Maintain Your Social Health for a Long, Happy Life
It’s game night, and your turn is up next. You hold your breath. Your palms sweat. You eye your next move and go for it. The next wooden block slides out, but the tower wobbles. The crowd of players around you shout in protest. And then the game’s tower crumbles.
What does a game of Jenga have to do with your social health? Think about each wooden Jenga block as components of your wellness. They’re the pieces—physical, nutritional, emotional health, and so on—that come together holistically to give you a healthy sense of self and well-being.
Now think back to the last block you pulled, the move that decimated the whole tower. That piece represents your social health. And it proved to be so vital that the entire tower—or, your wellness—rested on it. Removing this essential block makes the tower crash down.
As you’ll understand shortly, social health really is that important. That’s because it’s a strong predictor of overall health and well-being. Social health can provide you with a network of support that helps fend off loneliness, provides a sense of belonging in your community, and even helps protect your physical health.
If you want your tower of wellness to withstand the test of time, it’s important to think about how to fortify its building blocks. And that’s especially true for social health.
The good news is there are plenty of ways to build and maintain your social health to create a firm foundation for everything else. So, find out what you can do to boost your social health, and in turn, your overall wellness.
How Social Health Predicts Health Over a Lifetime
The Harvard Study of Adult Development is a rich, long-running study on health and happiness. In 1938, the study recruited over 700 teenaged men from neighborhoods around Boston. These men were followed over the decades. Researchers administered surveys to take various measurements that helped researchers learn about subjects’ health status.
More recently, the researchers recruited the original participants’ wives and children. These additions created even more robust data, ready to be mined for gems of wisdom. So, what have the researchers learned from nearly 80 years of in-depth data collection? Let’s turn to recent study directors Robert Waldinger and George Vaillant for the answers.
Both give simple, profound takeaways from their study. Vaillant said, “…the key to healthy aging is relationships, relationships, relationships.” Waldinger, the study’s current director, added that, “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80.”
The researchers found relationship satisfaction at middle age is a stronger predictor of physical health than cholesterol levels.
If that wasn’t strong enough, Waldinger emphasized the importance of social health even more: “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”
So, in a way, taking care of your personal relationships is an indirect way of taking care of yourself. Need more assurance of the strong connection between relationships and health outcomes? Take a closer look at the data.
The Lead Weight of Loneliness
Most of what’s known about social health and its relation to physical health outcomes were borne out of studies involving adults. But focusing on this age group alone excludes those on either end of the lifespan. Surely social connection plays a large role in the well-being of considerably younger and older people.
A group of researchers set out to investigate that idea. They were interested in determining the effect of social factors over the lifespan. How does your social network affect your overall health—specifically mental health—in adolescence, adulthood, and as a senior?
The researchers measured three factors and found they were all strong predictors of mental health outcomes throughout each life stage. These predictors—the potential Jenga blocks or lack thereof in your wellness tower—were social isolation, social connection, and social trust.
How Science Can Define Social Health and Wellness
Researchers studying social health defined social isolation as, “disengagement from social ties, institutional connections, or community participation.” Participants took a survey rating statements like: “I often feel very lonely”; “I do not have anyone I can confide in”; and “I often need help from other people but cannot get it.” Those with higher scores for these statements experienced greater isolation.
Social connection was defined as the opposite of social isolation. This means social ties exist and are maintained to a degree, as do connections to the larger community and institutions. Researchers measured social connection through ratings on statements like: “I enjoy the time I spend with people who are important to me”; “When I need someone to help me out, I usually find someone”; and “There is someone who can always cheer me up when I’m down.” Higher scores meant greater social connection.
Lastly, social trust was defined as “self-assurance in the honesty, integrity, and reliability of others.” This was measured by rating: “Most people you meet keep their word”; “Most people you meet make arrangements honestly”; and “Generally speaking, most people can be trusted.” Higher scores here meant a deeper social trust. This meant social ties that were deeply trusted had a greater influence on a participant’s health.
Researchers compared these scores to participants’ mental health scores. These were determined based on their ratings of statements on their sense of calm, peacefulness, nervousness, and whether they felt happy or depressed.
The principal finding of the study was that all social predictors had strong associations with mental health scores across each age group. But there were important differences by age:
Social connection was the strongest predictor for adolescents. When young people have strong social ties and a sense of community, they report better mental health status. The opposite is true for social isolation. Young people who feel isolated experience a decline in their mental-health status.
Social trust is the main driver for this group. If older individuals can’t trust their relationships, their mental health suffers. For the elderly population in particular, this makes sense when considering their dependence on others to maintain wellness. As adults age, their social networks naturally, and perhaps drastically, decline from the deaths of friends, family, and acquaintances. As the circle shrinks, the influence of remaining relationships increases. So, if those connections aren’t trustworthy, social and mental health of the individual will deteriorate.
Additionally, older adults who experience the isolation of a shrinking social network can see many negative physical effects:
- Rising cortisol levels (the stress hormone) in the body.
- Increasing risk for major health issues.
- Intensifying the difficulty of everyday tasks like grooming and eating balanced meals.
It’s clear, no matter your age, the state of your social health greatly influences your mental health, and therefore, overall wellness. There are many ways to stave off isolation, stay connected, and strengthen your social ties. Perhaps the most obvious lies in your committed relationships.
The Many Social Health Merits of Marriage and Partnership
Researchers repeatedly find connections between marriage and lowered risk for a variety of health issues. Among married study participants, researchers have found lower mortality rates and cardiovascular issues. Additionally, married people are less likely to experience depression, and are more likely to survive major disease diagnoses longer than their unmarried counterparts.
On the face of it, this might seem like chance. How could a simple lifestyle decision influence health status so profoundly? Upon closer look, there are many strong theories that are holding up to scientific inquiry:
- Social health is associated with better overall health. This easily translates to married partnerships. Investing time, energy, and effort into a close bond strengthens the social connection you have to that person. This investment creates a mutually beneficial support system to catch you when life gets tough. Consider the example of a major disease diagnosis. If a spouse receives the devastating news, the burden is shared by two people rather than one. There is someone to lean on emotionally and logistically. Getting to appointments, making meals, and sharing household duties when sick eases the load and likely elevates the chance of full recovery.
- Happiness boosts immunity. Researchers have found those in happy, satisfying relationships tend to have a stronger immune system. This is often explained by the effect of cortisol levels—a measure of stress—on immunity. Cortisol levels tend to be lower in married persons versus those who are single.
- Married people may take fewer risks. This may look like eating a balanced diet, participating in regular physical activity, or even keeping regular doctor appointments. Additionally, evidence shows married people tend to adhere to medical recommendations following those appointments.
There’s more. Much of the research on the connection between marriage and health are focused solely on married individuals. This leaves out those who are in long-term, committed relationships, sharing a home and finances. Those who cohabitate in this way, but choose not to get married, still reap the benefits of this close social tie.
Researchers studied a group of Canadians who were either single, cohabitating, married, divorced, or widowed. They found that, in regard to health, those who cohabitate were better off than those who were single. However, married individuals were still better off than cohabitators. Interestingly, when the researchers controlled for selection effects (a health effect seen in those who choose to be married), the difference between the health of cohabitators and married individuals lost its significance. This reinforces that it’s not the type of union that influences health status. Instead, the closeness of cohabitation and marriage both offer protective health effects.
It’s important to note that while marriage is an important factor in social health and overall health, not all committed relationships are happy or positive. It’s possible to be single and not feel isolated. Likewise, it’s possible to be surrounded by a social network and still experience loneliness. The bond alone doesn’t lend the benefits—the quality of the bond is equally important.
Strengthening Your Social Health
You’re probably familiar with the other strong predictors of good health throughout life. These include behaviors like abstinence from smoking, responsible alcohol use, regular physical activity, and a healthy diet. While these tend to be obvious, they’re often difficult to do or maintain, especially when genetics and life’s inevitable, unpredictable stressors are taken into account.
Perhaps this is why being aware of the strong connection between social connection and health is so compelling. This facet of health is something most of us have, or can have, a firm handle on with relative ease.
Most people grow up in a network of social connections. That could consist of your nuclear and extended family, or your schoolmates. The difficulty isn’t necessarily having a network, but maintaining it. And now, armed with information, you have the motivation to do so.
But if you need a nudge in the right direction, consider the following ideas for maintaining social health:
- Join a club. This can be online or in-person. There is a plethora of clubs organized by interest on MeetUp.com. Whether it’s for hiking enthusiasts, wine lovers, or crafty folks, there’s a group for you. Joining up with people to participate in a common interest is a great way to develop deep social ties, since you’re likely to share similar values.
- Find a pen pal. It can be someone you know, have lost touch with, or is a stranger. No matter what, flexing those writing muscles in the name of connection goes a long way. You can even do it in service of a cause. Visit More Love Letters and view “The Letter Requests.” Here you can contribute to a bundle of letters from others across the world to one person in need. You don’t have to know someone intimately to establish a social tie and reap the benefits of connecting with them.
- Volunteer. There’s likely a number of organizations in your area that would benefit from your time. If you find the right fit, you’ll feel a sense of purpose and connect with others while serving your community.
Life Can’t Tackle This Wellness Tower
You have all of the blocks for good social and overall health. They’re the things that serve your well-being: social connection, potential partnership, and a sense of belongingness in your community. And now you have tools and knowledge to put those blocks to use. Sometimes it might take a little planning and rearranging to fortify your wellness tower, but the effort is worth it.
Once you get your pieces in place, there’s no push, prod, or poke that could topple your tower. Take that, Jenga!
About the Author
Jenna Templeton is a health educator and freelance science writer living in Salt Lake City, Utah. After receiving a bachelor of science degree in chemistry from Virginia Tech, Jenna spent five years as a research scientist in the nutritional industry. This work fueled her interest in personal wellness, leading her to pursue a graduate degree in Health Promotion & Education from the University of Utah. Outside of work, Jenna enjoys live music, gardening, all things food, and playing in the Wasatch mountains.
Levula A, Wilson A, Harre M. The association between social network factors and mental health at different life stages. Qual Life Res (2016) 25:1725–1733.