Gathering with Family and Friends Enriches Your Life and Improves Your Health

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By Dr. Nina Radcliff

One of the biggest impacts on your health is the relationship you have with loved ones – family and friends. For many of us, the holidays mean family gatherings, getting together with friends, and participating in special religious, community, and workplace activities. Such occasions are an opportunity to check in with each other, exchange ideas, and perhaps lend a supportive ear or shoulder. And spending time together during holidays like this not only gives us pleasure but these connections also influence our long-term health in ways every bit as powerful as adequate sleep, a good diet, and not smoking.

The facts are that good relationships – and gathering together for shared experiences –

are very important for your health. Family and friends can help you celebrate the good times while also providing support during the challenging ones. Bottom line, the love of your family, friends and yes, even your pets, is good for you. Study after study have shown that people who have satisfying relationships are happier, have fewer health problems and live longer.

On the other hand, a relative lack of connection with family or friends is associated with depression and later-life cognitive decline, as well as with increased mortality. One study, which examined data from more than 300,000 people, found that the lack of strong relationships increased the risk of premature death from all causes by 50% ! This mortality risk is, sadly, comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day, and greater than obesity and physical inactivity.

DR. NINA’S WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW: About Quality Relationships & Your Health

Strengthening ties at the holidays: While we live in a world of texting, instant messaging and communicating with our mobile phones, real physical gatherings provide the opportunity to generate enriched relationships of love, unity and support. Just think about the interaction from gathering around a table together. Or, a parent or friend helping a child bake or play a game. And while enjoyable, emailing a recipe or discussing a game or event over the phone just doesn’t provide the same emotional wallop.

Of course, not all forms of holiday conviviality are health-promoting — eating or drinking excessively, for example. And, too, not all social contacts uniformly enhance our well-being.

That is why we need to check our list twice during the holiday season, to ensure we are taking time to foster our most meaningful relationships. Experts recommend you:

  • Choose activities that are most likely to bring joy to you and the people you care about
  • Delegate or discard other (less socially connected) tasks that eat way too much into your time or plan to do them together with family or friends
  • And if you can’t get together with everyone you’d like, make plans to see them post-holiday

Quality Matters: Scientists continue to investigate the biological and behavioral factors that account for the health benefits of connecting with others. And one factor is clear: The quality of your relationship matters! It depends on beliefs about the authenticity and relationship responsiveness and interaction—in other words, the perception that “the person” understands, values, respects and supports important aspects of you.

Time with Family and Friends Contributes to your Health and Well-Being: Quality time together with family and friends yields a multitude of long-term physical and emotional health benefits. Studies show that healthy relationships make aging more enjoyable, lessen the bellowing blows of hardships, and provide camaraderie to help you reach personal goals, among other things. Here are some examples:

Support System for Managing Chronic Stress

The chronic outpouring of stress hormones can wreak havoc on our body. Science shows that it contributes to many of the leading causes of death amongst Americans—heart disease, certain cancers, and Alzheimer’s dementia. And chronic stress can also lead us down a path of weight gain due to “stress eating” and sleep disturbances, which, in and of itself, can pack on the pounds. 

The good news is that “holiday gathering with family and friends” has special qualities that make it different than when we talk on the phone or engage in meetings. It provides a time where we can relax and bond. So, whether you had a challenging week at work or school; increasing dynamics on a project; a season filled with loss or chronic illness; or too many demands with not enough time to do what you really need to do – connecting with family and friends during the holidays (or at any time) can be a critical way to help you through demanding times. And while gathering together is by no means the only way to combat stress, it has been shown as an important place to focus.

Quality Relationships and Well-Being

Mounds of studies have highlighted the importance of quality relationships and meeting together to our health. Along with relief of havocs with stress reduction, here are some of the additional findings:

  • Helps to achieve your goals. Encouragement and just plain ol’ sharing goes a long way to boosting your willpower.
  • Increases happiness. Having (and gathering together with) positive family and friends is an especially powerful predictor of increasing your happiness.
  • Boosts your immune system. Being engaged with your family and friends leads to more positive emotions, which in turn may actually boost your body’s immune system and reduce the physical signs of stress.
  • Age more successfully. One of the theories is that quality relationships with family and friends may keep you from doing things that are bad for you, like smoking and heavy drinking, even texting while driving.
  • Wards off depression, boosts self-esteem, and provides support when you’re going through a tough time
  • Promotes heart health. A study in the American Journal of Medicine, which collected data for 10,000 adults, concluded that those who felt ‘loved and supported’ by quality family and friend relationships, had a reduced risk of angina and a much lower incidence of cardiovascular disease than those in non-supportive or stressful relationships.
  • Increases mental health. There are proven scientific facts showing that taking time off to be with family and friends (or other times of the year) regularly decreases your chances of depression and other related mental issues. And all while causing an improved sense of well-being as it helps you to reframe your world in a different light with caring relationships.

Important to All Age Groups:  Holiday get-togethers do allow favorite traditions and stories to be shared through the generations while creating new memories. Multiple studies have demonstrated that frequent gatherings of family and friends is associated with a greater ability to problem-solve; more complex thinking; higher self-esteem; and lower rates of teen smoking, drinking, illegal drug use and prescription drug abuse. 

Focusing on certain types of conversations–particularly narrative conversation or sharing of stories–can be particularly helpful with children as well as the more mature. And, too, telling stories that allow them to express their thoughts and feelings, rather than just the facts, is associated with greater well-being.

Parents should consider taking this opportunity to talk about their own childhood and family histories. The reason being, research shows that this makes children more resilient—they have a better capacity to bounce back from the slings and arrows that life can throw at each of us and better able to learn from challenges–while continuing to face issues with optimism.

Take Heart if Humans in Your Life Aren’t Playing their Part: Rover, Spot, or Kitty can keep you healthy while you are working on developing authentic, quality relationships. Spending quality time with a dog, cat or other animal is also beneficial to your health and can also help you to fight stress.

They make you more active– particularly if you have a dog that requires walking often, or a game of fetch in the park. Dog owners have lower blood pressure than people without dogs and petting a pet is soothing and can help your body to release calming hormones. And too, pets even help you to connect with other people – dogs especially. People will often talk to perfect strangers in the park because the dog helps to break down social barriers.

Maintaining positive, quality relationships should rank up there with healthy eating and exercise as a necessary investment in your health. Enjoy your time gathering with one another – these special folks are not only a joy but great agents in living a healthier life. Merry Christmas!!

Dr. Nina Radcliff is dedicated to her profession, her patients and her community, at large. She is passionate about sharing truths for healthy, balanced living as well as wise preventive health measures. 

She completed medical school and residency training at UCLA and has served on the medical faculty at The University of Pennsylvania. She is a Board Certified Anesthesiologist. Author of more than 200 textbook chapters, research articles, medical opinions and reviews; she is often called upon by media to speak on medical, fitness, nutrition, and healthy lifestyle topics impacting our lives, today.

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