Medically-related, Science and Society

Go forth! Make friends!

Or, why having a social network is very good for you.  Really.


Yes, fine, I’m biased.  I admit it.  I see no harm in the burgeoning everywhereness of social media and stuff.  And I think having friends is awesomely important. As far as I’m concerned, the more friends we have, and the more people to whom we’re connected, the less isolated we feel.  Which is good.  It’s more difficult to condone a war against people you know.  It’s more difficult to do terrible things to yourself or those around you if you’re feeling connected. It’s far easier to feel happy, and to spread it, if you know you’re far from alone.

And yes, I realise that there are some very interesting theories out there about the effect that social media is having on making our relationships more numerous, and more shallow.  It’s not a debate into which I’m going to enter right now, to be honest.  That’s a discussion for another time.

No, the purpose of this post is to talk about social connections (family, friends, partners etc) more generally, and the immense benefits they have for all of us.

In a paper (a meta-analysis, to be precise, of existing literature) published just this morning, researchers have found a very, very strong correlation between having a social network, and an increased odds of survival.  You know, generally.  Or, to put it another way, having low/inadequate/insufficient social interaction/integration ups your chance of dying.  Quite a lot.

So, to the details, then!

To dispense with some obvious assumptions: it doesn’t matter how old you are, whether you’re a boy or a girl, how healthy you are to begin with, or what killed you.  Bear that in mind.*

Depending on how one cuts the data, the review found that social interaction improved a person’s odds of surviving, in general, by 50% at least!  Again, to cut it the other way, it would appear that not being socially integrated is more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day, being obese, being an alcoholic, or never exercising.  Hmmmmm.

While at least some of this effect could be linked to people who’re connected living healthier lives (physically and emotionally), it’s clear that that’s not all there is to it - there appears to be a suite of biological processes, as yet not understood by us, which come into play too.

So, how do we make use of this information?  Well, preliminary investigations have shown that formal social interventions have some effect.  But the review also points to the fact that it’s integration, not received support, that’s more predictive of mortality.  Which means that, ideally, one wants to facilitate people’s existing connections and help them to improve and deepen them that would be of most use, rather than simply hiring strangers for the job.

It all comes back down to community, whether it’s geographical or not.  Those who have people with whom they feel some connection are likely to be happier, healthier, and also, frankly, better supported and looked after should they fall ill.  So go out.  Make friends and connections.  Enjoy the life you have.

And never, never let anyone feel alone.


*OK, there are a couple of limitations.  To my mind, the most interesting of these were that all social relationships were taken to be positive.  This is, of course, somewhat unrealistic.  Indeed, research suggests that negative social relationships can be linked to a higher risk of mortality (duh).  Marital status was used as the example here - while it’s often used a measure of social integration, it’s becoming increasingly clear that that’s very dependent on the quality of the marriage.  And, of course, since it’s a review of over 140 studies, it’s difficult to get exact parity of metrics over everything. Aaaand, of course, most of the data comes from the West.


Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Timothy B. Smith, J. Bradley Layton (2010). Social Relationships and Mortality Risk: A Meta-analytic Review PLoS Medicine : doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000316 (link to abstract)

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  • Alison Campbell

    Yes, but… (& what follows may reflect my advancing age & the fact that I don’t go on Facebook!)
    Surely there are social networks & social networks? I keep getting invitations from students to be their ‘friend’ on Facebook. I don’t take them up; I’m not their friend in the social sense when we’re face to face so why would I do it on-line? & I do wonder if there’s a certain amount of measuring one’s ‘worth’ by the number of FB ‘friends’ one accumulates… (& yes, of course I’m friendly in my dealing with students - unless they’ve done something that merits a talking-to! - but that’s not the same as being friends with them.) I do see that FB is a good, additional, way of keeping in contact with existing friends, & in that sense it’s an extension/enhancement of an existing social network. But when people talk of having hundreds of FB ‘friends’ - that just doesn’t sound like the same thing to me…

  • Aimee Whitcroft

    Of course there are different types of social networks :) And yes, some people do accumulate FB friends/twitter followers like notches on the proverbial. But it’s a very complicated topic (and hence the reason for my not getting into it in this post).

    If you read the paper, they do go into more detail about the types of integration being measured :)

    I have seen some interesting research recently, however, that showed that having lots of connections/’friends’, even if they aren’t close, is still extremely valuable.

  • guyw

    Interesting, Aimée. Does the research cover the relative qualities of online and “offline” networks of friends? My feeling is that a purely online existence (at the one extreme) could even be counter-healthy, and that one really needs positive face to face interaction for the benefits to be really felt.

    I think it’s also imporant to have different networks for different reasons - so I use one application for professional networking, and another for social. Is this sort of thing covered?

  • Aimee Whitcroft

    As I mentioned at the beginning of the post, getting into the debate about online vs FtF friends isn’t something I’m going to get into here (it’s incredibly complicated, and not as intuitive as many think).

    So nope, the paper didn’t go into online/offline, but did look at various dimensions of social integration. No, they also didn’t look at personal vs professional, for example - remember, it was a review of over 140 other studies, so there was a large range in granularity, but primarily looking at the more personal aspects, I believe. The paper is available for reading…

  • allyn

    i have a variety of social networks, both online and FtF, and there is a fair amount of overlap between them. in fact, if it weren’t for a significant portion of my US social network being on facebook, i probably wouldn’t be active there.
    but they are, therefore i am.
    and the value that i place on having those people as an active part of my life is a significant part of the reason that i plan on moving back to the US in 2011

  • stuartyeates

    The URL in the references seems broken….

  • Aimee Whitcroft

    Hey Stuart

    Thanks for the heads-up on that one - looking into it now (also: the PLoS site’s down at the moment, which is helping massively).

  • Aimee Whitcroft

    A point of clarification - when talking about social networks, the authors were referring to friends, family and partners :)