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Socializing boosts health, happiness

By Max Schneider

Aug. 24, 2008 9:10 p.m.

As students’ summer classes and work schedules fill their days to the brim, many may feel that the time crunch requires them to neglect their social life.

But not spending enough time with family and friends can compromise human health, UCLA researchers have found.

“(Social contact with others) has effects on the body that are more powerful than cigarette smoking and your cholesterol level,” said Shelley Taylor, a distinguished professor of psychology. “The magnitude is very strong.”

These responses are uncovered by studying cortisol, a hormone that restores the body from the mobilized and tense feelings of stress back down to a normal state, Taylor said.

Understanding when and how often cortisol, which increases blood pressure and destabilizes the immune system, is released can provide information on stress levels and their harm to health.

“By the time you get to your late 20s and early 30s, you’re going to have some damage if there’s been enormous wear and tear on these systems,” Taylor said. “What social support does is it keeps those responses low so the cumulative damage is less.”

Other scientists have charted the effects of positive and negative social contact.

“People that report small social networks are much more likely to die compared to people that have broader, more diverse social networks,” said Ted Robles, an assistant professor of psychology, whose research focuses on the immunological effects of negative relationships.

When couples discuss problems in their relationship in a hostile way, their immune system is weakened so much that wounds on their skin can heal slower than those in couples with more positive relations, Robles said.

Brain chemistry also has a role in how socializing proves healthful.

The nucleus accumbens, a major reward circuit in the brain, is stimulated when one hears positive feedback from their friends, said Naomi Eisenberger, an assistant professor of psychology at UCLA.

“(This is) the same region that’s activated when a rat ingests cocaine or another addictive drug, the same region activated when you receive a lot of money,” Eisenberger said. “Rewarding events (with friends seem to) activate pretty primitive reward regions in the brain.”

Researchers said that these health effects might be linked to an evolutionary need to socialize in order to survive.

“Human beings’ subsistence over hundreds of thousands of years has been organized socially,” said Alan Fiske, a professor of anthropology at UCLA. “None of us could live very long by ourselves.”

But perhaps the easiest way to view the health effects of social contact is to look at those with limited social engagement or failed relationships, the researchers said.

“Social isolation is extremely toxic for mental and physical health,” Taylor said.

A similar, but more frequently experienced pain, is that of a broken connection, Fiske noted.

“Some of the most painful things are relationships that don’t work, or when you feel you’ve done something awful to someone,” he said. “People commit suicide because they’ve let down a group. Guilt (and) shame are (some of) the worst feelings.”

While some might struggle to equate being socially cut off to the flu or worse, a growing number of researchers are uncovering that the two are not as unlike as originally thought.

“It is ironic because other people carry the germs that make us sick,” Taylor said. “But it’s the socially isolated that often have the most difficulty health-wise.”

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Max Schneider
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