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The powerful effect of your social environment

People have always understood that the quality of a person’s relationships with others can influence mental and physical health, but it is only recently that scientific evidence on the impact of relationships has become available.

Supportive relationships help to reduce psychological stress, particularly in bad times or following traumatic experiences. This can include offering an understanding ear and advice, or more substantial support like money and care during difficult economic periods.

By addressing the causes of stress or by offering support in dealing with stress, social relationships improve people’s mental and physical health, and reduce levels of illness and early mortality.

  • A research study by Brown and Harris (1978) found that women who had suffered major life events, such as the loss of a close family member or a chronic illness, were much more likely to suffer from a major depressive episode. But this was not true of all who had experienced bad events.
  • They showed conclusively that when the woman had a close, confiding relationship, this reduced the likelihood of depression significantly. A woman without a partner to confide in was four times more likely to develop depression than a woman with such a relationship.
  • The research also showed that the death of a mother before the age of 11 critically undermined a woman’s feelings of self-worth and esteem, key elements of mental health resilience.
  • Subsequent research has confirmed the role of supportive relationships for protecting against depression (Kawachi and Berkman 2001; Harris et al 1999).

Many would accept that social relationships may influence the risk of depression, but how does one’s social environment shape physical health?

  • Research has shown that physical health and risk of death are strongly influenced by the availability of close, supportive relationships. Longitudinal studies allow researchers to follow the same individuals over time (like the TILDA study), to measure the social environment and then study later outcomes and processes.

For example, the Alameda County Study has been following the same families since 1964. It measures the extent of social ties using an index based on marital status, contacts with friends and relatives, and church and group memberships.

Over the first nine years of the study, men who lacked social ties but were otherwise in good health at the start of the study were 1.9 to 3.1 times more likely to die than those with more social contacts.

Importantly, this link persisted even after adjusting for levels of smoking, physical exercise and alcohol consumption as well as use of preventative health care (Berkman and Syme 1979).

In addition to preventing people from getting sick, social relationships may also be important in helping individuals recover from illness.

A study by Friedman and colleagues (1986) randomly assigned men who had suffered a heart attack to one of three groups.

  1. The control group, who received no additional support.
  2. The low intervention group, who received advice and information about diet, exercise and cardiovascular health.
  3. The high intervention group, who received the same advice as the low intervention group but also participated in a support group.

Over the following five years, it was found that the low intervention group who had received advice were less likely to experience another heart attack than the control group (21.2% verses 28.2%) but the high intervention group who attended the support group had the lowest recurrence rate of all at just 12.9%. This approach has been applied to different kinds of diseases with very similar, and even stronger results (c.f. Spiegel 1993; Fawzy et al 1993).

Why does the social environment have such a powerful effect?

There appear to be three main reasons:

  1. Humans are a social species and we live in groups. The absence of social interaction and group participation suggests that a serious event has occurred, such as the loss of a loved one, or social isolation because of mental illness or a traumatic event.

  2. Social support can influence the degree of stress experienced. Support networks can be used to provide help, such as childcare when your usual child minder isn’t available, a lift to work when your own car breaks down, or financial support during economic bad times.

  3. Social support can also moderate our reactions to stressful events by providing a psychological or emotional boost or by giving us a different context to understand them in. Although sharing a problem with a friend or family member might not make it go away, simply sharing it helps reduce the physiological reactions that we experience. If the confidant can also provide a broader context to understand the situation, this can also change its effects.

For example, I may feel stressed if I believe that my actions, or lack of them, have led to some event, but you might convince me that it wasn’t actually my fault, and that this can happen to many people. By changing my perspective on the event, I reduce the level of stress that I experience and, in so doing, change my body’s harmful physiological responses.

  • Do your friends and family help you manage stressful situations in life, or do they cause them?

Richard Layte is a Professor of Sociology at Trinity College Dublin.

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