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Social contact in everyday life and mental well-being

A neurobiological study underlines the importance of social contact in everyday life for mental health. The results are particularly relevant in view of the pandemic.

People who benefit more from social contact show higher social competence and altered structure in a part of the frontal lobe associated with resilience and risk for mental illness.

People who benefit more from social contact show higher social competence and altered structure in a part of the frontal lobe associated with resilience and risk for mental illness. Foto: © Rawpixel.com / stock.adobe.com

Researchers at the Central Institute of Mental Health (CIMH) and the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) show that mental well-being is increased in everyday life in the company of other people. People who benefit more from social contact show higher social competence and an altered brain structure in a part of the frontal lobe associated with resilience and risk for mental illness. The findings emphasize the importance of social contact in everyday life for mental health.

Getting things off your chest, laughing together, sharing pleasant experiences or simply spending time together – most people feel good when they are in the company of others and seek out social interaction. It has also been shown that social support is a protective factor for mental and physical health. However, little research has been done to better understand how mental well-being is related to social contact in everyday life and which brain areas play a role in this. 

People in company feel better

A team of researchers led by Prof. Dr. Dr. Heike Tost and Prof. Dr. Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, with significant participation by Dr. Gabriela Gan and Ren Ma, all from the Department of Psychiatry and Psychotherapy at the CIMH in Mannheim, has now demonstrated that the association between social contact and mental well-being in everyday life is linked to social competence and altered volume in the frontal lobe. In a study published in the journal JAMA Psychiatry, they found that people feel better in everyday life when they are in the company of other people than when they are alone. This association was particularly pronounced in people who exhibit highly developed social skills, in this case the ability to seek social support in stressful situations and to be agreeable when interacting with others. “In addition, we were able to show for the first time that people who benefit more from social contact have increased brain volume in the anterior cingulate cortex. This part of the frontal lobe is associated with the processing of emotions in social situations as well as resilience and risk for mental illness”, says Prof. Dr. Dr. Heike Tost, head of the Systems Neuroscience in Psychiatry research group at CIMH. 

Interdisciplinary team combines several methods

The research team led by Tost and Meyer-Lindenberg combined several methods from the fields of epidemiology, psychology and brain imaging in their latest study. In addition to the CIMH-researchers, Dr. Marco Giurgiu, Jun.-Prof. Dr. Markus Reichert and Prof. Dr. Ulrich Ebner-Priemer, all from the KIT, played a leading role in the study. Over a period of seven days, study participants repeatedly reported on their mental well-being and social contact (alone or in company) while they went about their daily routines using short queries presented via smartphone. Using these everyday assessment procedures (the so-called ambulatory assessment), the authors first showed in a group of 100 individuals that increased mental well-being was directly associated with social contact. That is, participants felt better when they were in company than when they were alone. In addition to the everyday ambulatory assessment, magnetic resonance imaging was used to measure the brain volume in another group of 177 persons at the CIMH. In this group, the association between daily-life social contact and mental well-being was confirmed. In addition, participants who benefited more from social contact showed higher social competence (assessed via online questionnaires) and higher gray matter volume in the anterior cingulate cortex. This area of the cerebral cortex is important for processing and evaluating emotions in social situations and also plays a role in resilience and risk for mental illness. 

Fostering real-life social contact is important for mental health

The survey was completed before the outbreak of the Covid 19 pandemic. Still, the results are especially relevant in light of the pandemic, which has been accompanied by significant social distancing measures and an increased incidence of mental illness. “We know from previous studies that people with mental illness often have fewer social contacts, but also benefit greatly from social contacts. Therefore, it is important to promote social interactions especially in this group”, says Dr. Gabriela Gan, one of the lead authors of the study. Among other things, the study’s findings suggest that developing effective prevention strategies, such as a smartphone app, could encourage vulnerable populations to regularly initiate positive social contacts in their daily lives. “In the long term, such interventions could strengthen social support and consequently improve mental well-being in everyday life in this group”, Gan adds. As long as social distancing is important to contain the pandemic, small groups, social media and virtual options, could be alternatives for experiencing social connection. 

Original publication: 
Gabriela Gan, Ren Ma, Markus Reichert, Marco Giurgiu, Ulrich Ebner-Priemer, Andreas Meyer-Lindenberg, and Heike Tost: Neural Correlates of Affective Benefit From Real-life Social Contact and Implications for Psychiatric Resilience. JAMA Psychiatry. DOI:10.1001/jamapsychiatry.2021.0560



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