We all need someone we can lean on. When we think about a social support network, it’s important to differentiate it from “social networking” that we do on Facebook, Instagram or Snapchat. Friends, family and co-workers comprise our social support network and give us emotional comfort. Our in-person or on-phone conversations add a deeper meaning to the give-and-take of gratifying personal relationships.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development is one of the longest studies of adult life and is directed by psychiatrist Robert Waldinger, M.D., professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He told the Harvard Gazette last year that, “Our relationships and how happy we are in our relationships has a powerful influence on our health,” and that “tending to your relationships is a form of self-care.”

There’s plenty of research to back that up, and some of it may even make you smile. Consider these 5 ways being social can contribute to your happiness. It can mean:

  1. Reduced depression: Stronger social support helps protect us from depression, according to a major review of literature in a 2016 issue of The British Journal of Psychiatry. Come on, get happy, since the authors found “consistent evidence of an association between social support and protection from depression” in all ages. They say parental support most consistently provides protection from depression in children and adolescents, while spousal support does this for adults and older adults.
  2. Happier aging: Enjoying social activities with friends may be a buffer against negative effects of aging, according to a study in The Journals of Gerontology.  Three years after that report, researchers at Michigan State University confirmed that friendships are better predictors of health and happiness than relationships we maintain with our family.  The authors also say that the older we get, the more important friendships become. “Invest in the friendships that make you happiest,” they say.
  3. Happiness begets happiness: Want to be happy? Be around happy people. A British study confirms that you really should remove toxic people from your life. It’s pretty simple, the authors say. “People who are surrounded by many happy people and those who are central in the network are more likely to become happy in the future.  Sadly, as we know, and the authors confirm, friendships decay with time and with geographical separation, which means we have to work harder to maintain them.
  4. You ‘climb every mountain’: It’s not brand new, but this memorable research from 2008 in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology proved that study participants who were with a friend estimated a hill they were asked to assess as less steep than it was. The longer participants knew their friends, the less steep they estimated the hill to be. Got something “big” to do that feels daunting? Bring a friend and reach your summit.
  5. Sharing good meals: Eating is very much a social activity, and as study in the American Journal of Public Health confirms, “It may not simply be that ‘you are what you eat.’ It may be that ‘you are what people in your social network eat’ as well.   If you enjoy being with members of your social support network, you’re going to enjoy sharing an eating experience with them, too.

When British poet John Donne wrote in the 1600s that, “No man is an island,” he was on to something. Though it takes effort and commitment, maintaining a strong social support network is one of the smartest things you can do toward leading a healthier and happier life.

David Heber

David HeberM.D., Ph.D., FACP, FASN – Chairman, Herbalife Nutrition Institute

Dr. David Heber is the chairman of the Herbalife Nutrition Institute (HNI), which promotes excellence in nutrition education for the public and scientific community and sponsors scientific symposia. The HNI Editorial Board is made up of key scientific opinion leaders from around the world in the fields of nutrition, exercise physiology, behavioral medicine and public health. Dr. Heber holds a degree in chemistry, an M.D. from Harvard Medical School and a Ph.D. in physiology from UCLA.* In his spare time, he enjoys golfing, reading and painting. Dr. Heber’s favorite Herbalife products are Formula 1 Healthy Meal Nutritional Shake Mix, Herbalife Personalized Protein Powder and the SKIN product line.

*The University of California does not endorse specific products or services as a matter of policy.