Lonely this Christmas? Social support is crucial for health and wellbeing

Social isolation can be tough, particularly at Christmas, says Mike Murphy, from the Department of Applied Psychology at UCC - so why not reach out to someone?
Lonely this Christmas? Social support is crucial for health and wellbeing

FESTIVE FEARS? Contact someone you have lost touch with, suggests Mike Murphy

CHRISTMAS. What does the word evoke for you?

The Christmas tree, gifts, garish jumpers, open fires, excited kids, Christmas lights in town?

All of these things and more besides, I’m sure, but I doubt there are many people for whom their impression of Christmas doesn’t involve spending time with other people - friends, family; intimate, trusted, positive company.

But that of course is just a stereotypical view. We all know there are plenty of people who are isolated, alone and lonely most of the year, including Christmas, and in general that is a very uncomfortable experience for humans - we are a social species and we have evolved to be in groups.

There is a very good reason that solitary confinement is considered a cruel punishment.

This notion that positive social engagement of some sort (what in psychology is called ‘social support’) is a very important thing is so commonly held as to seem almost a given - which in turn means it’s a good idea to question it.

But in fact there is a lot of research evidence in the area.

We commonly think of social support in relation to well-being, and there are many reviews that show an association across a wide range of people and settings - higher levels of reported social support predict wellbeing in people with depression, those recovering from heart disease, familial caregivers of young people with autistic spectrum disorder, kids and adolescents, and older adults among others.

Interestingly, a 2022 review of the research on online social support in adolescents found little evidence of a relationship with mental health, though there was some indication of a link to satisfaction with life - online support, however, didn’t seem as powerful as real-world support.

A review of Facebook-based social support, focused mostly on younger adults, did find a possible positive effect in relation to mental illness and psychological wellbeing. There is a toxic side to online social activity too, of course, and exposure to that cyber-bullying and other malicious behaviour can have the reverse effect.

Perhaps more surprisingly, there is also evidence of a relationship of social support and physical health. Reviews from the 1990s found that increased social ties were associated with reduced death rates among people recovering from heart attack.

Facebook-based support has been found to be linked to greater physical health. Recent laboratory research conducted in UL has found that higher social support (both giving and receiving) is associated with healthier physical responses to stress.

A 2021 review of the research even found a significant relationship between social support and cognitive ability (and one of my favourite ever research findings, from a large Swedish study, found social support was a better predictor of heart disease than smoking! Having quit cigarettes, I now just have to make some friends…).

Mike Murphy, from the Department of Applied Psychology at UCC
Mike Murphy, from the Department of Applied Psychology at UCC

How might all of this work? In terms of our mental wellbeing, it seems that positive engagement with others is just healthy - leading to better self-esteem and a greater sense of mastery in our lives.

Interestingly, and consistent with the evidence on the physical stress response, it appears that social support is especially beneficial at times of greater stress.

For physical health, the mere biological presence of friends may be enough to benefit us - consistent with the evolutionary perspective. The physical effects can also come from positive peer influence on our health-related behaviours.

Of course, it’s not one-size-fits-all - everyone is different. There is evidence to show that women benefit more than men from emotional support. Research we have conducted here in UCC has found that more inherently anxious (neurotic) people seem to benefit more in levels of depression, and that older people appear to benefit more from emotional social support - particularly having a confidant - than younger people do.

There is some fascinating research suggesting that people from less individualistic cultures may benefit less from simply receiving social support and more from a reciprocal two-way support relationship.

So there is variation, but overall it seems social support is important to both physical and mental wellbeing.

Most of us benefit very much from friends or even friendly encounters (I’m sure there have been times a few pleasant words with a stranger have brightened your day).

Social isolation can be tough, and perhaps particularly at a time like Christmas, where people aren’t at work or aren’t seeing their usual contacts, and are surrounded by movies, ads, songs celebrating togetherness.

So why not take the time this Christmas season to contact an old friend or acquaintance with whom you’ve lost touch?

Whether you feel they might be isolated, or you’re feeling isolated yourself, or you’d just like to catch up, there’s every chance the call will be welcome and that you’ll both benefit from the experience.

It might add years to your life (and life to your years)!

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