Lots of past research has linked frequent social contact to better health and a longer life. But does that link taper off at a certain point, or even reverse? Is there such a thing as too much social activity?
A new paper by researchers Olga Stavrova and Dongning Ren at Tilburg University in the Netherlands investigated that question.
As they explain, most prior literature on this topic has assumed a linear relationship between social contact and health outcomes; in other words, the more activity, the better. “We questioned the assumption of linearity by examining the nonlinear association between social contact and health/longevity,” they write.
More social contact means better health – up to a point
One of the two studies they conducted used data from the European Social Survey. This is a large-scale international survey that examines peoples’ beliefs, values, and well-being in 37 European countries. Their data stretched from 2002–2018.
The 350,000 respondents included in this study indicated how often they meet socially with friends, relatives, or colleagues. Responses ranged on a seven-point scale from “never” to “every day.” Respondents also indicated their self-assessed level of physical health: very good, good, fair, bad, or very bad.
The researchers found that the frequency of social activity positively correlated with self-rated physical health in all 37 countries. But only up to the point of “several times a month” – after that, the association flattens out. Increasing the frequency of social contacts from that level to “daily” did not significantly correlate with any additional benefits.
Too much social contact linked to more … death
Their second study used data from the German Socio-Economic Panel (SOEP) taken from 1995 – 2013, and includes about 50,000 participants. In this group as well, increasing the frequency of social activity beyond once a month did not correlate with any significant improvement in health. In fact, the positive association actually reverses beyond once-a-month contact. More frequent interactions than that predict worse physical health. And the strength of this association increases the more the frequency of the social contacts increases.
Fascinatingly, the researchers write, “never seeing family members and relatives was equally bad as seeing them daily.”
When it came to mortality rates, i.e. how long the respondents were likely to survive, the researchers found similar results. As the frequency of social contact moved from “never” to “seldom,” and from seldom to at least once a month, the likelihood of death decreased.
But increasing frequencies beyond this point, for example from monthly to weekly or from weekly to daily, actually correlated with a higher risk of mortality. As the researchers put it, “interaction frequency beyond a certain point (e.g., daily) can even be associated with higher mortality risks and lower survival time.”
Participants with a moderate frequency of social activity (for example monthly) lived the longest, the study found.
The strength of these associations is considerable. For example, the researchers found a 10% decrease in the risk of mortality (i.e. death) when the frequency of social contact was monthly, versus “never.” Likewise, as the amount of social contact increases from monthly to daily, they found an 8% increase in the risk of death.
Why is too much social contact bad for you?
Why might daily social contact correspond to worse health outcomes? The researchers tested a few theories.
For example, they investigated, and dismissed, the possibility that deteriorating health might explain why daily social contact correlates with more mortality, i.e. because ill people are more likely to need and seek out extra contact and support. In fact, their research found that if anything, deteriorating health correlates with less social contact, not more.
Researchers Stavrova and Ren suggest that these results fit with the idea of marginal utility, whereby any additional unit of a consumed good (in this case social interaction) yields smaller and smaller benefits. At a certain point, further consumption does not yield any benefits at all, and in fact becomes unpleasant or burdensome. Think, for example, of the benefits of eating one piece of pizza versus ten pieces.
Another possibility is that extremely frequent social contact can divert resources from other health-benefitting activities. One example is solitude: not spending enough time alone correlates with reduced well-being. And research has found that some activities, like enjoying wilderness, are more enjoyable in solitude. Too much social contact can deprive us of these valuable me-time moments.
Furthermore, sometimes social contact itself can be stressful, and much research has linked stress to poor health. Socializing can also interfere with other aspects of life, such as work or family time. Having too much social contact might be associated with lower-quality social contacts. And some people might maintain a high amount of social contacts not because they want to, but because they feel they have to.
Finding your social comfort zone
“Our results showed that higher frequency of social interactions is not necessarily associated with the best outcomes,” the authors conclude. “Instead, a more moderate frequency of social contacts can be considered optimal: socializing with others on a weekly or even monthly basis seems to be sufficient to yield the health benefits often associated with social relationships.”
“A higher (e.g., daily) frequency of social contacts is no longer associated with better health,” they write, “and is even related to higher mortality risks.”
In terms of future research, they write, “We hope that further studies would shed light on social or cultural norms that could prescribe individuals to socialize with others beyond the personally comfortable level.”
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Study: “Is More Always Better? Examining the Nonlinear Association of Social Contact Frequency With Physical Health and Longevity“
Authors: Olga Stavrova and Dongning Ren
Published in: Social Psychological and Personality Science
Publication date: October 5, 2020
Photo: by Antonino Visalli via Unsplash