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New research by psychologists uncovers the health risks of loneliness and the benefits of strong social connections. It took a trip to the hospital for Cathryn Jakobson Ramin, 56, to confront a nagging concern she'd had for years: She had no friends. Ramin does have many friends — those she first met in childhood and in the four cities she's lived in as an adult — but they don't live nearby anymore.
She also has a strong marriage, two grown sons and a successful career. But she has few local friends she can call on in a time of need — or for simple companionship. Psychologists agree. While research on relationships has skirted adult friendships — tending to focus on adolescent friendships and adult romances — the importance of strong social connections throughout life is gaining scientific clout, having been linked with such benefits as a greater pain tolerance, a stronger immune system, and a lower risk of depression and early death.
Yet forging platonic relationships isn't always easy. Ramin's situation appears to be increasingly common: According to a meta-analysis with more thanparticipants, people's personal and friendship networks have shrunk over the last 35 years Psychological Bulletin Combine that trend with the United States's rising age of first marriage, a divorce rate nearing 50 percent and a life expectancy that's at an all-time high, and you get "a demographic shift such that there are now [more] people who don't have a marital partner to supply the intimacy they need," says Beverley Fehr, PhD, a social psychologist at the University of Winnipeg and author of the book "Friendship Processes.
A lack of friends isn't simply an inconvenience when you want a movie partner or a ride to the hospital. A sparse social circle is a ificant health risk, research suggests. In one meta-analysis of studies comprising more thanpeople, for example, Brigham Young University psychologists found that participants with stronger social relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over the studies' given periods than those with weaker connections — a risk comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and one double that of obesity.
And the risks of poor relationships are likely greater, the researchers say, since the studies didn't look at the quality of participants' social connections PLOS Medicine There's some evidence that more really is merrier. In one recent study tracking 6, British men and women ages 52 and Friends wanted must read, psychologist Andrew Steptoe, PhD, of the University College London and colleagues found that both feeling lonely and being socially isolated raised the risk of death.
However, only social isolation — measured in terms of frequency of contact with family and friends, and participation in organizations outside of work — appeared to be related to increased mortality when the researchers adjusted for demographic factors and baseline health PNAS But contrary to Steptoe's findings, most research indicates that feeling isolated is more dangerous than being isolated, says psychologist John Cacioppo, PhD, co-author of the book "Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. The finding was unrelated to marital status and of relatives and friends nearby, as well as to health behaviors such as smoking and exercise Social Science and Medicine In his ongoing Chicago Health Aging and Social Relations Studyfunded by the National Friends wanted must read on Aging, Cacioppo and colleagues have also linked loneliness with depressive symptoms and an increase in blood pressure over time.
Other research indicates positive social connections might accelerate disease recovery. In a study of breast cancer survivors, psychologist Lisa Jaremka, PhD, and colleagues at the Ohio State University found that lonelier women experienced more pain, depression and fatigue than those who had stronger connections to friends and family. The more disconnected women also had elevated levels of a particular antibody associated with the herpes virus — a of a weakened immune system Psychoneuroendocrinology Particular genes may play a role in explaining why our bodies are so attuned to our social lives, says psychologist Steve Cole, PhD, at the University of California, Los Angeles.
In one study, he and colleagues including Cacioppo analyzed the gene expression profiles of chronically lonely people and found that genes expressed within two subtypes of white blood cells are uniquely responsive to feelings of loneliness. The cells — plasmacytoid dendritic cells and monocytes — are associated with diseases such as atherosclerosis and cancer, as well as "first line of defense" immune responses PNAS Cole says the most "biologically toxic" aspect of loneliness is that it can make you feel chronically threatened, an emotion that can wear on the immune system. As researchers work to better understand the link between friendships and health, they're also helping to answer a question Friends wanted must read to anyone who's ever moved to a new city, lost a spouse or otherwise found themselves feeling alone: How do you make friends as an adult?
Here's what the research suggests might work:. Rachel Bertsche, a writer in Chicago, witnessed this phenomenon outside of the lab when she ed a weekly comedy class a few years ago. At first, she thought her classmates were strange. But she gradually changed her mind — and soon wound up ing the group for drinks after class. Fehr agrees. She says sticking to a simple routine — whether it's going to the same coffee shop at the same time every day, ing a class like Bertsche or even just going to the office mailroom when it's most crowded — can help turn strangers into friends.
So far, she's seeing men's friendships getting stronger. In a review of interventions to reduce loneliness, he and colleagues found that those that encouraged participants to challenge their own negative thought processes — for example, by sharing a positive part of their day with someone else — were more effective than interventions seeking to improve social skills, enhance social support or increase opportunities for social contact.
Personality and Social Psychology Review Research suggests Scherer's positive experience with social media is most common among people who are already well connected. A review of four studies by psychologist Kennon Sheldon, PhD, of the University of Missouri, and colleagues, for example, found that more time on Facebook was linked to both high and low levels of connectedness.
Psychologists posit this may be the case because Facebook supports relationships among those who are already highly socially connected, but might make those who are isolated feel even more so Journal of Personality and Social Psychology After all, being highly connected has its downsides, too, says University of Sheffield psychologist Peter Totterdell, PhD, who studies social networks in organizations. He's found that people with large work-based networks tend to be more anxious than those with fewer connections.
And trying to change who you are can backfire, since people's likelihood to forge connections seems to be relatively constant throughout life, Totterdell says. The bottom line? Whether you're content with two close friends or prefer to surround yourself with 20 loose acquaintances, what matters is that you feel a part of something greater than yourself, Carstensen says.
up now ». Cover Story Friends wanted New research by psychologists uncovers the health risks of loneliness and the benefits of strong social connections. Cite this. Miller, A. Friends wanted.
Monitor on Psychology45 1. Friends in adulthood As researchers work to better understand the link between friendships and health, they're also helping to answer a question familiar to anyone who's ever moved to a new city, lost a spouse or otherwise found themselves feeling alone: How do you make friends as an adult?
Here's what the research suggests might work: Be a familiar face. The idea that familiarity breeds attraction is long-established by research, and was again supported in a study led by psychologist Harry Reis, PhD, at the University of Rochester. In the first experiment, same-sex strangers rated how much they liked one another after having several structured conversations. In the other, strangers chatted freely online.
In both cases, the amount participants liked their partners increased with each exchange Journal of Personality and Social Psychology Divulge a secret. There are ways to make fast friends, too, psychologists say. Research by Stony Brook University professor Arthur Aron, PhD, showed that gradually increasing the depth of questions and answers between strangers can spawn friendships in just 45 minutes Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin Fehr and her team are building on this model by directing a couple of college buddies first to ask each other neutral questions, such as, "When did you last go to the zoo?
Realize it's in your head. Loneliness is a subjective experience that can often be a self-fulfilling prophecy, says Cacioppo. While the response is an innate one meant to protect us from threats, over time, it harms physical and mental health and well-being, and makes us more likely to see everything in a negative light.
It can also make us seem cold, unfriendly and socially awkward. But recognizing what's in your head can help you get out of it, Cacioppo says. Log on, with caution. Liz Scherer, a copywriter in Silver Spring, Md. Through Twitter, she connected online with others in her business and met many of them in person at social media conferences. If the pressure to forge new relationships is more external than internal, put away the "friend wanted" ad and focus on what and who does make you happy, says Carstensen.
Further reading Social network changes and life events across the life span: A meta-analysis. Psychological BulletinVol. PLoS Med 7 7July 27, Cacioppo and William Patrick. Doubleday, Max characters: Letters to the Editor Send us a letter.Friends wanted must read
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