The story of the self-made woman or man who came from nothing to something without the help of a single person is an urban myth. If you read any successful person's biography, there was always someone (usually many people) who helped and supported her or him along the way.
Now, here is the kicker...if the myth of the self-made person was true...it is unlikely that that person would even be able to enjoy her or his retirement days!
That is because social support, or lack thereof, has a very real effect on our health including our longevity (Ozbay et. al, 2007). Meaning, our health generally improves when we feel like part of a community and declines when we feel isolated.
One study found that participants with greater social involvement were less likely to experience heart-related complications (Reblin & Uchino, 2008). Social support systems affect us in many ways by providing a buffer to stress. They are a resource that enhances our coping (dare I say, our natural thriving) skills and they have also been linked to the actualization of healthy behaviors such as: increased fruit and vegetable consumption, exercise, and the cessation of smoking.
This may seem like common sense. But the research dives even deeper to discover that the state-of-mind and method of support that the person giving the support utilities also has an effect on health outcomes. Meaning even though our advice is well-intentioned, the manner in which we give it and...how it is perceived matters.
For instance, let's take a peek at this study between married couples. Those spouses that engaged in truly supportive behaviors i.e. they merely helped or positively reinforced their spouses' efforts had partners who experienced better mental health outcomes. This is in contrast to those spouses that exerted more controlling patterns such as forcefully trying to change the other person. The partners of those folks actually predicted worse mental health and overall health behavior. (Franks & Stephens, 2006)
So social support has the tendency to affect not only our physical health, but our mental health as well.
I mean listen to this...even Vietnam veterans with strong support systems were 180% less likely to experience symptoms of PTSD than those with lower levels of support (Boscarino et. al, 1995).
Indeed, there is quite a robust catalog of studies that link social support to more favorable physical and emotional health outcomes.
Social support, as defined in the research, is often described in two ways.
a. This speaks to us having many different social groups that we are involved in ranging from social units such our families, work colleagues, neighbors, friend groups, or organized (therapeutic, interest-based, religion-based) groups.
a. This speaks to actual outcomes that occur within these groups such as the giving and receiving of emotional support, favors, and also support in the form of logistics such as assisting with food, housing, childcare, or financially.
This is important to mention because it shows that it is not only the amount of social groups we are apart of but the quality of our interactions within those different communities that matters most to us.
Ok. So what does all this research mean to us in the real-world?
1. It confirms the notion that social support is a pretty important component of experiencing optimal physical and mental health.
2. That it matters not only how many support systems you have access to, but the quality of your perceived interactions and support received.
3. The way in which we give and receive support from one another matters. Gestures and actions taken from a place of thoughtfulness, non-judgment, presence, and encouragement have a much greater impact on health, than do supportive behaviors which attempt to cajole, threaten, punish, or force change in others.
A final word of encouragement.
These studies are to highlight the hope and uplifting power that any of us can tap into through social circles. However, having access to robust social networks provides only one buffer to stress out of many pathways and it is something we always have the possibility to experience more of if we desire.
If you are currently experiencing social anxiety, loneliness, or a chronic condition, I want to remind you of your innocence and worth. Please do not worry or blame yourself if things aren't going too well at the moment. That is not the purpose of this article. Plus, the truth is that studies just highlight generalized information. There are outliers in every study.
I also want to share these final two key take-homes with you.
#1. One study found people who reporting giving support (not receiving it) experienced even more positive results in their lives. And ironically, those who reported giving more support ended up receiving more support (Piferi & Lawler, 2006).
#2. In a study of one support group, it was found that some of the group members experienced negative health effects, even with they self-reported positive social support and less anxiety (Cousson-Gelie et. al, 2007). The researchers speculated that it was because the participants did not allow themselves to fully feel their negative emotions.
So here is the bottom line: the best thing you can do for yourself is be authentic to yourself...to what your feeling..to where you are at...and just keep an open mind out for opportunities you come across to learn more about being human and the capacity for healing.
Call to action: If you haven't yet, I highly recommend Anita Moorjani's book, "Dying To Be Me" which describes her miraculously healing. She also does a deep dive into what I just mentioned...the art and power of living authentically and following our own unique insights.
In closing, here at Mental Happy, community is at the core of our mission. We exist to provide education, inspiration, practical tools, and support in order to guide you towards your own innate wellbeing and ability to heal. No matter what circumstance you are going through, you do have wisdom to share that could benefit us all. Every person's voice matters...and we really mean that.
As the saying goes, "Two heads are better than one." This article shows how this can be true.
Share your voice with us today and (join our Mental Happy Community) if you haven't already.