Humans are social creatures. We’re meant to have relationships and connections for our health and wellness. You could be eating a healthy well-balanced diet, getting enough sleep and exercising but still missing a vital part of your overall health. With an ageing population and the increased profile of mental health, the community is more aware of social health. Research has proven that good social wellness has both physical and mental benefits.
Social health can be defined as our ability to interact and form meaningful relationships with others. It also relates to how comfortably we can adapt in social situations. Social relationships have an impact on our mental health, physical health and mortality risk.
Over the years, sociologists have created a link between social relationships and health outcomes. Studies are showing that social relationships both quality and quantity are having short and long-term effects on our health.
Signs of Being Socially Healthy Include:
Our social health and social wellness are a vital part of our overall health and wellbeing. We interact with people every day. The quality and quantity of our relationships affect our mental and physical wellbeing. Maintaining a good level of social wellness lets you build interpersonal relationships with others. These relationships include friendships, intimate relationships, platonic, family, and professional (work) relationships.
Studies show that people with poor social interactions are more likely to die younger than those with high involvement rates.
Researchers have also linked the following health issues to poor social health:
Reflecting on ourselves and our relationships is a great way to asses our social health. We can start by looking at the signs of good social health and assessing whether these apply to your life.
Signs of good social health include:
For the first time, Western countries realise that life satisfaction of their citizens is just as important to measure as the Gross National Product (GDP). A country’s economic prosperity doesn’t mean much if its citizens are miserable. Multi-dimensional measures help assess a nation’s wellbeing.
Some governments are asking residents about their subjective wellbeing in national surveys. It was difficult to gain a good picture with just one question, so some countries have expanded the survey to ask:
The answers give policymakers a good idea of how their citizens are tracking and what policies are needed to improve the population’s social health and wellbeing.
Being lonely can kill. Researchers have made the comparison between being lonely and smoking 15 cigarettes per day - both are as deadly as each other. A person who is lonely is 50% more likely to die prematurely than a person who has healthy social relationships. Loneliness can reduce a person’s immune system and cause inflammation in the body which can lead to heart disease and other chronic conditions. Without social or emotional support, stress can place a bigger toll on a person’s health.
In the UK, 15-20% of the adult population described themselves as ‘often or always lonely.’ The UK government has recognised the size of the problem and introduced a Minister for Loneliness. The best way to beat loneliness is to meet new people and make friends throughout our lives.
Unfortunately, not all relationships are healthy. Relationships are the core of emotional support for most, but social relationships can sometimes be extremely stressful.
With time people change. You might have had much in common with a good friend at high school, but ten years later you have both moved in different directions and don’t enjoy the company as much as you do when you’re with others.
Some people change and can be a bad influence on friends. Not everyone can recognise that a friend is no longer a healthy influence and it takes a family member to point it out.
It’s important to have friends but they need to be good friendships. A positive friendship will bring out the best in you, encouraging you to achieve the things you want to do. It’s important to have friends who are a good influence in your life.
A poor friend is someone who:
The most worrying is when a relationship is toxic. One person may take advantage of the relationship by using the other person to do things for them and not return a favour.
In long-term relationships, one partner may control another through their bad temper. The angry outbursts mean their partner gives up trying to communicate with them for days and feels like they’re ‘walking on eggshells’, not knowing when the next outburst is coming. Another form of control, (usually in a long-term relationship) is suspicion and jealousy. It often increases as the relationship goes on, and the ‘victim’ has less freedom and more explaining to do about where they are going. Other bullies will belittle a friend or partner in front of others, often brushing it off as making a joke but it’s no joke when their behaviour hurts the other person.
A toxic relationship can do physical and mental harm to the ‘victim’s’ health.
Below are four examples of people whose living arrangements and relationships, influence their social health in a positive or negative way.
Example 1: Jenny, 37, was married for 10 years. For the last five years she was very unhappy in the relationship. The poor marital quality led a suppressed immune system so she suffered both physically and mentally. Research shows the negative effect of marital strain on health becomes greater with age. The strain damages health through cumulative wear and tear on physiological systems. Jenny didn’t want to spend the rest of her life this way, so she separated from her husband. Soon after moving into a new house, Jenny felt like she had a new lease on life. She met new people and enjoyed the company of her friends more often. Within two years, she had lost the excess weight caused by years of emotional eating and was happy in a new relationship.
Example 2: Matt, 28, completed a degree and started working full-time from the age of 22. Soon after, Matt moved out of his parents’ house. Living alone, Matt wouldn’t usually see or speak to anyone from the time he left work to the following day at work. He spent most of his free time online gaming and had a limited social life. Matt began drinking heavily to fill in the lonely hours and his health suffered. His depression and alcohol consumption meant his long-term health outlook was poor until he met a girlfriend. They see each other after work each day and socialise with friends on the weekend. They’re planning on getting married in the next couple of years. Matt will benefit from the social support marriage provides with a sense of feeling loved, cared for, and listened to.
Example 3: Bill is a 65-year-old married man living with his wife of 40 years. They have three children and five grandchildren who visit regularly. Bill and Shirley often care for their younger grandchildren to help their children. Bill visits the local Men’s Shed weekly to catch up with friends over lunch while working on a project. He also sees old colleagues every couple of weeks for a hit of golf and they usually spend Saturday nights at a restaurant with friends. Bill has excellent social health. He has relationships with a range of family and friends who he sees at home and out in the community.
Example 4: Ted is an 80-year-old man who lives on his own after his wife died five years ago. Ted has one son who lives overseas. With the time difference it’s hard to talk to his son more than once or twice a month. Ted retired from work 10 years ago. With no hobbies or interests he hasn’t joined any community groups. He spent four years caring for his sick wife and in that time lost touch with most of their friends. Ted takes a taxi to do the shopping when he needs, but other than that, he doesn’t leave the house much. Living alone and with few friends or family to see, he has become depressed. Ted is sedentary most days sitting in front of the TV. As a result, his physical health has deteriorated fast in the last few years due to his poor social health.
Good social skills are a learned behaviour that takes practice. But it’s not too late for anyone to improve their social wellness. Every stage of life has opportunities for enjoying a socially healthy life.
Before you can set out to improve your social wellness, you need to practice self-care. Look after yourself by getting enough sleep, eating a healthy balanced diet, exercising and removing any coping mechanisms like excessive alcohol consumption. Understand what causes you stress and how to not let it consume you.
Even the most social, confident people can feel intimidated about making new friends.
Make conversation using easy topics about what they like to do in their spare time, TV series they enjoy watching or the weather. Listen to their responses and if you have something in common, keep the conversation going by talking more about that interest.
We lose friendships when we don’t keep in regular contact. Set yourself a goal of contacting one or two friends each week. Pick up the phone, befriend them on social media or email them, to show them you care and value your relationship. Plan to do something fun together or just a catch-up for a coffee. It doesn’t have to be anything expensive, as long as you’re catching up face to face regularly is what matters most.
Not everyone needs close friendships. Some people prefer plenty of low-key friendships and acquaintances throughout different areas of their lives.
One of the easiest ways to meet new people is to join a group. Find something you’re interested in, so you’ll have that in common with your new group. You could try volunteering or joining a youth group.
Joining a gym or even taking your pet to the park at a similar time each day, will mean you often see the same people. Even if it’s just someone who says hello and asks how your day is, start up a conversation with them. These types of relationships can make all the difference to improve your social wellness.
Relationships fade out if neither party works at them. It only takes one person in a friendship to keep it going. Don’t worry if you’re always making the effort. You’re benefitting from a healthy relationship and your friend appreciates you even more for valuing them which makes you feel good. A couple’s relationship can take effort from both sides, but you can be the one to set the tone and good example.
If you have organised to be somewhere or do something, try to keep the date. It’s normal to sometimes not feel like going out. Sitting on the lounge at home may be the easy option, but your friend won’t feel valued if you keep cancelling. There’s a good chance you won’t feel good about yourself either for making an excuse for not going. Unless you’re unwell, don’t cancel a commitment.
It’s easy to have a go at someone, but we’re all different. Accept that everyone has a right to live their life differently to yours. Chances are you aren’t always in the right so don’t act like you are. Instead talk out a problem without anger, recrimination, or blame.
Everyone wants to feel valued. Try to show you appreciate your friend or contact through various verbal and non-verbal cues. The more valued a friend feels, the more enjoyable their experience is in the relationship and the longer they will want to keep it going.
Everyone wants to feel they’re being listened to. Couple or friendship fatigue can set in and you tune out when the other person is talking. Be mindful of it and use active listening, giving feedback when appropriate but don’t interrupt the other person while they’re getting out their thoughts.
A large part of making and keeping friends is communication. Some people feel their poor communication skills make it difficult to socialise and build a rapport with new people. For some, it’s a condition they were born with while for others it’s a lack of confidence or practice. There are courses that people can take online or in person that help can help with communication skills.
To cultivate your habits of social wellness, follow these seven guidelines:
Practice Self-Care. Finding balance in life can be difficult at times, and we are much more prepared to deal with obstacles if we are in a good habit of practicing self-care. Self-care embraces basic needs such as getting enough sleep, bathing and brushing your teeth, eating healthy, exercising regularly and avoiding negative coping mechanisms like smoking or over-drinking.
It also includes using positive coping skills to manage stress, self-soothe and relax through fulfilling or creative outlets like hobbies, crafts, art, sports activities, hiking, dancing, and social interactions with friends. You may also choose to engage in activities that nurture you emotionally, mentally, or spiritually, such as meditation, yoga, therapy, journaling, taking classes in areas of interest, spiritual retreats or attending religious services.
Know Thyself. Get to know yourself—identify your needs, preferences and values and communicate them to the people around you. Knowing who you are, who you want to be and where your boundaries lie supports you to engage in positive relationships with people who have similar interests and values, and can relate to you while encouraging your growth.
Don’t Criticize, Judge or Blame. People can easily get caught up in self-critical thinking, which perpetuates low self-esteem, contributes to depression and anxiety, and inhibits social interaction. No one wants to be judged, criticized or blamed, and if those dynamics are present, it can indicate an unhealthy, and potentially abusive, relationship.
Own Up to Your Part. In every relationship, there are two people involved and each contributes to any situation that comes up, whether positive or negative. Take responsibility for yourself in disagreements or conflict by using “I” language and don’t push all the blame onto the other person. When an individual argues for the sake of being “right” rather than trying to understand the other side, the other person may feel invalidated or unheard. This can result in resentment, further conflict and the eventual end of the relationship.
Rekindle old friendships and nurture relationships with people who are respectful, positive and supportive. No human being is perfect. Everyone gets caught up in the challenges of daily life at times, and rekindling old relationships that have been positive ones in the past is a great way to strengthen your social support system. Maintaining friendships with individuals who respect, love and accept you for who you are is crucial to our social wellness.
Don’t be a flake! Be mindful of the commitments you make and keep them. Know your limitations and don’t spread yourself too thin. Before making a commitment, be sure that you can realistically meet that expectation, taking into account and prior commitments and self-care.
Appreciate Yourself and Others. Giving more energy to positives than negatives helps to keep us happier, healthier, and more hopeful. Regularly acknowledging the positive qualities you see in yourself and paying genuine compliments to others you care about feels good all the way around. The power of positive thinking can go a long way!
Here are a few suggested activities that will support you in cultivating social wellness—use these as a starting point to inspire your own ideas!
Cultivating social wellness is like keeping a flower garden—it takes intention, energy, time, care and effort—and is an ongoing process that requires attention throughout our entire life. It is important to choose a proper plot, carefully prepare the soil, plant the best seeds, and be sure to provide plenty of water and nutrients. In gardening, as in relationships, providing protection from bad weather and regularly weeding out negativity helps to ensure continued growth and beautiful blossoms for a lifetime!