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Why a Little Socializing Goes a Long Way

Seeing people weekly or monthly may be healthier than daily.

Key points

  • Socializing with other humans has been linked to better health and a longer life.
  • Two studies published in 2021 found that beyond a certain point, more socializing is not always better.
  • Seeing other people weekly or monthly could be as good for health and longevity, or maybe better, than seeing them daily.
Daniel Fazio/Unsplash
Source: Daniel Fazio/Unsplash

Social scientists have conducted many studies that seem to suggest that people need interactions with other people. Socializing with other humans has been linked to better health and a longer life. But can there be too much of a good thing?

Typically, researchers look at the overall trends in their data for evidence that more contact with other people is a good thing. But what if they looked more closely, to see whether, after a certain point, seeing other people more often is no longer linked to better health and a longer life, and may even undermine those good outcomes? That’s what Olga Stavrova and Dongning Ren did in two big studies published in “Is More Always Better?” in Social Psychological and Personality Science in 2021.

The Two Studies

The first study was based on survey data from more than 390,000 adults of all ages from 37 European nations. The participants indicated how often they meet socially with friends, relatives, and colleagues. They could choose among these options: never, less than once a month, once a month, several times a month, once a week, several times a week, or every day. They also answered a question about their health, “How is your health in general?” Possible answers ranged from very bad to very good. In this study, Stavrova and Ren looked at the link between socializing and health at one point in time.

In the second study, the researchers analyzed data from a survey in which nearly 50,000 adults of all ages were followed year after year, for up to five years. Each time they were surveyed, they answered questions about their physical health (“How would you describe your current health?”) and their social contacts. They were asked about the frequency of their mutual visits with two categories of people: (1) neighbors, friends, and acquaintances, and (2) family members and relatives. They could choose among these options to indicate how often they got together: never, seldom, at least once a month, at least once a week, and daily. The survey, the German Socio-Economic Panel study, also kept track of if and when any of the participants had died.

Physical Health: Beyond a Certain Point, More Socializing Is Not Better

In the first study, based on representative national data from 37 nations, people who socialized more had better health—but only up to a point. People who socialized several times a month had better health than people who socialized less often than that. But people who socialized more than several times a month enjoyed hardly any additional benefits to their health.

In the second study, in which close to 50,000 Germans were followed for years, the health implications of socializing with relatives and family members were even more remarkable. As in the first study, having some interaction was a good thing: going from never seeing family to seldom seeing them, and from seldom seeing them to seeing them at least once a month, was associated with improvements in overall health. However, people who saw their family more often than that (at least once a week or daily) actually had worse health. In fact, seeing relatives and family members every day was just as bad as never seeing them at all.

The results for friends, neighbors, and colleagues were similar to the results from the first study. Going from never seeing those people to seeing them as often as once a month was associated with better health. Seeing friends, neighbors, and colleagues more than once a month provided no additional health benefits.

Staying Alive: Beyond a Certain Point, More Socializing Is Risky

What about the ultimate outcome—mortality? Once again, the people who did best—those who were least likely to have died over the course of the study—were not the ones who socialized most often. They were the ones with just moderate levels of socializing—about once a month. The results were similar for socializing with friends, neighbors, and colleagues and for socializing with family members and relatives.

Going from never seeing those people to seeing them seldom, and going from seeing them seldom to seeing them at least once a month, was associated with staying alive. But anything beyond about once a month was linked with higher risks of dying.

Why Is Socializing Every Day No Better for Your Health, and Maybe Even Worse, Than Socializing Less Often?

Some people love socializing with other people. Seeing friends, neighbors, colleagues, family members, and relatives every single day is something they relish. So why did these two studies show that seeing people every day is associated with no better health benefits, and sometimes (for family) even worse health, than seeing them only once a month or a few times a month? And why would seeing people more often than about once a month put you at risk for a shorter life?

First, keep in mind something that is true of every study you ever learn about: results are based on the averages of all the people who participated in the research. There are always exceptions. Some people really will benefit from seeing people every single day. Other people might do fine even if they almost never see other people. The question is: Who are these people? We could ask the same question about the people we are seeing or not seeing: Who are those people? If, for example, you have family members who consistently make you feel badly about yourself, then the time you spend with them is not likely to be good for your health.

Stavrova and Ren offered several possible explanations for why a lot of socializing (more than about once a month) offers no additional benefits and may even be detrimental, though they did not have data to test any of them.

Some people love their solitude. Some people, such as people who are single at heart, savor their solitude. They rarely feel lonely when they are alone. Instead, solitude can provide valuable opportunities for relaxation, creativity, and spirituality, and for learning and growing. The risk to people who cherish the time they have to themselves is getting too little of it.

Social interactions can be stressful. Ideally, the time we spend with other people is enjoyable. That is especially likely to be true when we are with people because we want to be, and not because we feel obligated. Friends are often like that—they are our friends because we enjoy one another’s company. But social interactions, even interactions with friends, can end up being stressful for all sorts of reasons. That’s not good for your health, and it is especially not good if you have a lot of social interactions that are stressful.

Time spent socializing can take away from time that could be spent in other ways. Do you have interests you enjoy pursuing that do not involve other people? Do you enjoy your work, or do you want to devote time to it even if you don’t love it? Do you want to have time to exercise on your own? Spending a lot of time socializing can take time away from all the other kinds of things we like to do or want to do. That’s not likely to be good for our health.

LinkedIn/Facebook image: Monkey Business Images/Shutterstock

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