Close your eyes. Now imagine you’re getting ready to meet up with your BFF. It can be face-to-face, over the phone, via Skype or even a post on social media.
The two of you have a history. You are there for each other. You may not be social clones, but you share values. During this meeting, you will share laughs and memories—maybe even your fears. You feel good. If you were feeling down, you feel better—even energized.
You probably don’t realize it but you’ve just experienced the effects of a concept known as social wellness, an emerging science that investigates how and why our social connectedness improves our physical and emotional health.
So what is social wellness and why do we need it? Simply put, social wellness is defined as our ability to form connections with others, manage conflict in a constructive way and to integrate into positive social networks. More specifically, it involves our capacity to nurture relationships between ourselves and others by both giving and receiving social support.
Recent research has shown that our need to have friends in our lives is not optional as previously thought but essential to our well-being. Numerous studies have linked strong social connectedness with such varied phenomena as:
- Motor skill retention
- Cancer survival
- Better immune function
- Longer life expectancy
- Successful aging
Conversely, social isolation has been associated with:
- Chronic illness
- More frequent bouts of sickness
- Longer recovery times from injury/illness
- Alzheimer’s disease
- Premature death
Indeed, research done at Duke University in 2001 suggests that the magnitude of health risks associated with social isolation is comparable with that of cigarette smoking.
We do, in fact, seem to be “hard-wired” for social connection.
“We’re a social species. It’s in our DNA,” says Scott D. Siegel, Ph.D., licensed psychologist and director of psychosocial, oncology & survivorship at Christiana Care Health System’s Helen F. Graham Cancer Center and Research Institute in Newark. “If you subscribe to evolutionary theories, the argument about our adaptation is that we didn’t have claws, we were not that fast, but what we could do was cooperate.”
Are you engaged in the process of social wellness? Siegel says there are no objective measures but you will know it if you’re in it. “Nothing counts more than one’s perception,” he says. “If you feel you have people in your life at the right level, then that’s what matters, not how many people we can count. If you don’t, that’s an area to work on.”
Here are his suggestions:
- Know yourself. What do you want your social life to look like? Would you prefer to know two or three people intimately or 20 on a more casual basis?
- Challenge yourself, especially if you suffer from social anxiety. Being willing to go outside your comfort zone is the only way you’ll make progress.
- Be open to new relationships, especially if you’re going through a stressful event. Accept support from people you wouldn’t typically gravitate to.
- Ask for feedback from a trusted source. Ever wonder if people perceive you the way you want to be perceived? An honest assessment of your social skills can help you modify behaviors that might be impeding your progress in the social arena.
- Don’t feel pressure to conform. Because Western society favors extroverts, introverts may feel they need to change. While it’s OK—and even necessary—to tap into your “inner extrovert” on occasion, failure to value your own unique personality will result in less-than-satisfying social interactions.