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What is social well-being? And why is it important? This article aims to define social well-being, other types of well-being, and how we can strengthen them for better mental health.
Well-being encompasses many different elements. This includes positive emotions, such as happiness, joy, contentment, excitement, wonder, and calmness. It also includes good physical health and positive, meaningful social relationships and connections. The latter is what constitutes social well-being. It is a facet of well-being that is both individually important and contributes to your overall well-being.
What is social well-being?
Social well-being can be defined as the sharing, developing, and sustaining of meaningful relationships with others. This allows you to feel authentic and valued, and provides a sense of connectedness and belonging.
For example, when you work on a team over a period of months, or years, even remotely, you have an opportunity to get to know more about your colleagues than just their skills with a spreadsheet. Some become good acquaintances. You share glimpses of your personal lives and develop routines or inside jokes. They ask you about your sick pet or kid. They notice if you’re not there.
Some become friends. You have deeper conversations, about how you got to where you are, or about your hopes and aspirations for the future. You likely see them on bad days when you can lend a hand and on great days when they return the favor. Both of these types of relationships contribute to social well-being by bringing enjoyment and allowing you to be seen, appreciated, and valued for yourself.
Why is social well-being important?
We are social creatures who need each other. We evolved from chimpanzees, and still share a common part of the human brain: the limbic system. This part of the brain is responsible for our desire to be with others, around others, and connected to others. It generates feelings of safety and happiness within us when we are with our “troop.”
Without awareness, development, and maintenance of our social well-being, we run the risk of becoming socially isolated. This is different from choosing to have some time alone to enjoy solitude. Social isolation isn’t really a choice. Withdrawal from human relationships becomes a self-reinforcing spiral, as isolation leads to negative feelings of fear and threat that lead to more isolating behaviors. Social isolation leads to loneliness, which can be incredibly damaging. In fact, loneliness can be as harmful as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
If you ever played the video game The Sims, you’ll remember that your “needs” panel included a ‘social’ bar that would decrease if you hadn’t spoken with anyone in a while. There was also a reminder that, “Friendships are like plants. If you don’t water them, they die,” which holds truth in that they require tending. Social connection is such an innate part of the human experience that the video game producers built it into their virtual world.
Types of well-being
You might be confused about the many types of well-being people talk about. They are all interrelated and the distinctions can be muddy.
At the core of well-being is how we experience our world, so it is a combination of objective facts — my blood pressure — and subjective perceptions — I feel lonely. Our experience of our world is influenced by our physical health, but also by our surroundings, the people in our lives, and by the actions we take that change our environment.
Let’s take a look at the most common types of well-being to see how they are all interrelated.
Emotional well-being is the ability to safely express or manage your emotions, as well as generate positive emotions. It begins with awareness of what you are feeling,
However, many people struggle with emotional illiteracy. That is, they’re unable to label what they are feeling, and therefore unable to communicate it. It can be helpful to simply start by trying to categorize what you are feeling into the four main groups: sad, mad, scared, or glad.
You can then try journaling to ask yourself open questions to explore that a little further. For example, “What kind of mad am I feeling?” Journaling is a fantastic way to express and explore our emotions safely without causing harm to others.
Expressing our feelings to others in a non-blaming way can also contribute to our sense of emotional well-being, while allowing others to express their feelings to you. You can do this by beginning sentences with, “I feel…”
Taking time to engage with activities that generate positive emotion in you is as important as managing negative emotions. For example, research has pointed again and again to the power of gratitude for generating positive feelings. Make a practice of taking a pause every day to be grateful for three specific things. Happiness researcher Shawn Achor suggests they be three new things, every day, to prime your brain to be always looking for something new and positive.
Emotional well-being ties into social well-being because we can better form and sustain relationships with others when we are able to regulate our own emotions. Negativity and unpredictable extremes make forming and keeping close relationships more difficult. At the same time, having meaningful relationships tends to make us feel better and is a good motivator for managing our emotions.
Physical well-being relates to your physical health including your sleep hygiene, nutrition, and exercise. It is equally important to take care of your body and mind because they work together to determine your health.
You’ve likely experienced how restorative a full night’s rest can be to your body and mind, and much happier you are when keeping up with regular exercise. Monitoring caffeine, sugar, and alcohol intake, while increasing hydration, can greatly contribute to your peak states of physical well-being.
When we feel physically well, we are more open to others and to new ideas, people, and experiences. This openness is inviting, creating the opportunities for meaningful relationships to develop. When we’re exhausted or low-energy, we tend to be more absorbed in ourselves, more likely to perceive threat from others, and just less willing to strike up a conversation or extend ourselves to try new things. When our physical well-being is low, our social well-being can suffer.
Workplace well-being is the ability to pursue your professional goals in an environment that is stimulating, supportive, and enriching. This includes elements of the physical work environment — are you safe, comfortable, and in a space with adequate light, air, temperature and noise controls? It also includes the interactions and interpersonal dynamics — do you feel respected, accepted, and appreciated?
Workplace well-being might also encompass the nature of the work and how you feel about it — are you growing, preparing for the future and realizing your potential, or stuck and micromanaged? A workplace that cares for your personal and professional well-being provides solid structures, fair rules, and safe relationships that allow you to accomplish, achieve and progress in meaningful ways.
We spend so much of our time at work that many of our social relationships form and develop in the workplace. For many people, especially younger workers, relationships that start in the workplace can be some of our most important and meaningful as they shape how we experience transitions in life.
Societal well-being is the ability to participate, feel valued as a member of, and feel connected to a wider social environment. For example, your local community, society as a whole, and the environment in which we live. Feeling like we can make a meaningful impact on the people and world around us improves our sense of well-being personally. It can also tangibly improve the quality of the community in which we live, creating greater societal well-being.
Taking part in community improvement activities almost always requires working with others who live nearby. For example, when a neighborhood organizes to rehabilitate a city park, people from different age groups may find themselves manning an information booth or shoveling dirt side by side over the course of many weekends. Parents will meet other parents as they clean up a playground. Sharing these larger, unfamiliar activities with others can form strong bonds and open up relationships that might not form in the context of our normal professional or personal life.
6 tips for improving your social health
Just being aware that social well-being is a real and important piece of your overall well-being can make it easier to address. Just like your physical health, you have to make choices and sometimes take deliberate action to improve your well-being.
- Make connections. There are myriad ways to make new friends at any stage of life. Did you just get a new job? Great! That comes with new colleagues, some of whom can become friends. Did you just move to a new area? Then you have new neighbors and a new community of people waiting to meet you. Did you get a new dog? That can mean new acquaintances at the dog park, who can turn into new friends. There are even “dating” apps for friendship only, like Bumble BFF.
- Take care of yourself while caring for others. Taking care of yourself first is like putting your own oxygen mask on first in an airplane before helping another. By investing in ourselves we show up as better friends, partners, colleagues, and parents. If you are providing support for someone who is going through a tough time, ensure you ramp up your own self-care as a proactive measure. Caring for others can take its toll invisibly at first, and later lead to increased stress or burnout. Balance the amount of time you spend by yourself and with time with others. We all need time to recharge — introverts especially!
- Get active with a friend or family member. Inviting a friend on a dog walk or setting a running goal together contributes to your physical well-being, as well as your social well-being. Shared activities can help you bond with your social connections. Look into trying something new together, like aerial yoga, a life drawing class, or watching comedy. Nothing bonds better than laughing!
- Bond with your kids. Your kids are social creatures who love to play, have adventures, and learn. Bonding with them through activities, quiet moments of stillness, and listening can develop your friendship. This is equally important as your love for one another.
- Build healthy relationships. Healthy relationships start with clear boundaries. These don’t need to be stated outright, but are learned through healthy expressions of what you will and won’t tolerate in a relationship. Tuning into your emotions allows you to feel into whether the relationship is balanced, equal, and healthy. If something is bothering you, openly discuss it with the other person. Having a constructive, calm conversation where you feel heard and valued is a sign of a healthy and strong relationship. Otherwise, it might be time to reassess if the relationship is still beneficial.
- Shape your family’s health habits. Develop regular routines and family traditions that focus on health. Friday night swimming or Saturday morning mindfulness is a great addition to a weekly pizza night! You can create new habits whenever you want. How about creating a gratitude jar where every day you write something you are grateful for, and pop it in the jar. At the end of the month, you can reflect on all the positive things that happened!
Final thoughts on social well-being
Modern technology has made it easier than ever to ask friends and family how they are, share content, and speak on the phone with people anywhere in the world. It is important that we have people we can go to during the lows of life, and share joy with during the highs.
In times of difficulty, we all need to feel like we have someone we can to talk to. Conversation and listening can be so incredibly powerful at helping people move forward.
It’s also important that we hold space for others, and nuture a mutually beneficial and healthy relationship. Be present when a person tells you how they feel, explains what their experience is, and shares their perspective. Try not to devalue or change those things; just listen — this can be incredibly therapeutic.
Our social groups can change as we develop, yet some strong connections stay and grow with us. Sometimes relationships and friendships may fall away as we develop more self-awareness and reach new levels of authenticity. This can be difficult to process, but it is a natural part of life. New friendships and relationships will be formed, and they will better reflect who you are now.
Jenna is an expert in mindfulness and specializes in Applied Positive Psychology within her coaching approach. She bridges the gap between spirituality and science. This helps her clients learn how to recognize their negative thoughts and behaviors and develop a more authentic way of relating to the world in order to live intentionally, in a way that's true to them. Jenna conducted Master's thesis research on the positive effects of the sea on well-being.
Originally from Cornwall, UK Jenna grew up surrounded by the wild ocean and epic coastlines. She is always working on deepening self-awareness via daily meditation and making time to play!