How Social Connections Benefit Healthy Living
Johanne Eliacin, PhD, HSPP - National Center for PTSD, Boston VA Healthcare System; Yajaira Johnson-Esparza, PhD - University Texas Health San Antonio; Shannon M. Christy, PhD - Moffitt Cancer Center; Lakeshia Cousin, PhD, APRN - University of Florida College of Nursing; Patricia Rodriguez-Espinoza, PhD, MPH - Stanford School of Medicine
Social connection is the experience of interacting with and feeling close to others. This involves having regular contact or social interactions with others and developing relationships that help us feel valued, cared for, and loved.
Staying socially connected is an essential part of developing and maintaining a healthy lifestyle. Individuals who are socially connected tend to stay healthier and live longer.
Despite the known benefits of social connections, we have been increasingly socially isolated as a society. Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, there was a downward trend in social support and connection that only got worse in quarantine. Overall, Individuals are spending significantly less time in social activities and interacting with others.
In fact, the United States (U.S.) Office of Surgeon General has identified both social isolation and loneliness as critical public health issues that devastate lives and society. Although anyone can experience social isolation, minoritized Americans, younger adults, and those of lower income are at greater risk.
Experiences of social isolation may contribute to and amplify other social indicators of health, such as food insecurity and housing instability in socially vulnerable groups and increase health disparities.
Risks of social isolation include:
- Psychological distress, depression, and anxiety
- Dementia and cognitive decline (e.g., decreased ability to think, process, or remember information)
- Cardiovascular (heart) diseases
- Dying early
Whereas benefits of social connections include:
- Lower blood pressure and cholesterol
- A stronger immune system and ability to fight infections
- Decreased inflammation
- Decreased anxiety and depression
- Increased self-esteem
How do I strengthen my social connections?
As you work towards a healthier lifestyle and develop your health goals, be sure to include plans for increasing your healthy, positive social connections. Staying socially engaged is as important as adopting healthy eating habits or a physical fitness plan. To strengthen your social connections, focus on quantity, quality, and diversity of social relationships.
Quantity of positive relationships: Increase the number of people that you know, depend on, or interact with, even on a casual basis.
- How could you meet or interact with more people?
- How could you talk or meet more often with others?
- Reach out to someone you have not talked to for a while.
- Volunteer for a cause you care about. Service can help facilitate meaningful social connections around a shared purpose.
- Create a routine for social interaction (e.g., schedule to have coffee with a neighbor once a month).
- Commit to talking to someone outside your household even for a few minutes, at least once a week. Once you get started it gets easier and more enjoyable.
Quality: Invest in positive relationships so that you feel closer to others. While every social relationship and interaction matters, even a casual conversation with the cashier at the grocery store, we also need meaningful and deeper relationships with people we can trust.
- What steps could you take to nurture your existing relations?
- What could help bring you closer to others?
- Make time for your relationships. The more time you put in, the stronger the connection will be.
- Share new experiences together. This helps relationships last longer.
- Be there for others when they need you.
Diversity: Develop different types of positive relationships and get to know people from different circles or social situations. Just as it is important to eat a wide variety of nutritious food (e.g., fruits, vegetables, grains, protein) to support overall health, it is also beneficial to maintain a variety of social relationships. For example, consider depending on different relationships for emotional support, fun, spiritual advice, etc.
- Do people in your social circle all know each other?
- Do you have different people in your life that you depend on for different things?
- Seek opportunities to meet and interact with different people.
- Develop a new hobby.
- Keep an open mind to new experiences. Stay positive.
What can you do if you are feeling socially isolated?
- Talk to someone about how you feel. You may find that others you know share similar experiences and could be a source of support.
- Develop a plan to increase your social interactions and reach out to others who can help you achieve your goal.
- Try to remain socially engaged even when you may feel down or unmotivated to socialize with others.
- Reach out and try to reconnect with people that you know who have been supportive and a positive presence in your life. This might be easier than starting anew.
- Talk to a healthcare or mental health professional. Your healthcare provider might help you assess if there are other underlying health issues that contribute to your feelings of social isolation and address difficulties with making social connections. Your healthcare provider may also be able to connect you with resources such as a social worker or community-based agency that could provide social support.
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