Health Benefits of Social Networks

The benefits of social networks are much bigger than supporting recovery from substance use issues. There are various aspects of social connection that affect health in general:  

  • Social isolation refers to the relative absence of social relationships. Social isolation of otherwise healthy, well-functioning individuals eventually results in psychological and physical disintegration and even death. Mental health and substance use are called diseases of “isolation,” and many view the opposite of addiction as a connection. 
  • Social integration refers to the overall level of involvement with formal and informal social relationships. Social relationships have short- and long-term health effects that emerge in childhood and continue throughout adulthood. They have a cumulative effect on health over time, and individuals who are more socially connected are healthier and live longer than their more isolated peers.
  • Quality of relationships refers to the positive (e.g., emotional support) and/or negative (conflict and stress) aspects of relationships. These costs and benefits of social relationships are not distributed equally, which contributes to health disparities.
  • Social networks refer to the web of social relationships surrounding an individual, measured in terms of (size and diversity) depth, breadth, and scope.

How does this all work? Many theorize that social relationships improve health through behavioral, psychosocial, and physiological mechanisms:

  • Behavioral – In the US, behavior explains about 40 percent of premature deaths, chronic diseases, and disabilities because social ties influence healthy and risky behaviors.
  • Psychosocial – Several psychosocial mechanisms explain how social ties promote health, including: 
    • Social support – Hundreds of studies establish that social support benefits mental and physical health by reducing the impact of stress, fostering a sense of meaning and purpose,  and regulating reduced blood pressure, heart rate, and stress hormones.  
    • Personal control – Social ties enhance personal control, an individuals’ beliefs that they can control their life outcomes through their own actions and, in turn, their health.  In the recovery field, we often call this confidence or self-efficacy. 
    • Symbolic meaning – The meaning tied to a relationship that can drive healthy or unhealthy habits. For example, transition-aged youth often point to the meaning attached to peer groups (e.g., what it takes to be popular) when explaining the influence of peers on alcohol, tobacco, and drug use. Likewise, members of the social model program may point to their peer group when explaining why they participate in a particular mutual aid meeting.
    • Social norms – The healthy or unhealthy behaviors that are normalized, encouraged, or discouraged within a relationship or network of relationships. Norms help explain social contagions, such as the spread of obesity across social networks due to behaviors around food consumption or inactivity or the spread of binge drinking across coworkers due to activities around coping with a stressful job.
    • Mental health – A state of well-being in which individuals realize their own abilities, can cope with stresses, can work productively, and contribute to their community (WHO). 
    • Interconnected mechanism –  The psychosocial mechanisms listed above interplay in complex ways to either promote or undermine health. 
  • Physiological – Social ties can promote physiological health, boosting the immune, endocrine, and cardiovascular functions and reduce stress as the result of “the wear and tear” chronically overworked physiological systems. This effect is cumulative over a lifetime.  Emotionally supportive childhood environments promote the healthy development of regulatory systems, including immune, metabolic, and autonomic nervous systems, as well as the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis, with long-term consequences for adult health. In adulthood, social support can regulate stressors and physiological responses