Why Health Benefits of Good Relationships Rival Exercise and Nutrition


“…although people often talk
up relationships, their behaviour tells a different story.”

This series of posts starts –
at the start – with the simple question of why we even need strong
relationships. This might seem like asking why do we need food, water or
oxygen. But, although people often talk up relationships, their behaviour tells
a different story.
Likening relationships to
basic physiological needs, some might argue, is a step too far. After all if I
was stranded on a desert island I’d survive longer with just fresh drinking
than with only a friend to talk to. But that isn’t a fair comparison. For many
of us in modern Western societies, our basic physiological needs are fulfilled
and it is on higher goals that our mental and physical health depends. When
arguing relationships are as important to health as exercise and nutrition, it
is really a reflection on the relative comfort we enjoy.
Physical wear and tear

So what does the research tell
us? Carol Ryff has been carrying out research into the connection between
relationships and health for some time. In one study which followed 10,317
people from birth over 36 years, data on social relationships was collected
along with biological markers important for indicating wear and tear on the
body. Measures included systolic blood pressure, urinary cortisol levels and epinephrine
levels. The data support the idea that negative relational experiences are
associated with greater wear and tear on the body (Hauser et al., 1993).
Like any good scientist you’ll
be saying: well there may be an association but does that mean that poor
relationships actually cause poor health? As it’s not ethical to deliberately
subject humans to desert island conditions – unless it’s for TV of course – we
just don’t know.
“…Levels of oxytocin have been
causally linked to lowering blood pressure and heart rate.”

That said, there’s evidence
from measuring oxytocin in animal studies. Levels of oxytocin have been
causally linked to lowering blood pressure and heart rate (Ryff et al., 2001).
Indeed in a recent study a relationship was found between poor social
relationships and oxytocin levels (Taylor et al., 2006).
If living a longer and happier
life relies on our relationships, how exactly do we start these relationships?
In the next few posts I’ll move on to look at what research is telling us about
finding both friends and partners.
About the author

Psychologist, Jeremy Dean, PhD
is the founder and author of PsyBlog. He holds a doctorate in psychology from
University College London and two other advanced degrees in psychology.
He has been writing about
scientific research on PsyBlog since 2004. He is also the author of the book
“Making Habits, Breaking Habits” (Da Capo, 2003) and several ebooks.

Kayode Ojo
Kayode Emmanuel Ojo is the Co-Founder and Managing Director at SHEFFA Limited. He is presently studying Computer Science at the National Open University, Victoria Island, Lagos.