Human Connections help us heal faster
Having been an expat for over 15 years now, I have missed countless birthdays, wedding anniversaries, engagements, childbirths, christenings, even the funeral of my grandfather. My husband has strong preferences for introversion, so we don't have any couple-friends to go out and share experiences or rituals with. I admit, it's easy to forget how strong and useful the bonds of social structure can be.
Thankfully, I have found an Ersatz-family in my Toastmasters club and a handful of local friends. Three of whom are pregnant right now, so ask me again in 6 months how I feel about baby showers. Still, with my own preferences for Extraversion and all, I couldn't live without them. The research I'm going to share with you now hasn't included specifics on personality types, yet it is suggesting that human connections indeed provide health benefits to introverts and extraverts alike.
1. Janelle Jones and Jolanda Jetten found that "multiple group memberships promote the resilience in the face of physical challenges".
They found that belonging to multiple groups was associated with faster heart rate recovery for novice bobsleigh, luge, and skeleton athletes (Study 1) and that the salience of a greater number of group memberships led to greater endurance on a cold-pressor task (Study 2). Importantly, these effects were unchanged when controlling for individual differences in responses to the challenge, challenge perceptions, and group membership importance. The authors argue that multiple group memberships reflect an important psychological resource from which individuals draw strength when faced with life challenges and speculate as to the mechanisms underlying this effect.
In other words, next time one of your friends or club members is sick, consider the impact a simple phone call or signed card can have on their get-well-being.
2. Barbara Fredrickson cites research in this New York Times Op Ed piece that also suggests empathic connections positively influence our health.
When you share a smile or laugh with someone face to face, a discernible synchrony emerges between you, as your gestures and biochemistries, even your respective neural firings, come to mirror each other. It’s micro-moments like these, in which a wave of good feeling rolls through two brains and bodies at once, that build your capacity to empathize as well as to improve your health. If you don’t regularly exercise this capacity, it withers. Lucky for us, connecting with others does good and feels good, and opportunities to do so abound.
Her studies showed that plasticity extends beyond our brain's neurons. "Lovingkindness", or the art of nurturing supportive and empathic connections, is a skill that can be learned. And as it is learned, it increases your vagal tone (heart-brain connection), allowing your body to better regulate internal processes like glucose levels or even immune system responses. Which in turn feeds back into your capacity for loving kindness.
In short, the more attuned to others you become, the healthier you become, and vice versa.
The photo above shows Liz Gilbert and Ketut, and she describes her experiences with this medicine man in her book, Eat Pray Love. He encouraged her to meditate, and to learn to smile with her liver. Is that something you think you could do right now? Close your eyes, count to five heartbeats in your next five deep inhalations and exhalations, and smile. You'll feel better, and hey - it's healthy. :-)
Image by Meg Cheng, Flickr, Creative Commons License.