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.
What is Social Health?
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:
- Having assertive skills rather than passive or aggressive ones
- Balancing your social and personal time
- Being engaged with other people in the community
- Adapting in social situations
- To be yourself in all situations
- Treating others with respect
- Being able to develop and maintain friendships and networks
- Creating boundaries in friendships to encourage communication and conflict management
- Having a supportive network of family and friends
- Having fun in life
Why Is Social Health Important?
Our social health and social wellness are a vital part of our overall health and wellbeing. According to the Australian Government “social relationships are protective of mental health”.
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:
- Suffering a heart attack
- Chronic disease
- Mobility issues
- High blood pressure
- Raised stress hormones leading to inflammation
- Poor mental health
- Anxiety & depression
- Poor immune system
How Do We Measure Social Health & Wellness?
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:
- Balancing your social and personal time
- Being your true self at all times
- Engaging with people in your community
- Treating others with respect
- Maintaining and building strong relationships with friends
- Creating healthy boundaries that help with communication, trust and conflict management
- Turning to friends and family for support
- Communicating effectively
Move Over GDP
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:
- Overall, how satisfied are you with your life nowadays?
- Overall, how happy did you feel yesterday?
- Overall, did you feel lonely yesterday?
- Overall, to what extent do you feel the things you do in your life are worthwhile?
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.
The Problem with Loneliness
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.
The Negative Side of Social Relationships
Unfortunately, not all relationships are healthy. Relationships are the core of emotional support for most, but social relationships can sometimes be extremely stressful.
We Are Always Changing
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:
- Isn’t supportive of your endeavours
- Is negative about others
- Can’t be trusted to keep a secret
- Can’t be counted on to help when needed
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.
Examples of Good (and Poor) Social 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.
How to Improve Your Social Wellness
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.
Start with Self Care
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.
Making Friends (and Maintaining Friendships)
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.
Find a Community Group
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.
Use Exercise to Meet Others
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.
Nurture Your Relationships
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.
#1 Make a Commitment and Keep It
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.
#2 Don’t Blame or Criticise
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.
#3 Master Verbal and Non-Verbal Appreciation
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.
#4 Attentiveness and Listening
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.
Work On Your Communication Skills
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.
Tips for Good Communication Skills
- Maintain good eye contact when someone is talking to you
- Be a good listener and give the other person plenty of time to talk
- Don’t feel you need to talk straight away, think about your response
- Watch your body language - unfold your arms, nod your head, vary facial expressions to look interested
Keep on Working on Your Social Wellness
Whatever your age or stage of life is, don’t take relationships for granted. Value the friendships you have and keep developing new ones. Your physical and mental health will thank you for it and your quality of life will reflect it.