The Health Benefits of Being Social

meeting friends can improve your health

Have you ever frittered away an afternoon trolling through friends’ updates on Facebook? Or failed to tear yourself away from family to finish that report? UCLA psychology professor Matthew Lieberman has a very simple explanation: Your brain made you do it.

For over 20 years, Lieberman — now the director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab at UCLA — has been using neuroimaging and other tools to study the biological basis of social behavior. The bottom line: Connecting is such a central human need, it’s actually built into the architecture of our brain and may have been a major driver in homo sapiens’ evolution. “This is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others,” Lieberman writes in his new book, “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.” It’s not incidental. “These are design features, not flaws.”

Why We Crave Social Interaction

Why We Crave Social Interaction

Have you ever frittered away an afternoon trolling through friends’ updates on Facebook? Or failed to tear yourself away from family to finish that report? UCLA psychology professor Matthew Lieberman has a very simple explanation: Your brain made you do it. 

For over 20 years, Lieberman — now the director of the Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab at UCLA — has been using neuroimaging and other tools to study the biological basis of social behavior. The bottom line: Connecting is such a central human need, it’s actually built into the architecture of our brain and may have been a major driver in homo sapiens’ evolution. “This is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others,” Lieberman writes in his new book, “Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect.” It’s not incidental. “These are design features, not flaws.”

So what does that mean in everyday life? “There’s a tendency to put socializing last, to focus on our careers or making more money instead,” says Lieberman. “I’ve certainly been guilty of it. I’ve moved away for a job, for example. But building more ‘social’ into your life can really improve your well-being.”

Inspired by the book, here are seven ways to do just that.

Schedule Standing Social Events

Schedule Standing Social Events

“The good news is that getting coffee with a friend, volunteering or stopping to talk with a neighbor doesn’t cost anything, and it’s pretty easy to fit into your day,” says Lieberman. True, but in the tumult of daily life, those sorts of plans are also easy to put off in favor of something “more important.” To make sure you get your recommended weekly allowance of “we” time, schedule recurring social occasions: Sign up for a class, set up a standing lunch date or join a book club. You’re less likely to cancel on a standing event, and — even if that know-it-all in your book group drives you nuts — recurring interaction is among the healthiest activities around. Amazingly, one study published in the Journal of Social Structure found that people who enjoyed more diverse social interactions were actually less susceptible to getting sick with a cold.

Remember the “Social” in Social Media

Remember the “Social” in Social Media

In the early years of the Internet, Lieberman recalls, people were concerned about the isolation of living online. “But people were using the Internet differently back then — they were mostly talking to strangers,” he says. “Today, with sites like Facebook, we’re mostly connecting with people we really know, and that’s a net positive.” To get the most out of those bonds, make sure there’s real-life interaction to back up that online one. Many a Twitter friendship has turned into a real one over drinks at a conference, for example, and actually making time to see a friend’s new baby is worth any number of “Likes.”

Factor In Your Social Salary

Factor In Your Social Salary

Turns out, there’s more to your remuneration than just title and take-home pay. “Studies show that, when it comes to well-being, there are other factors that can have just as big an impact — or even bigger,” says Lieberman. Among them: Your commute (which can limit time with friends and family), good coworkers, even a better boss. (In his book, Lieberman quotes a survey in which 65 percent of people said they’d rather have a better boss than a raise.) So take a look at your job and ask yourself: Is it rewarding you socially? How can you make changes so that it does?

Be a Creature of (Social) Habit

Be a Creature of (Social) Habit

Certain creativity experts advise consciously adding uncertainty to your life: Hitting a different coffee shop than your usual in order to open up the possibility of seeing new people; or simply trying to walk a different path to the restroom each time. It’s great advice — but the same-old, same-old may have benefits too, especially when it comes to your social life. In one study Lieberman cites, for instance, having a friend whom you see on most days, compared to not having such a friend, was found to have the same impact on well-being as making an extra $100,000 a year. So if your routine involves seeing friendly faces, you may want to keep it the same — at least some of the time.

Take Your Kids’ Social Lives Seriously

Take Your Kids’ Social Lives Seriously

No, this doesn’t mean allowing your teen those middle-of-the-night texting marathons. But it does mean not trying to minimize or brush aside social concerns. “Social pain activates the same neural circuitry that causes us to feel physical pain,” says Lieberman. “You wouldn’t tell someone with a broken leg to just get over it, so we need to treat emotional pain the same way.”

It also means regularly engaging your kids in talking about social interactions: why and how feelings get hurt and how to be healthily prosocial. Lieberman’s real dream: “I think we should have a Social Brain class in schools,” he says. “This is such an important part of life, and unlike nearly everything else, we’re really left to our own devices to figure it out. That would never happen with, say, learning to play the piano. Why do we let it happen with social skills?”

If You’re a Boss, Motivate Beyond Money

If You’re a Boss, Motivate Beyond Money

Big bucks have always motivated employees, but Lieberman suggests that part of the reason behind this might be social. “There is some evidence that part of the reason we value money may be because it’s a social marker — getting more is a visible sign that we’re more valuable to our community,” he says.

In a 2009 academic paper, Ian Larkin, an assistant professor at Harvard Business School, describes just how significant this type of motivation is in the workplace. Given a choice between recognition in a company’s “Presidents Club” (which acknowledged the top 10 percent of salespeople) or putting off sales a quarter for a bigger cash bonus, 68 percent of employees chose the Club. “Afterwards, some said things like, ‘I paid $30,000 for that gold star, and it was worth it,’” says Lieberman.

So what are effective motivators? David Rock, head of the Neuroleadership Institute, a research association that connects neuroscience with fields like management and leadership development, believes in the SCARF model: status, certainty, autonomy, relatedness and fairness. These are “the primary colors of intrinsic motivation,” Lieberman quoted him. Indeed, in one study, how fair employees perceive workplace decisions to be accounted for 20 percent of the differences in their productivity.

Indulge in “Social Snacking”

Indulge in “Social Snacking”

You know that little package of carrots and hummus you nibble at your desk when heavy deadlines don’t allow for a full lunch hour? There is a social equivalent: “social snacking,” a term coined by psychologists Wendi Gardner and Cindy Pickett to describe virtual social interactions. Examples include looking at a picture of a loved one, for instance, or writing about her — and studies show these can offer some of the benefits of traditional social connections. So go ahead: Cover your desk in photos of your family. It’s good for you.

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