shown that physical intimacy is associated with: reduced levels of stress, depression, and pain; increased pelvic function; improved gait; a slimmer more healthy waist; better cardiovascular health; can lead to reduced blood pressure, and the list goes on.
As beneficial and fun as physical intimacy can be, you need not be in an enduring romantic relationship to reap the benefits of connectedness. As a key element of social connectedness, friendship by itself has been implicated in the improvement of a number of important life outcome measures.
Research has found that for children, friendship is important for developing linguistic skills, moderating their aggressiveness, and for their social and emotional development and sense of well-being. Furthermore, social exclusion in children has been associated with weight issues and future poverty. One study looked at a sample of visually-impaired elders and found those who maintain supportive friendships later on life have: fewer depressive symptoms, higher life satisfaction, and are better able to adapt to the loss of vision.
Additionally, studies have found that even online connectedness can lead to improved outcome measures. Researchers at Michigan State University administered a survey, in 2006 and again a year later, to a sample of undergraduate students asking about their online, and Facebook use. They found that the intensity of Facebook use (as reported on the initial survey) was a strong predictor of bridging social capital outcomes one year later. This relationship remained even after the researchers had controlled for variables like self-esteem and life satisfaction.
These results are similar to another study which found strong associations between Facebook use and both psychological well-being and measures of social capital – the strongest being with that to bridging social capital. Although studies such as these demonstrate that social interaction doesn’t have to occur in physical proximity, feelings of social connectedness to peers are important determinants of improved quality of life.
The benefits of social connectedness are irrefutable. We feel better, we smile more and even our hearts have a spring in their step. But are the benefits of social connectedness robust enough to withstand even the darkest of times, particularly after catastrophic injury or disease? Research has largely focused on the psychological and emotional benefits of social connectedness after an illness. However, the presence of supportive relationships with family and friends, and a feeling of belonging to your community may be just as important to your recovery as eating your veggies or getting enough sleep.
Recent studies have uncovered the importance of social connectedness in recovery after stroke, depression, and heart attack. A feeling of belonging to your community, perceived social support and rich interpersonal relationships not only significantly improve recovery after physical disease but also act as protective factors against future relapse and illness. And it doesn’t stop there.
In a recent study, two authors looked at long-term recovery after a brain haemorrhage. The study retrospectively assessed patients who had presented for the surgical management of a chronic subdural haematoma (CSDH), a substantial collection of blood located between the protective layers of skin surrounding the brain. This form of haemorrhage is the most common neurological condition among the elderly and can result in a significant reduction in overall health and possible death.
Despite the severity of the condition, little is known about the long-term recovery of these patients. The study assessed the cognitive, functional and psychological outcomes of these patients over a two year period. While there was an obvious reduction in health after injury compared to healthy controls, an unexpected finding emerged: social well-being and social connectedness appeared to be a significant contributing factor in the successful recovery of patients. Interestingly, those patients who displayed a good long-term recovery displayed higher levels of social connectedness at the initial assessment. Whereas those with lower levels of social connectedness at the initial assessment experienced a poorer recovery marked by a reduction in overall health, cognition, independence and increased mortality.
The bottom line here is that the importance of social connectedness is still heavily undervalued and underappreciated. Should we include social connectedness in current health intervention programmes? It certainly has a lot of protective functions. While eating broccoli is great, eating it with a group of friends maybe even better.
Image credit: Freepik
Claire Moffatt current research centres on understanding the long-term outcome of chronic subdural haematoma (CSDH) patients and factors that promote good recovery after injury.
Ryan Anderson is a PhD candidate at James Cook University. His research interests include mathematics and statistics, evolutionary psychology, cognitive psychology, and social psychology.