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Make Social Health Your Theme for 2021

What is social health and how can you make it a priority in the new year?

Omar Lopez/Unsplash
Social connection is a vital source of health and well-being.
Source: Omar Lopez/Unsplash

We all know how to take care of our physical health, through habits like regular exercise, a nutritious diet, and consistent sleep. You’re probably also familiar with mental health and the benefits of practices like meditation, therapy, and self-care.

But have you heard of social health?

Researchers have been studying the impact of social connection on our health for decades, and the pandemic has shown us all how prolonged isolation can erode our well-being. Feeling connected to others and having a sense of belonging and community are not nice-to-haves, we now know; they are essential for our ability to not only survive, but also thrive.

The concept of social health—also called social well-being or social wellness—has been around for years. The sociologists Corey Keyes and Adam Shapiro defined it as “an individual’s self-report of the quality of his or her relationship with other people, the neighborhood, and the community.”

However, the idea of social health hasn’t gained the traction it deserves. I’m on a mission to help popularize it, because I know firsthand how life-changing it can be.

Throughout high school and college, I was the person my friends turned to for emotional support—but when I could have used it in return, I stayed silent. It wasn’t until my 20s that I started being more vulnerable and accepting for myself the compassion I so easily gave to others.

This shift deepened my relationships in profound ways and positively influenced all areas of my life, because I felt happier and better able to take on life’s challenges. Plenty of studies and books confirm that feeling connected to and supported by others can buffer against stress, strengthen resilience, and improve health outcomes.

This was also my first lesson in social health: connection needs to be bidirectional. It’s important to both give and receive support. Another principle I’ve learned is that social health looks different to each person. As an introvert, I crave a blend of solitude and socializing. I enjoy interacting one-on-one or in small, intimate gatherings more than big parties, for example. If you’re more extroverted, you may derive social wellness from being around people all the time.

Months into the pandemic, and with more isolation and physical distancing to come, it’s especially important right now that we pay attention to and take care of this dimension of well-being. As you reflect on your priorities for 2021, I encourage you to consider social health.

First, take stock: Do you have enough social contact, even if it’s on the phone or 6 feet apart? How is the quality of your relationships with friends and family? Are there communities you feel part of, such as your neighborhood, team of coworkers, or an organization you volunteer with?

The next step is to come up with a plan. Much like writing a grocery list for new healthy recipes you want to try, or committing to an exercise schedule with YouTube workout videos, decide how you want to strengthen your social muscles in the months to come. During the pandemic, this might include trying a new app to make friends or deepen relationships without leaving home.

Personally, I plan to write and mail a thank-you card each week and either text, call, or video chat with a loved one each day until the pandemic ends. (When it does, I’m hopping on the next plane out to visit family!) I’m also going to continue volunteering with several community organizations I’m passionate about. Think about what actions will feel nourishing for you.

Embracing the concept of social health and making it a priority has been transformative in my life. As we embark into 2021, I hope that it can help you too.