How’s Your Social Health?
Ways to conceptualize, assess, and improve your social well-being.
Posted May 3, 2020
The coronavirus has shown us how human contact can spread illness. But psychologists have long known that human connection can prevent illness.
Decades of research have shown that close relationships enhance our immunity to common colds, protect us from developing depression, keep our hearts healthy, and extend our lifespans—not to mention bring us joy, meaning, and purpose.
If physical health is about our bodies, and mental health is about our minds, then social health is about our relationships.
Although these dimensions of health are deeply intertwined, it’s helpful to think of social health separately because of how impactful it is. For instance, researchers have calculated that lacking close relationships raises your risk of dying as much as smoking and more than being obese.
With quarantines and physical distancing isolating us from one another, it’s especially important to be intentional about connection right now. Here’s how to conceptualize, assess, and improve your social health.
Corey Keyes, a sociologist and pioneer in the field of positive psychology, defined social well-being as “an individual’s self-report of the quality of his or her relationship with other people, the neighborhood, and the community.”
I like this definition because it highlights several key characteristics:
- First, “self-report.” Social well-being is subjective, based on how you perceive and feel about your relationships with friends, family, and others.
- Second, “quality.” What matters most is the quality, not quantity, of your relationships. You can feel socially healthy with just one or a few close connections.
- Third, “neighborhood” and “community.” Social well-being stems not only from your individual relationships, but also from a sense of belonging to larger groups like your city, school, or company.
Another key characteristic is that optimal social health is unique for each of us. Just as some people enjoy lifting weights at the gym, whereas others like running long distances, our preferences for connection vary.
For me personally, feeling socially fulfilled means balancing socializing with solitude and opting for intimate gatherings more often than large parties. It means having a few people who are very close to me and a large network of looser ties. It means selectively choosing several communities to invest my time and energy into.
I encourage you to reflect on what your own optimal social well-being looks like and how it is right now. To do so, start by asking yourself these questions:
- Have I been feeling more connected or lonely recently?
- Is there someone I can reach out to for support when I need it?
- Which relationships do I value the most?
- What kinds of interactions energize me and what kinds drain me?
- What communities are important to me?
Then, as I recommended in an article for Scientific American, you can take action to improve your social health by broadening or deepening. To broaden, seek out new relationships by joining a hobby club or interest group, volunteering in your community, or attending an event. Until the coronavirus subsides, these can be done online.
To deepen, prioritize quality time with a friend or family member, where you put devices and other distractions away and focus on having a meaningful conversation or engaging in a shared experience. While physically distancing, try this either virtually or with the people you live with.
Just like exercise, sleep, and nutrition, connection is vital for our health. Let’s make sure to prioritize it during and after the pandemic.