– Is your imagination making you sick? Part Two

Studies have shown that the influence of social relationships on health are comparable with well-established major risk factors for mortality such as smoking and alcohol consumption. You get as big a boost to your health from social connection as you do from quitting smoking!

Even more astounding, research shows that social relationships are bigger contributors to your health than risk factors such as physical inactivity and obesity, meaning that social isolation is more detrimental than being a morbidly obese couch potato.  Yes, connection is that important.

In this four-part series, we give you some easy, practical tips on how to feel more focused and energised to maximise your productivity.

The stress and happiness link

Dr Deepak Chopra often talks about studies on compassion which found that stress was linked to higher mortality rates, but not among those who helped others. Similarly, UCLA and the University of North Carolina evaluated cellular inflammation levels (suspected to be at the root of cancer and many other diseases) and found that these levels are generally high in people who live with a lot of stress, along with people who described themselves as ‘very happy’.

We might expect that inflammation would be lower for people with higher levels of happiness. But there was an important distinction. People who were happy because they lived a life of pleasure had high inflammation levels, while people who were happy because they lived a life of purpose or meaning, had low inflammation levels. A life of meaning and purpose is one focused less on satisfying oneself and more on others. It’s often a life rich in compassion and connectedness.

Cortisol – the stress hormone

Cortisol is the master stress hormone. It shuts down nonessential processes to reserve resources for immediate survival needs. This means that increased cortisol suppresses the digestive system, the reproductive system (which can affect your ability to fall pregnant or maintain pregnancy), the immune system and collagen formation, and even decreases bone formation. It’s also an important regulator of circadian rhythms (which impacts sleep), blood pressure, cardiovascular function, carbohydrate metabolism (which affects your ability to lose or gain weight) and inflammation.

Cortisol release also communicates with regions of the brain that control mood, motivation, and fear. In the context of surviving immediate danger, this has a negligible effect on overall health, but in the context of chronic stress, these ‘other’ effects of cortisol become a very big problem.

The importance of feeling connected

Feeling socially connected lowers cortisol and makes us more resilient to psychological stressors, meaning that our body produces less cortisol when we’re stuck in traffic and late for a meeting. Having positive social interactions in your life reduces the effects of chronic stress, and that leads to improved health over the long term.

Helping others can increase happiness

So, if you’re not feeling socially connected, what can you do about it?

A wonderful way to bring more connectedness and compassion in your life is through volunteer work. There are many documented health benefits of volunteer work. Helping others can release dopamine in the brain – the feel-good chemical you can also experience after exercising.

Volunteering can reduce stress by allowing you to focus on helping others and giving you a greater sense of meaning and appreciation. In addition, regular volunteering increases social interaction by helping you to build a network of people with shared interests, which, as we know, can help to reduce stress and depression.

So, if you’re looking for a little more connection and compassion in your life, just reach out to your local volunteering network and see your happiness increase!

How have you increased connection and compassion in your life? Let us know in the comments below.