Giving social support to others may boost your health

December 12, 2021

Listen to this article

Giving social support to others may boost your health

When it comes to your health, being willing to give social support to your spouse, friends, family and colleagues may be just as important as receiving, a new study suggests.

Researchers have long thought that receiving social support from others is a key to health, so a team of researchers decided to see if giving support may also play an important role in health. They found that on one important measure of health – chronic inflammation – indicators of positive social relationships were associated with lower inflammation only among people who said they were available to provide social support to family and friends.

What they found was that having friends to lean on may not help your health unless you also say that you’re available to help them when they need it.

What the researchers say: “Positive relationships may be associated with lower inflammation only for those who believe they can give more support in those relationships,” said the lead author of the study.

The results show that the healing power of good relationships comes from the fact that the support is mutual.

“It may be that when people believe they can give more support to friends and family, these relationships are especially rewarding and stress-relieving, which reduces inflammation,” the researchers said.

The study used data from 1,054 participants in the National Survey of Midlife Development in the U.S. These were all healthy adults between 34 and 84 years old.

Participants completed a questionnaire that measured their “social integration,” asking if they were married or living with a partner, how often they contacted family and friends, and how often they attended social groups or activities. Participants also completed a measure of how much they believed they could rely on their family, friends, spouse or colleagues if they needed help.

The key to this research is the fact that the dataset is one of the few that also asked participants to rate how much they were available to support those people.

About two years after the first screening, participants returned for blood tests, which included a test for interleukin-6 (IL-6), which is a marker of systemic inflammation in the body.

“Higher levels of IL-6 are associated with increased risk for many of the diseases that are the top killers of Americans, including cardiovascular disease and cancer,” the researchers commented. “That’s why we thought it was important to find out why previous studies found such weak evidence for the link between social support and lower inflammation.”

The findings showing the importance of being available to help others held true even after taking into account a broad range of other factors that may affect inflammation, such as age, income, education, health behaviors, medication use and diagnosed medical conditions.

The study does give “a more nuanced understanding” of the link between health and relationships, he concluded.

So, what? This is a really important study and should be required reading for every leader and aspiring leader. Inflammation is associated with many problems that reduce productivity, flexibility and engagement such as burnout, depression, anxiety and chronic stress (work stress may well be a causal factor in many types of inflammation).

We have long said that successful relationships depend on a mutual satisfaction of needs. This came out of research we did at the University of South Florida in conjunction with the anti-depression “Uplift Program” which we originated and ran. The mutuality is important in the work context as it’s the basis of collaboration.

Jesus reportedly said “’Tis more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35), perhaps we should add “’Tis also healthier.”

For more on social support click here.

Dr Bob Murray

Bob Murray, MBA, PhD (Clinical Psychology), is an internationally recognised expert in strategy, leadership, influencing, human motivation and behavioural change.

Join the discussion

Join our tribe

Subscribe to Dr. Bob Murray’s Today’s Research, a free weekly roundup of the latest research in a wide range of scientific disciplines. Explore leadership, strategy, culture, business and social trends, and executive health.

Thank you for subscribing.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form. Check your details and try again.