There is substantial and compelling evidence indicating that the quality of your social relationships influences health, cognitive function, sleep, happiness, stress, and anxiety and depression – which ultimately impacts resilience and performance. Several studies have found that people who have good quality relationships live longer, with one study even showing that strong relationships decrease risk for mortality by up to 50%.

Positive social interactions stimulate the release of the hormone oxytocin which produces feelings of joy and happiness, and has a calming effect – reducing feelings of stress and anxiety. Neuroscience experiments show that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. A Google study similarly found that managers who express interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal wellbeing outperform others in the quality and quantity of their work.

Whereas loneliness has been found to be a risk factor for depression, cognitive decline and impaired cognitive performance, elevated blood pressure, stress and anxiety, impaired sleep, and morbidity and mortality. There is evidence indicating that loneliness is becoming increasingly common in Australia with a recent Lifeline survey revealing that 60% of respondents ‘often feel social connectedness performance resiliencelonely’. Feeling lonely is not the same as being alone, you can be lonely in a marriage and in a large social network. Loneliness is rooted in the quality of a person’s relationships. It’s a lack of intimate, meaningful interaction where people are really connecting with each other.

A 2016 national survey from R U OK? revealed that Australians spend an average of 46 hours of their weekly downtime looking at their TVs and digital devices, compared to an average of six hours engaging with family and friends. The suicide prevention charity has also revealed that around half of Australians spend two hours or less of their weekly downtime connecting with the people who matter to them. Loneliness, by this picture, is a married couple who arrive home at 7pm and spend the evening in front of the TV whilst on their respective phones sending emails back to the office and only half-listening to each other’s accounts of the day.

Nurturing your relationships at work and in your personal life is just as important as getting good quality sleep, and exercising regularly in terms of your health, happiness, resilience and performance.

How does it work?

  1. Social stress increases cortisol (chronic stress) and inflammation. There is a large body of research demonstrating that social stressors are associated with elevated levels of inflammatory markers – including CRP (C-Reactive Protein). With one study revealing that socially isolated individuals are approximately 2.0–2.5 times more likely to have clinically high levels of CRP than socially integrated individuals. Social isolation has also been related to the up-regulated expression of proinflammatory immune response genes and a reciprocal down-regulation of genes involved in antibody production. Inflammation is exasperated by chronic stress, resulting in cell and tissue damage within the body and the brain. Inflammation has been associated with depression, dementia, Alzheimer’s and numerous other chronic diseases.
  2. Oxytocin, often referred to as the “love hormone”, is a hormone and brain neurotransmitter connected to human emotions, social bonding, trust, empathy and generosity. Positive social interactions and physical contact stimulates the release of oxytocin, producing feelings of joy and happiness, and relaxation – reducing feelings of stress and anxiety. Recent studies have shown that the Vagus nerve also responds to social connectivity and physical touch by relaxing the parasympathetic nervous system – increasing oxytocin and reducing cortisol (stress hormone). In a risky investment game, experimental subjects given nasally administered oxytocin displayed “the highest level of trust” twice as often as the control group. Subsequent research has shown that oxytocin influences trust by increasing our emotional connection to others; that is, our empathy. When our empathy is enhanced we are motivated to help others, even complete strangers.

Tips to improve your relationships

  • Replace screen time with people time. Be aware of how many hours you spend in front of the TV, computer, or mobile device each day. Turn the TV off earlier in the evenings or have TV free days. Avoid having conversations whilst busy on your screen – Put your device down or turn away from your screen, and make eye contact with the person you are talking to.
  • Spend real face-to-face time with loved ones whenever you can, but phone calls and social networks can stimulate oxytocin if they foster a feeling of genuine connectivity. Spend more time catching up with friends, chatting on the phone with family, or visiting elderly relatives. Plan date nights and experiencing new things with your partner.
  • Reduce the number of emails you send – instead pick up the phone and talk to someone or drop in at their desk – increased face-to-face interaction builds relationships. Plan social events with your work colleagues and team.

The next time you’re scrolling through Facebook instead of being present at the table with your significant other, or you’re considering staying late at the office instead of getting together with your close friend, or you catch yourself working on a Saturday instead of spending time with your loved ones, consider making a different choice.

Want to know more?

Watch this fascinating 13 min TED Talk “What Makes a Good Life? Lessons from the Longest Study on Happiness” by Psychologist Robert Waldinger – Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest and most complete studies of adult life ever conducted.

“Society places a lot of emphasis on wealth and leaning in to our work, but over and over, over these 75 years, our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned in to relationships, with family, with friends, with community.” – Robert Waldinger


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