Seven Elements of Good Mental Health: 7. Create social networks – The Prospering Soul

Life shouldn’t just be about avoiding poor health, but also enjoying good health. Our psychological health is no different.

Before we take a look at poor mental health, let’s look at some of the ways that people can enjoy good mental health and wellbeing. This next series of posts will discuss seven elements that are Biblically and scientifically recognised as important to people living richer and more fulfilling lives.

These aren’t the only ways that a person can find fulfilment, nor are they sure-fire ways of preventing all mental health problems either. They’re not seven steps to enlightenment or happiness either.   But applying these principles can improve psychosocial wellbeing, and encourage good mental health.

7. Create social networks

Before 2004, everyone knew what social networks were. Now when you talk about ‘social networks’, people assume you’re referring to Facebook. It seems like virtual social networking has been around forever, whereas in contrast, real social networking actually has.

We know this, because we’re wired for social interaction, with specific areas of the brain devoted to social behaviour, such as the orbitofrontal cortex, and there are neurotransmitters and hormones that are strongly associated with bonding and maintenance of social relationships, like oxytocin and β-endorphins. Research has also shown that both humans and other primates find social stimuli intrinsically rewarding – babies look longer at faces than at non-face stimuli, for example [1].

People who engage in social relationships are more likely to live longer, some estimate by an extra 50% [2]. Certainly it appears that the opposite is true. Loneliness predicts depressive symptoms, impaired sleep and daytime dysfunction, reductions in physical activity, and impaired mental health and cognition. At the biological level, loneliness is associated with altered blood pressure, increased stress hormone secretion, a shift in the balance of cytokines towards inflammation and altered immunity. Loneliness may predict mortality [3].

So what is loneliness, and conversely, what defines good social relationships? Fundamentally, good or bad social relationships are related to the quality of the social interaction. This rule applies equally to real social networks [3] and their on-line equivalents [4]. So quality is fundamentally more important than quantity in terms of friendships, with that quality strongly determined by the connection within those social relationships. For example, loneliness “can be thought of as perceived isolation and is more accurately defined as the distressing feeling that accompanies discrepancies between one’s desired and actual social relationships” [3].

The corollary is that friendship can be thought of as perceived connection within social relationships, or the comforting feeling that accompanies the match between one’s desired and actual social relationships.

So healthy social relationships aren’t defined by the size of your network, but by the strength of the connections that your network contains, relative to what’s important to you. Just because you’re not a vivacious extrovert who’s friends with everyone doesn’t mean that your social network is lacking. It also means that you can have meaningful connections to friends through social media, just as much as you can have meaningful connections through face to face interactions. It’s not the way you interact, but the quality of the connection that counts.

What is it about other people that makes us more likely to be their friends? Connection between friends is often the result of attraction to individuals of similar personalities or skills, although recent research suggests that friendship may be related to a much deeper level. Brent et al notes that “Humans are especially predisposed toward homophily, with recent evidence suggesting this even extends to the genetic level; people are more likely to be friends if they have similar genotypes. Taken together, these findings advocate the need to consider not only an individual’s genome, but also their metagenome, when asking questions about the causes of friendship biases … Unrelated friends are more likely to be genetically similar, equivalent to the level of fourth cousins, compared to unrelated strangers.” [1]

As Christians, we’re encouraged to engage with other Christians on a regular basis, which in our modern world, is through regular church attendance. As the Bible says in Hebrews 10:23-25, “Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how we may spur one another on towards love and good deeds, not giving up meeting together, as some are in the habit of doing, but encouraging one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.” But as the research has shown, it’s not just being part of the crowd, but connecting with those in the church in a meaningful way. It’s very easy to be lonely in a crowded church.

Always remember: “Befriend, and be a friend” – that’s how you’ll find benefit to your spirit, soul and body.

References

[1]        Brent LJ, Chang SW, Gariepy JF, Platt ML. The neuroethology of friendship. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences 2014 May;1316:1-17.
[2]        Holt-Lunstad J, Smith TB, Layton JB. Social relationships and mortality risk: a meta-analytic review. PLoS medicine 2010 Jul;7(7):e1000316.
[3]        Luo Y, Hawkley LC, Waite LJ, Cacioppo JT. Loneliness, health, and mortality in old age: a national longitudinal study. Social science & medicine 2012 Mar;74(6):907-14.
[4]        Oh HJ, Ozkaya E, LaRose R. How does online social networking enhance life satisfaction? The relationships among online supportive interaction, affect, perceived social support, sense of community, and life satisfaction. Computers in Human Behavior 2014;30:69-78.

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