How our social lives impact our health.

Some of Zaraska’s most striking findings in her book focus on relationships and longevity. For example, one meta-analysis found that people with healthy and supportive relationships live noticeably longer and that these effects are surprisingly strong. 

Over the course of several studies averaging seven years long, research participants with larger social networks were about 45 percent less likely to die. While some of this may seem surprising, it’s backed up by research: “There is absolutely nothing New Agey here,” Zaraska says. As she explains in her book, our mental state directly impacts biological processes in our body. When we experience stress, our bodies undergo a series of changes—output of cortisol (sometimes known as the “stress hormone”) increases, and our cardiovascular system activates its “fight or flight” response.

 Under stress, changes even occur to the immune system: Inflammation (which helps us fight off bacteria) increases, while our ability to fight off viruses decreases. Zaraska explains that there’s an evolutionary reason for these stress responses: They’re advantageous for dealing with the kind of acute threats that humans faced in our evolutionary past (such as running from a predator). But they’re not so well-suited to our current stressors, which tend to be less intense but chronic (such as worries about an ongoing work project). One of the main stressors modern humans face—with corresponding effects on our biological systems—is loneliness. 

Loneliness has been found to dramatically increase cortisol and inflammation—both of which hurt our health. In one study Zaraska cites, research participants were voluntarily infected with a cold virus and then had their symptoms monitored by researchers. The result? Those who were socially quarantined were 45 percent more likely to become ill. 

While stress and loneliness can cause negative changes to our biological systems, taking time to connect with others actually helps activate more beneficial processes—such as the release of oxytocin. Oxytocin has been found to lower cortisol, reduce pain, change the way our brain responds to potential stressors, and even promote the growth of new brain cells. Zaraska explains, that hugs increase oxytocin levels, and so does eye contact (in fact, according to one study, making eye contact with your neighbor or even your cat or dog can increase oxytocin).

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  1. I have heard them blaming evolution before for the stress response.

    I wonder why, if evolution is ongoing, we haven’t changed that one (i.e. grown away from that response) yet.

    Also, if stress is bad, I assume it would have been bad for the caveman too, if not, why not.

    Sure, the stressful flight or fight response might have saved his skin from the odd saber-tooth tiger, but even he would have still died a lot earlier, because he suffered this stress in his life too.

    Stress is stress now, the same as it was then, it seems.

    So, if it hurts us now, it’s only logical to me that it must have hurt the caveman too.

    Or, have the chemicals released from the stress response actually changed over time, or we are not so good at handling stress, in our non-physically fit bodies now.

    Maybe, if we all worked out more physically, this debilitating stress response would not worry us all so much.

    • I’m so very glad to hear that. Most of us are incurably selfish, going through life trying to get more money, more power, more popularity, and just more things. But I believe your view of life, that of introspection is the one we ought to be living. Thanks for commenting, Sandra.


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