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When people think of health, they often think of physical health or symptoms: a bad cough, back pain, or a sprained ankle. They might also think of mental health, something top-of-mind for many today.
But health has other dimensions. They’re less visible but influence your overall health and how you feel about your life. One of these is social health.
Think about how good you feel after spending time with friends or how a chance conversation with a stranger in line brightens your morning. Perhaps you feel sad when you’re away from family or restless and out-of-sorts when you can’t be out in your community.
People — relationships —are the medicine for our social health. They can distract us, change our perspective, and lighten the moment by making us laugh or sharing the load.
Our social health depends on connection to others. And social health supports health.
If you’re feeling down in the dumps or unmotivated, it might be because you need more social connection and support. As much as you need to pay attention to your physical health, it’s important to take steps to address poor social health.
But what is social health, and how can you manage it?
What is social health, and why is it important?
Psychologists talk about social health in terms of child development. It is a child’s ability to form secure relationships with others and develop trust so that they can feel safe to explore and learn. This ability is closely connected to their emotional regulation skills.
For adults, social health also includes the networks and social support structures we have around us. Social health boils down to two main factors:
- Your ability to build healthy relationships. This includes platonic friends, romantic partners, family members, and professional relationships.
- The quality of those relationships. as measured by their duration and your ability to connect meaningfully with other people.
Our social relationships contribute to our overall health and quality of life. Having strong interpersonal relationships and a strong support system indicate good social health. Good social health supports better mental and physical health.
Research also shows that the ongoing loneliness and chronic stress of poor social health is linked to many physical health problems. Research shows that strong social connections are linked to longer life, reduced stress, and improved heart health.
In fact, cultivating human connections is just as important as eating healthy food or physical activity. Poor social skills harm our health. Low social health puts us at risk of social isolation, low self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and other mental health disorders.
What social health is not
While marriage and family have been the most studied forms of close relationships, social health doesn’t depend on family status. If you don’t have a partner and your family relationships fall short (or are far away), you can still build your social health.
It also isn’t about changing your personality or forcing yourself to “get out there” at a party. Interestingly, according to Dr. Emma Seppala at the Center for Compassion and Altruism Research at Stanford, social connection is about how connected you feel — not about the absolute number of friends or relationships you have.
An introvert with one or two satisfying friendships can feel as socially connected as a social butterfly.
You also shouldn’t confuse “social health” with “social determinants of health.” Both relate to your environment and how it affects your social well-being, but they focus on different things.
What are social determinants of health?
Social determinant is a public health term for the systemic factors that affect well-being. It includes things like financial wellness and neighborhood quality, as well access to community, education and healthcare. It’s useful for you to know, especially when considering a move to a new city or even a new neighborhood because these social determinants can affect your well-being and health.
Social determinants are more often something considered by policy experts and health officials.
Social health focuses on you and your relationships. It’s something you can work on right away by improving your social skills and connecting with others.
7 signs you are socially healthy
You may already be doing what’s necessary to maintain your social health. Here are some signs you’re on the right track and examples of what social health is:
- You balance your alone and social time. Everyone needs a different ratio of alone versus social time. Introverted people may need more solitude, but extroverted people might need the reverse. Either way, you know how to stay connected with your friends while taking care of yourself. Finding and striking the right balance means you’re socially healthy.
- You’re assertive but not aggressive. You know how to communicate your needs and set healthy boundaries, and you can do it without experiencing negative emotions. That is, you don’t feel angry or resentful when you state your needs. You also don’t feel apologetic, fearful, or ashamed.
- You can be yourself. Healthy connections should make you feel comfortable in your skin, not the opposite. You feel a sense of belonging, meaning that you’re seen for who you are, valued, appreciated, and accepted. Being yourself means not covering or feeling ashamed or afraid of exclusion. Friends and family may challenge us and pull us beyond our comfort zone, but you should feel relaxed enough that not rising to the challenge doesn’t threaten your sense of belonging.
- You treat others with respect. If you’re respectful, it’s a sign that you probably have your social needs met and you aren't feeling threatened. You don’t have to bring others down to improve your self-esteem.
- You have fun. The pressures of life often get in the way of us having fun. Regularly making time for playfulness, social interaction, and activities with other people is a good sign that you prioritize maintaining social health.
- You participate in the community. Whether you volunteer at church or a nonprofit, play community sports, or help out at your kid’s school, volunteering and participating in your neighborhood are signs of positive social health.
- You have a strong social network. You need people to lean on when times are tough. Sometimes we think great friends are the ones who are the most fun or always ready to go out, but social health depends on friends who are there in the small moments, when you need them.
How to improve your social wellness
If you didn’t hit all the marks, that’s okay. There are things you can do right now to improve your social health to improve your life:
- Practice self-care. Make sure you’re sleeping enough, eating healthy, exercising, and stopping any unhealthy coping mechanisms. Meditation can also help you connect with yourself before connecting with others.
- Take things slowly. You don’t need to have deep, life-altering conversations out of the gate to start forming deeper social connections.
Don’t set the bar so high, especially after 2 years of lockdowns and awkward restrictions. Start with small talk to practice socializing.
Ask thoughtful questions about their favorite TV series, hobbies, or plans for the weekend. Look for common ground and go from there.
- Make the first move. Your friends and casual contacts don’t know you want to hang out, so try reaching out to them. You can plan something special or grab a simple coffee. Seeing each other is what matters.
- Join a sport, class, or community group. Group activities are a great way to meet people with shared interests. Even if you don’t talk much, a simple “Hello” and “How are you?” can open you up to a conversation. There are many online communities, too, if you’re hoping to make some virtual friends.
- Improve your communication skills. Practice maintaining eye contact, use active listening, and be mindful of your body language when conversing with others.
- Keep your commitments. Sometimes we don’t want to go out, and that’s okay. But if you’re always canceling social plans, it’ll become a problem.
- Practice gratitude. Show appreciation to your loved ones through thank you notes, cards, or even a simple text message. A little goes a long way to helping others feel valued.
- Focus on quality connections (and not quantity). Social media makes it easy to make new friends on a whim. But perceived popularity doesn’t mean you have a healthy social life. It’s better to focus on forming a few strong relationships with whom you can feel truly comfortable.
What does all of this mean for you?
The first step to improving your social health is finding some balance and calm in your current situation. It’s hard enough when you are feeling isolated and down.
If you also get too worried or anxious about needing to make friends for the sake of your health, you might not have a lot of luck connecting with others.
Try journaling or meditating to figure out what you need. You might be happy seeing loved ones once a month, once a week, or once a day. Pay attention to your mental health to make sure you’re striking that right balance.
Now that you know what social health is, you can improve it. And, when you’re ready, BetterUp can help you improve your communication skills and emotional regulation to build your mental fitness for a lifetime.
Vice President of Alliance Solutions