If you want to improve your mental performance immediately, socialize. That’s the intriguing finding of a recent study published in the medical journal PLOS ONE.

Researchers at the Center for Healthy Aging at Penn State University studied 362 adults between the ages of 70 and 90 for 16 days. Five times each day, the study participants were prompted via smartphone to report how many digital or face-to-face social interactions they’d had, who they interacted with, and whether it was a positive or negative experience. The participants also took cognitive tests after each prompt to measure focus and memory. The researchers found that when the study participants interacted more frequently with people they were close to—especially friends—they performed better on the cognitive tests than people who interacted less frequently. They also found that cognition improved when a study participant who didn’t have much regular contact with family or friends increased their contacts.

Lack of positive social interactions in daily life could be a critical factor for declining cognitive function later in life, the researchers concluded. This study isn’t the first to link social connection with better mental (and physical) health.

Relationship Rx

There are three ways that family and friends might improve health, the researchers said:

  • Family and friends encourage you to see a doctor when you’re sick, to eat a healthier diet, and to take other actions that protect health.
  • Strong social relationships buffer the effects of stress. Stress weakens the immune system, hurts the heart, and damages the body in many other ways.
  • Relationships provide a sense of meaning and purpose to life—a factor that some studies show protects your health.

A recent study conducted by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin shows that people with more social contacts also have higher levels of physical activity, spend less time in sedentary behavior (sitting or lying around), have more positive moods, and have fewer negative behaviors—all of which are linked to resistance to disease and better health.

When researchers at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill analyzed the link between social relationships and health in more than 14,000 people, they found that strong social ties were linked to four factors strongly linked to better health: lower blood pressure, lower weight, less abdominal fat, and lower inflammation. In that study, having a big social network was more important for adolescents and the elderly in terms of health benefits, but in a person’s 30s, 40s, and 50s, the quality of relationships mattered more.

Improving your social life

There are several ways that you can increase the quality and quantity of your social contacts:

Make small interactions count. When you find yourself out in public, interact with people you don’t know. Make small talk in the checkout line at the grocery store. Chat with other grandparents at the playground. It’s surprising how much pleasure and positivity you can get out of even brief contact with another person.

Don’t rely on social media. Social media can give you a false sense of social support. It tends to provide validation in terms of how many “likes” a posted photo receives, or how many “friends” you have on Facebook. But that is a skewed assessment of connections. In fact, studies show people who spend a lot of time on social media tend to feel lonelier and depressed, not more connected and happier. To make the most of social media, use it in moderation, limiting your time to about 30 minutes a day. Use it to increase connection with important people in your life you otherwise wouldn’t interact with, like relatives who don’t live in your immediate area.

Be mindful. Many of us spend time in face-to-face conversation not paying positive attention to the person we’re interacting with. Instead, we focus on ourselves, judge the other person, think about what we’re going to say next, or even think about something else entirely. Those mental and emotional habits don’t create strong connections.

To increase the skill of being present in conversations, change your focus. For example, rather than thinking ahead about what you want to say, focus your visual attention on the person’s eyes or mouth and listen to what they’re saying. Also, don’t always talk about yourself: Ask questions about the other person’s thoughts and experiences, and then fully attend to their answers.

Pick positive people. Before you try to increase positive contact with people, think about who in your life is really positive to be around. A positive relationship with a family member or friend should be balanced, with give and take, rather than one person dominating the conversation. Interactions should leave you feeling better about yourself, not worse.

Keep negative conversations short. If you have negative relationships that you want to maintain or feel you must maintain—like with a difficult parent, sibling, or co-worker—make your interactions shorter. To end a conversation, say something like, “I’ve enjoyed talking with you and hope we can pick this up some other time.” Or let the other person know you have somewhere you need to be. It’s okay to limit a conversation or interaction; you don’t need to put other people’s needs before yours.

Agree to disagree. There are charged topics that are difficult to talk about because people have very strong, fixed opinions. Think politics and the pandemic. If a conversation becomes opinion-based, discuss the topic briefly, share your opinion, agree to disagree, and then redirect the conversation to other topics where there is empathy.

But don’t fear confrontation. To maintain a close relationship, you need to face and work out disagreements and difficulties. If there is a difference in opinion, speak to your family member or friend in a way that isn’t accusatory or blaming. For example, say “Right now, I’m feeling hurt—can we talk about that?” rather than “You hurt me.” The key is never making the other person responsible for how you are feeling.

Another important skill for resolving conflict is actually resolving it. Yes, talk through how you and the other person are feeling. But then quickly come to a solution with both people giving their ideas, finding what works as a compromise, and then acting on the solution. There is no resolution unless there is follow through.

Find like-minded friends. People who share activities they enjoy tend to spend more time with each other. Find someone to exercise with. Join a club. There are several websites—such as www.meetup.com—that allow you to join or create groups of people in your area who share your interests.

Return to your workplace. If you’re continuing to work at home because of the pandemic, consider going into the office a couple of days a week. Research clearly links social connections at work and better mental health.

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