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The Power of Connections ©

Dr. Sam Goldstein

In our books, chapters and articles over the last eighteen years, Bob Brooks and I have again and again emphasized the power of human connections. This is equally true for parents and children, husbands and wives, friends and colleagues. In these stressful times, our connections to others have taken on greater importance than ever before. In our day-to-day interactions with those around us our connections provide support, hope and acceptance. We are becoming aware of and read an expanding body of research that helps us understand the ways that our relationships and connections with others influence not just our momentary feelings but also our lifetime physical and mental health. It is not an exaggeration to suggest that social connections are as important as sleep. Those of us struggling regardless of age due to limited social connections are dramatically more likely to experience a myriad of health problems. In 2010, Julianne Holt-Lunstad, completing a meta-analysis of 148 studies on mortality risk, demonstrated strong relationships with others increased the likelihood of survival by 50% regardless of age, gender or health status. Social disconnection is at least as harmful to each of us as obesity, physical inactivity and use of tobacco.

Unfortunately, according to Carla Perissinotto, writing in the Archives of Internal Medicine in 2012, a lack of social connections is a wide spread problem. This is especially true for older adults. A significant minority of individuals over the age of sixty, experience frequent or intense loneliness. According to Mark Whisman, 30% of married couples in the United States report severely challenged relationships. Further, research completed by the Pugh Research Center and published nearly ten years ago in 2009, suggest that between 1985 and 2009, American’s core social network has declined by a third.

Last year, an entire issue of the American Psychologist was devoted to family relationships and health. The articles contained in this journal issue provided solid evidence of the importance of social connections and health. Further, researchers have also demonstrated that supportive relationships in childhood buffer children against future physical and mental health problems into adulthood. A longitudinal study completed by Linda G. Russek found that students who reported having caring parents had a lower risk of heart disease, ulcers and other chronic conditions thirty-five years later!

So the strength and quality of our connections to others is not just about mental health. It is about physical health as well. When our children experience comforting, emotionally secure relationships with parents and close family members, their health is better not only during childhood but into their teenage and adult years. Our social connections also impact our biochemistry. Laboratory and naturalistic studies have demonstrated that close, warm, family relationships are linked to favorable levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Children experiencing higher levels of coritsol were also found to experience delays in developing behaviors related to good executive functioning such as attention, impulse control and emotional regulation.

These data are a powerful message that we carefully and conscientiously examine our relationships with the important people in our lives. The strength and bond of those relationships, even under adversity, holds important implications for our physical and mental health. In particular, my work with my colleague Bob Brooks has focused on helping parents learn to mentor and instill a resilient mindset in their children. Through good social connections, resilient youngsters feel special and appreciated. They learn to set realistic goals and expectations for themselves. They learn to solve problems, make decisions and view mistakes and obstacles as challenges rather than stressors. I encourage you to re-invest your efforts and re-examine the quality of your social connections and relationships with your children, family members, friends and colleagues. It is time well spent returning mental and physical health benefits to you and your children far into the future.