The idea of man as a social animal prescribes that humans derive pleasure and happiness from interacting with others. But, as a new study suggests, that's not where it ends: We're not only social but "pro-social" beings, meaning that doing things with others for others makes us happier, and helps us to better deal with crises on a societal level.
In the face of adversity, strong communities that stay together thrive better, according to the study, published in the Journal of Happiness Studies. Researchers from the University of British Columbia found associations between a country or community's "social capital" -- meaning its level of social engagement and networks -- and how it fares in economic crisis.
For the study, researchers examined the social capital of 255 metro areas in the U.S. They found that the more social engagement the communities had and the higher their happiness levels, the less their "life evaluations" were affected by rising rates of unemployment.
Researchers also examined happiness levels in countries in the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) in 2008, when the financial crisis was occurring. They found links between happiness and social capital, in the midst of financial crisis. The researchers wrote in the study:
The group with falling happiness included those countries worst hit by the original crisis, and by its subsequent spillovers in the Euro zone. We saw that average happiness drops were far greater than could be explained by their lower levels of GDP per capita, suggesting that social capital and other key supports for happiness were damaged during the crisis and its aftermath.
Meanwhile, researchers noted that in Korea, which had adopted well-being-promoting policies, increases in happiness were even greater than researchers could have predicted by income increases. These findings suggest "improvements in the quality of the social fabric, possibly linked to the shift towards a policy orientation more closely linked to well-being," they wrote in the study.
An extensive body of research has also linked social support systems to significant health benefits on the individual level. Community and familial ties can reduce stress levels and boost immune system functioning, and may increase longevity as much as quitting smoking, among other physical and mental health advantages.
"Community is a real huge marker on aging," Dr. Kathleen Hall, stress expert and founder of the Mindful Living Network, told the Huffington Post in March. "People who have an active social life delay memory loss tremendously; they’re much healthier."
And past research shows that strong social ties could be the key to "willing" yourself to have more positive emotions, too -- which could in turn boost health.
"The daily moments of connection that people feel with others emerge as the tiny engines that drive the upward spiral between positivity and health," the researcher of that study, Barbara Fredrickson, of the University of North Carolina, said in a statement.
For more ways social ties are good for us, click through the slideshow:
Research presented in 2012 found that something you might expect more from your mother -- nagging -- can actually work when it's coming from a pal who's pushing you to move more. In fact, the least active interviewees in this particular survey said they needed and even appreciated a nudge now and then from friends. And working out with a friend has the added benefit of keeping you committed to your workout plan. There's no rolling over to hit the snooze button on that a.m. run if someone is waiting for you to show up! Flickr photo by geishaboy500
There's some truth behind friendship clichés like "a shoulder to cry on." In the face of great stress, talking with and leaning on friends really can help you get through troublesome times. A 2011 study found that among students, friendships helped reduce some of the stress of being bullied or excluded at school. Women in particular may be predisposed to the calming benefits of friendship. Researchers found that females release the hormone oxytocin when stressed, which encourages "tend and befriend" behavior, rather than the "fight or flight" reaction often observed in men, the San Francisco Chronicle reported. This encourages women to chat with their friends when stressed, and the chatting itself spurs the release of more oxytocin, which can have a calming effect. Flickr photo by epSos.de
It's not quite as simple as connecting with friends and, poof, you're guaranteed to live to 100. But there is a significant body of research linking strong social ties to a longer lifespan. Australian research found that older adults with more friends were 22 percent less likely to die during a 10-year study than their peers with fewer friends. And in a recent analysis of 148 studies, researchers found that people with stronger relationships had a 50 percent greater chance of survival. Flickr photo by egor.gribanov
While friendships may help you live longer in any situation, social ties have also been linked specifically to overcoming cancer. A small 2005 study observed 61 women with advanced ovarian cancer. Higher levels of interleukin 6, a protein marker for a more aggressive form of the disease, were found in the women with the weakest social bonds. An older study followed 86 women with metastatic breast cancer for a year and found that the women who participated in a weekly support group lived twice as long.
Perhaps because of their relaxation powers, friends are also good for the heart. A 2005 analysis of social support theories found that weak social ties could double heart disease risk. The link between social support and a healthy heart is even stronger for men who make one very special social tie official. Married men seem to experience a particular boost in heart health, WebMD reported. Stronger social ties in general seem to lower blood pressure, which helps the heart. Flickr photo by Brent Gambrell