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How to Strengthen Your Social Muscles

New research reveals five simple but effective connection habits.

Key points

  • Social health is the dimension of well-being that comes from connection and community.
  • It's just as important to strengthen one's social health as it is physical and mental health.
  • Ways of strengthening one's social health include making an effort to connect with five people weekly and doing acts of kindness.

Your physical health is largely determined by the choices you make each day: what foods you eat, whether you exercise, and how much you sleep, for example. This is also true for mental health; going to therapy, managing stress levels, and other habits contribute to your emotional wellness.

New research shows that there are simple steps you can take to improve your social health, too. Social health is the dimension of well-being that comes from connection and community, and it’s a vital yet often overlooked part of health. As you readjust to socializing after months of pandemic isolation, here are five evidence-based ways to strengthen your social muscles and develop healthy connection habits.

1. Connect with five people each week.

A new study from researchers at the University of Victoria and the GenWell Project in Canada found that people who connected with at least five people each week were more likely to be happy. This was true for family members and friends, but also coworkers, indicating that meaningful connection can come from a variety of sources. The form of these interactions can vary too; the survey reported that happier people call, text, video chat, write letters, have loved ones over, or go out for a walk or meal with others at least a few times a week.

Monstera/Pexels
Even a short phone call or video chat can help you feel more connected.
Source: Monstera/Pexels

2. Talk on the phone for 10 minutes.

While it’s wonderful to spend time with others in person, even brief interactions from far apart can make a meaningful difference. According to a recent study in the US, talking on the phone for 10 minutes 2 to 5 times a week significantly lowered people’s levels of loneliness, depression, and anxiety. Importantly, the phone calls centered around empathic communication, with the callers listening actively and asking questions about the other person’s life.

3. Do a small act of kindness.

Giving kindness may be as beneficial as receiving kindness. For instance, a recent study showed that when people in the US, the UK, and Australia did thoughtful gestures for their neighbors—such as checking in on them, providing helpful information, bringing in their garbage cans, or mowing their lawns—their likelihood of feeling lonely decreased and their sense of neighborhood unity increased.

4. Keep three friends close.

Another finding in the new Canadian study was that people who had three or more close friends were significantly happier than people who had fewer or no close friends, and previous research has shown that friendship positively influences health and even longevity. According to a report by Snap Inc., people often leave interactions with close friends feeling loved, supported, and happy, and the qualities that are most important in these relationships are honesty and authenticity.

Anna Shvets/Pexels
Having close friends to confide in and celebrate with is important across the lifespan.
Source: Anna Shvets/Pexels

5. Get involved locally.

One-on-one connection is an important driver of social health, but so is a broader sense of community and camaraderie. Based on qualitative insights gathered by my colleagues and I on the Massachusetts Task Force to End Loneliness & Build Community, creative ways to build social cohesion include putting signs on benches that invite strangers to strike up conversation and establishing a local “care force” that matches people’s skills with their neighbors’ needs. Volunteering is another evidence-based approach.

Similar to physical and mental health, social health takes sustained effort and consistent habits to keep strong. But just like you don’t need to run a marathon to stay physically fit, you can do simple actions each day or each week to enjoy greater social wellness. Try these recommendations and see what works for you.

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