Memorial Day, the unofficial herald of summer: beach volleyball, backyard BBQs, picnics, and parades. For some of us, Memorial Day signifies a day off from work, sleeping in and forgoing the alarm, maybe hitting the sales racks. For others, the day signals trips to memorials or cemeteries with family.

If you tend to keep to yourself on this day, you might want to re-consider participating in your family's annual BBQ or heading to the local parade with a group of friends.

Holidays and social events offer the opportunity to gather with others to laugh and bond. But mounting research suggests that people who are part of a group also fare far better when it comes to conquering bad health and improved quality of life. And studies show that the effects (positive and negative) of social relationships emerge in childhood.

If you're on the fence, consider this. Social activities have been shown to positively influence our health by reducing stress, and satisfying social relationships have been shown to result in fewer health problems and longer, happier lives. The opposite - isolated, less social lives - has been linked to depression and cognitive decline, according to reports in the Harvard Women's Health Watch.

One study of 4,775 adults in Alameda County, Calif. showed that individuals who maintained strong social connections were more likely to live longer than those who lived more isolated lives. Subjects were rated using a social network index, which translated their answers into a number. A high number indicated a strong amount of social contacts while a low number represented social isolation. Over the following nine years, researchers tracked the subjects' health. Isolating specific factors - such as smoking and varying backgrounds - the researchers found that people who placed lower on the social network showed an increased risk of death, implicating social isolation as a major risk factor for poor health.

But what makes social connections healthy connections? Research suggests that biological and behavioral factors account for the health benefits of connecting with friends and family. Some research points to the stress reduction when we're happily supported and surrounded by a social circle. Stress, which can wreak havoc on the immune system and negatively affect coronary arteries, seems to be lessened when we're social. Research also suggests that the social support and care we offer enhances our well-being too.

Of course, holidays - Memorial Day included - can be hot spots for bad habits: excessive drinking and heapfuls of unhealthy foods. Piling your plate with potato salad in the company of others doesn't make it any healthier. What does make for a meaningful holiday is fostering supportive relationships, spending quality time with peers and family, and engaging in healthy activities, all of which can contribute to a happy holiday - and possibly an increased sense of well-being.

Source: House J.S., Landis KR, Umberson D. Social Relationships and Health. Science Mag. 2010.