Read Time: 10 minutes
Joining a book club or a recreation league softball team or planning a family dinner might not seem like essential activities. But the absence of the bonds formed through these activities could not only hurt the quality of your life but shave years off its span as well.
That’s the conclusion of years of work by counseling psychology professor Timothy Smith, who has spent 21 years at BYU and has extensively studied how social relationships impact both physical and mental health.
“It is always more interesting in the moment to get on social media and watch someone do a backflip off a 30-foot-tall building than it is to take the time to engage in our relationships,” he says. “It’s a classic case of a short-term, literally 10-second gain destroying the gains of decades. We’re letting the immediacy of entertainment prevent us from experiencing joy, which necessarily requires sacrifice and engagement.”
Scholars have long known that the absence of social relationships can hurt mental health, Smith says.
When studies began on that subject, early results were disturbing, such as the finding that “almost half of people who go to a first-time medical appointment have some related mental health condition,” Smith says. “That’s a 50 percent comorbidity rate. It’s obvious that when you’re feeling low emotionally, you have less energy; what we didn’t know yet is if that actually could influence premature death.”
Early efforts to answer this question were promising but flawed; for example, one paper in the journal Science indicated that mortality was, indeed, affected by the quality of a person’s social relationships, but the findings were based on only five studies.
“Having five studies is nice, but it’s not abundant evidence,” Smith says. “We sought to verify those findings.”
Smith and his fellow researchers, who include BYU psychology professor Julianne Holt-Lunstad, looked at more than 42,000 studies done between 1980 and 2020, screening them for factors such as the study of psychosocial support interventions and the inclusion of survival data in both inpatient and outpatient healthcare settings.
Of those thousands of studies, 106 fit the authors’ criteria. These studies, which included 40,280 patients, provided a compelling sample size for extensive analyses. Their conclusions were clear: patients who were receiving psychosocial support and promoting healthy behaviors had a much greater likelihood of survival—a 29 percent better chance—compared to “control groups receiving standard medical care.”
“It turns out that, yes, the results are very conclusive. People who have strong social networks live longer,” Smith says.
The key word there is strong: having lots of acquaintances is not that powerful in creating the bonds that seem to tether people to life.
“Our most enduring, impactful, intimate relationships are family, and so we assume it’s actually family making up most of that difference” in quality of life, Smith says. “Let’s be honest, how often are we all spending really good quality, deep times with friends? When it happens, it’s great, but it’s not typically our friends who challenge us on stuff or make us take our pills.”
Smith and Lunstad’s work establishes scientifically that people need deep personal relationships as they age in the same way they need lifesaving drugs or long-term physical care. Unfortunately, Smith says, society is trending away from the institutions and practices that best nurture such relationships.
“With social media, people are finding ways to spend time that are not directly social,” he says. “They’re indirectly social, but you don’t have the same level of intimacy. Just as physical health requires being planfully aware of exercise, diet, and things like that, people need to become planfully aware of their social engagement.”
By “planfully,” Smith means that just as people seek out and prioritize a healthy diet and exercise, they should seek out and prioritize meaningful, nurturing social engagement. And while loneliness among the elderly is at epidemic levels, the need to connect applies to people of all ages—especially in the current moment, dubbed “the Great Resignation,” as people quit or distance themselves from jobs, churches, professional organizations, political parties, social groups, and even personal relationships.
“The mental health costs of that are what people are not seeing, as well as the physical health costs that accompany those,” Smith says. “When people say, ‘I’m going to quit my marriage and discontinue friendships and stop doing my service activities so I can do whatever,’ they’re really saying, ‘I’m willing to give up about five years of my life to have a less fulfilling life.’ They’re trading quantity and quality. They’re losing both.”
People who find themselves over-relying on their phones for entertainment and engagement are actually craving real, face-to-face engagement and connection, he says.
“We’re getting these microbursts of neurochemicals by whatever is witty or funny or outrageous or horrific on our phones, but it’s just a signal that we’re craving something we’re not getting, ”Smith says. “The brain does respond to what feeds it, and short-term satisfaction really does cause havoc with long-term well-being.
“It is always more comfortable to kick around in our PJs on our couch. But that doesn’t help our neighbor get their fence painted, and it doesn’t help us feel the way we feel when we help our neighbor paint their fence.”
What it comes down to, he says, is that science is increasingly validating some age-old notions.
“It’s an absolute 100 percent endorsement: both the Golden Rule and the charge to love our neighbor are literally true,” Smith says. “We are designed, physically and spiritually, to connect. Our brains are wired for connectivity. When we go against that, we’re not being fully human.”
He pointed to the Harvard Study of Adult Development, started in 1938 and expanded and continued across generations to the present day. The study seeks “clues to leading healthy and happy lives,” according to the Harvard Gazette, and its most strong and enduring finding has been that happiness in relationships is a key component to a fulfilling life.
“All the advice we’ve been getting in general conference—simplify, slow down, connect, do the small things that put you in touch with other people, and minister out of love, not out of duty—these are all designed to help us feel experiences and share that love. We actually need each other. We need e pluribus unum.”
What We Can Do
Here are a few suggestions from Tim Smith for rebuilding the power of relationships in our lives and our society. Find more on our website, education.byu.edu/mckaymagazine.
- Adopt clear protocols for medical professionals to evaluate patient support systems and establish support programs at hospitals and clinics that include caregivers.
- Promote civil discourse, including positively enforcing internet etiquette and engagement rules, encouraging media companies to change algorithms that bring out what Smith calls “our base natures,” and building skills to help people to invite loved ones “back to the middle” when they exhibit extreme opinions.
- Foster pro-social organizations. “Towns used to get together in groups based on shared interests: a book club, a fraternal organization, or high school events. We increasingly don’t avail ourselves of those. That community ethos just isn’t there anymore. Connections can easily be fostered, but they’re not being fostered. So the rising generation lacks that foundation—which is other people, and particularly people different from themselves.”
- Encourage and reward engagement in service. “Social service is one of the best forms of social connection, devoting yourself to the well-being and happiness of other people. Doing service is more beneficial to our well-being than receiving service, although receiving service is helpful too.”
- Liz Mineo, “Good Genes Are Nice, but Joy Is Better,” Health and Medicine, Harvard Gazette, 11 April 2017.
Written by Stacey Kratz
Illustrated by Bomboland