As self-sufficient as we feel, we all need support. In fact, research has shown that the benefits of social support greatly influence our health.
There’s a sense of freedom that comes with being independent. However, as self-sufficient as we feel, at points along the way most of us need support.
We’re social creatures, and we need each other to thrive, not only emotionally but also physically. Recently, research has demonstrated there is an association between a person’s level of social support and their risk of physical disease, mental illness, and mortality.
A 2009 study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology looked at the characteristics of loneliness. Researchers at the University of Chicago; the University of California, San Diego; and Harvard compared the experience of loneliness to hunger, thirst, or pain.
The researchers found that loneliness was associated with diminished immunity, cardiovascular risk, the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, obesity, alcoholism, and depression. They concluded that we are a “social species and do not fare well when forced to live solitary lives.”
Links to loneliness
The study found many of those who reported high levels of loneliness had some common characteristics. Many lived alone, had few interactions with family and friends, and were unhappy with their lives. They also experienced chronic stress, ill health, or had small social networks. Women reported greater loneliness levels than men did.
Feelings of loneliness are not only linked to a higher risk of illness, but it also seems loneliness can be passed on from one person to another. Researchers coined the term “emotional contagion,” meaning that loneliness tends to occur in clusters, especially among those on the edge of social networks. They suggested several ways in which loneliness may
The induction hypothesis suggests loneliness can be passed on by emotions, through facial expressions, tone of voice, and actions. For instance, lonely people may behave in a less trusting manner that may negatively influence someone’s desire to have a relationship with them.
The homophily hypothesis, or law of attraction, says that we surround ourselves with those who have similar attitudes, perceptions, and emotions, so that lonely people may attract other lonely people into their lives.
The shared environment hypothesis suggests that people in similar situations share similar feelings. Those facing job loss or living in a dangerous neighbourhood, for example, may have similar feelings as a result of these social challenges.
Benefits of social support
Support from others can help people solve problems, deal better with hardship, and help develop a sense of control over life circumstances.
According to the Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA), “One of the greatest benefits of social support is that it helps people deal with stress. Having someone to talk things out with reduces stress and protects you from the physical damage stress causes such as high blood pressure, ulcers, migraines, anxiety attacks, and depression.”
The CMHA also believes the benefits of helping others are significant. While those who receive support feel valued, those who lend their support experience increased self-esteem and self-confidence. These positive feelings lead to better mental and physical health not only for the person being helped but also for the helper.
Friends and family are important sources of emotional support. Interestingly, elderly women rated friends more important than family in preventing loneliness. Evidence also suggests that those in families where there is a balanced give and take of support among all generations experienced lower levels of loneliness.
Communities are also a significant source of support. According to Statistics Canada, “Nearly two-thirds of those who felt a very strong or somewhat strong sense of community belonging reported excellent or very good general health. In contrast, only half of those with a very weak sense of belonging view their general health as favourable as those with a strong sense of community belonging.”
The Public Health Agency of Canada stresses the importance of social cohesion for the health of the population. They point out a supportive society is filled with members who are involved, work to maintain the vitality of their communities, and have faith in each other.
The authors of the loneliness study concluded that we can keep our society healthy “by targeting the people in the periphery to help repair their social networks and to create a protective barrier against loneliness that can keep the whole network from unravelling.”
There are simple ways to help people stay connected, whether they’re in your community or in your own network of family and friends.
Talk to your neighbour. Get in touch with those on the fringes of your immediate social circle who may be lonely and in need of support.
Join your neighbourhood watch; plan a multicultural or multigenerational event; volunteer at your community centre.
Does your area need mental health facilities, a senior’s centre, or a teen drop-in? Let your government representatives know.
We now know one person’s loneliness has the potential to spread to others. However, we can support those in our social networks who feel isolated and make a difference in their—and our own—quality of life and well-being. Healthy communities are connected communities.
Resources for those seeking support
Ontario Self Help Resource Centre: offers networking and resources for peer support groups dealing with issues such as bereavement, disability, and cancer. selfhelp.on.ca
Canadian Mental Health Association (CMHA): provides cross-Canada mental health information and support for people of all ages. The CMHA website includes extensive information on a range of mental health problems, as well as direction on how to get help. cmha.ca
Resources for those wanting to lend support
Canadian Mental Health Association Mental Health Promotion Tool Kit: a guide for planning and implementing mental health programs tailored to specific community needs. cmha.ca/mh_toolkit
Canadian Council on Social Development (CCSD): a nonprofit organization