How Social Support Nourishes the Brain and Helps You Live Longer

“I’ll just take care of it myself.” 

“I’ll figure out how to get through it on my own.” 

“I’m ashamed, I’ll keep it to myself.” 

“If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” 

“I’ll just pick myself up by the bootstraps.” 

“No one will understand, so I won’t say anything about it.” 

“No one else is talking about it, why should I?” 

These are some phrases I hear a lot of, and for a good portion of my life I let this “lone wolf” mindset dictate my actions. However, as I gain more life experience and get longer in the tooth (you’re old if you know “long in the tooth” is a reference to getting old), I’ve come to realize that the lone-wolf mindset is a way to get nowhere fast. I, and all of us, need social support.

Even if I can do something well on my own, I’ll need some amount of help with it. There is no such thing as a self-made man or woman; human beings are meant to work as a collective (of varying degrees).

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Social support is tremendously important and provides much-needed nourishment, contributing to a healthy or healthier brain.

Studies have shown that without social support or with minimal social support, there is an increased risk of depression, alcohol use, suicide ideation and attempts, cardiovascular disease, and diminished brain function.

Social support can improve motivation and can help in rational and healthy decision making. We typically think of peer pressure as a bad thing and something to be avoided. But peers and social groups can influence you in a more positive way and help you engage in healthier behaviors. You want to quit an unhealthy habit? It’s much easier when you have the support of the people around you. You want to improve a skill or personal attribute? Spend more time with someone whose skill you can learn from or someone whom you admire for the attribute you want to improve upon. You are the company you keep.
Finding support is crucial but the support you provide to others is not to be overlooked either.

Helping others provides a sense of meaning. In one sociological study, Americans who described themselves as “very happy” volunteered at least 5.8 hours per month. Another study showed that seniors who volunteered 200 hours per year decreased their risk for hypertension by 40 percent. You can help people in a variety of ways and for many different reasons. Help a kid tie their shoe, you can provide meals to the homeless, or work as an elected public servant. You can offer support for love, to build your skillset and expertise, or with the expectation of some reciprocal action.

Take time to check in with your support system on a regular basis, giving and taking without keeping score.

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