There’s a mountain of scientific evidence linking high quality relationships with good health. I want to start explaining why and how relationships can be good for our health.
I’ll begin with a scenario we’ve all grown too familiar with: celebrities and public meltdowns. It seems wealth, the advent of social media and YouTube, and more “hangers-on” than actual high quality relationships can create a recipe for a public meltdown.
Without high quality relationships, we can become untethered from the basic social rhythms that sustain health and well-being. Relationships are regulators. Humans depend on other people to regulate their basic psychological and even biological functions. It is often not until relationships are lost or absent that we observe this powerful regulatory force.
If you share a bed with someone, think about how you sleep when that person is away. Some of us will say, “Great! Never better,” but most of us will say, “Pretty crappy.” In fact, my friend and colleague, Lisa Diamond at the University of Utah, has done research on a variant of this question and has shown exactly what I described.
Indeed, some people may be prone to show exaggerated stress responses – defined by the release of cortisol, which is the quintessential stress hormone – when their partners travel for business. In this case, psychological responses to the separation co-occur with biological stress responses that have clear health relevance.
The obvious money question here rests in understanding how this social regulation process works. Scientists know a fair amount about two potential pathways, one overt and the other covert. The overt pathway is about the direct control of health behaviors via our social relationships; these so-called “social control” efforts are like those I described above – our relationships play a limiting role in how much we smoke and drink, what we eat, how much we visit the doctor and exercise and the quality of our sleep.