Despite what you might think when you initially hear the term, there is more to social wellness than having an active social life. Social wellness is the positive effect that friends and loved ones have on your mental and physical health.(1,2) Sure, spending time with people has the ability to foster wellness, but this alone is not enough. Those with active social lives or who interact with individuals as part of their daily jobs can still feel lonely. Loneliness is the perception of social isolation which occurs when one does not have the social contacts they would like.(3) To be socially well, you must not only spend time with people but also make meaningful connections with those who you interact with.
Unfortunately, despite having access to the technology to communicate with people all over the world, people are lonelier than ever. In 2018, The Economist published an article calling ‘loneliness a serious public health problem.’(3) The Kaiser Family Foundation, an American non-profit group focused on health, in partnership with the Economist, conducted a cross-country survey of adults and found that 9% of adults in Japan, 22% of adults in America, and 23% in Britain always or often felt lonely and lacked companionship.(3) Another survey conducted by the health insurer Cigna, found that 54% of respondents felt that “no one knows them well” and 40% felt that their “relationships were not meaningful.”(4).
Why is social wellness important?
It is becoming increasing more apparent that having friends is in fact as essential to our health as healthy eating and exercise! Studies have found there is a correlation between loneliness and a range of health problems. Loneliness and social isolation have been compared to having the same impact as obesity or smoking 15 cigarettes/day on cardiovascular health.(3,5) Those who are lonely are also more likely to suffer from cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease.(6) In a longitudinal study that followed aging patients for six years, subjects who felt left out, isolated, or lacked companionship, had decreased ability to perform activities of daily living and had increased rates of death.(7) In addition to having an impact on physical health, mental health also suffers when people lack social wellness. Being lonely impacts anxiety, depression, suicide and can lead to increase substance abuse.(8)
How can I improve my social wellness?
“When ‘I’ is replaced by ‘we’ even illness becomes wellness” – Malcom X
The good news is that improving your overall sense of social well-being is likely protective to your physical and mental health; did you know that improved social connection is thought to be the reason why suicide rates go down during every world cup? The bad news is that there is no one magic way to achieve social wellness. The way to optimize social wellness likely requires a multimodal approach and will be unique for every individual. Although there is no perfect recipe for social wellness, below are five suggested strategies that you may want to consider:
- Know yourself:
Get to know your interests, preferences, and dislikes. You have limited time free time so spend it with people who share similar values. (9)
- Don’t be a flake:
Plan regular get-togethers with friends, set regular date nights with your significant other, and book important dates off work. BUT, do not over commit yourself! Be mindful of the commitments you make and try to carry out those with people who are important to you.(9)
- “Me” time
The amount of time someone needs to spend around others to be socially well is variable. You do not need to constantly surround yourself with friends in order to avoid feeling lonely. Solitude, the choice to be alone, is different than loneliness.(3) Remember: loneliness is not necessarily being alone but rather a state of mind and lack of meaningful relationships.
- Rekindle old friendships
No one is perfect and everyone gets caught up in work and immediate life ‘to dos’. It’s normal to lose touch with friends, but that doesn’t have to be forever.(9) Pick up the phone and call an old friend!
- Use social media to connect actively, not passively
Scrolling through social media feeds and posts by others is thought to contribute to loneliness. Don’t use social media platforms to passively compare yourself to others, make use of messaging functions to actively interact with friends.(10)
Social wellness during staff life
Maintaining social wellness can be tricky even at the best of times. Every stage in life has competing priorities. Throughout residency, it can be easy to forget to prioritize social connections. Residents often hope that they will have more time as staff to focus on this aspect of their life. Although to some extent this is true, despite spending less time studying, maintaining social wellness can be still be challenging as your transition to staff and take on new responsibilities, move to new cities/institutions, or start a family.
To answer this question, we conducted a multi-person, “life stage” stratified, randomized, blinded control study. We asked new Emergency Medicine staff the following question:
“Social wellness refers to developing and maintaining healthy relationships we have and how we interact with others in our life. What strategy do you use to improve your social wellness?” Some themes quickly emerged amongst the responses:
Amongst those individuals with young families of different makes and compositions, the overarching strategy to improve social wellness was setting clear limits for work time. Prioritizing family time; dedicating time and energy to bond with family in a meaningful way. Recognizing that their actions help shape their family’s outlook on social wellness and general well being helps them feel connected. Pro tip: On an evening shift away from children, take a 5-minute break and give your family a call at bedtime.
Moving seems to only get more stressful the older we get. Amongst those surveyed, the importance of taking opportunities for new experiences to grow and meet new people was emphasized. Joining that new club or group, going out when invited, attending an orientation and making connections; were all ways that eased the transition. Respondents stated that prioritizing their social wellness over other areas of wellness initially have definitely set them on the right path for future happiness at home and in their professional endeavours. Pro tip: Join a league, any league (darts, curling, soccer, etc.), and dedicate entirely too much time to it.
Busy Professional Partners
Having a busy career is challenging but can be magnified when your partner is equally as busy. Strategies for improving social wellness from this particular group focused on scheduling time to acknowledge each other and creating a support system for both of your professional experiences. Acknowledging that social wellness clearly benefits physical and mental well being and requires active engagement are paramount; dedicated time must be set aside in one’s busy schedule. Pro tip: Find a shared hobby (or a pet) that brings you together (besides Netflix) and gets you out into the community.
Everyone is unique in how much time they need to be ‘social’ but most of us find happiness in genuine relationships and social support. Social wellness is important for your overall health and also serves as a buffer for when times get tough. You’ve read the post, now reflect on your own personal social wellness and how one small aspect could be tweaked or upgraded in the near future.
- Myers JE, Sweeney TJ, Witmer JM. The Wheel of Wellness Counseling for Wellness: A Holistic Model for Treatment Planning. J Couns Dev. 2000;78(3):251–66.
- Simon Fraser Student Services. 2014. Simon Fraser Wellness Wheel Health Counselling Resource. Retrieved from: http://www.sfu.ca/students/health/resources/wellness/emotional.html
- The Economist. 2018. Loneliness is a serious public health problem. Retrieved from: https://www.economist.com/international/2018/09/01/loneliness-is-a-serious-public-health-problem
- Ellie Polack. 2018. New Cigna Study Reveals Loneliness at Epidemic Levels in America. Business Wire. Retrieved from: https://www.cigna.com/newsroom/news-releases/2018/new-cigna-study-reveals-loneliness-at-epidemic-levels-in-america
- Holt-lunstad J, Smith TB. Loneliness and social isolation as risk factors for CVD: implications for evidence-based patient care and scientific inquiry. Heart. 2016;102(13): 987-989.
- Rentz DM, Marshall GA, Johnson KA. Association of Higher Cortical Amyloid Burden With Loneliness in Cognitively Normal Older Adults. JAMA Psychiatry. 2017;73(12):1230–1237.
- Perissinotto CM, Cenzer IS, Covinsky KE, Veterans F, Medical A, Veterans F, et al. Loneliness in Older Persons: A predictor a functional decline and death. Ach Intern Med. 2012;172(14):1078–1083.
- Wang J, Lloyd B, Domenico E, Rebecca G, Nebo C, Mann F, et al. Social isolation in mental health : a conceptual and methodological review. Soc Psychiatry Psychiatr Epidemiol. 2017;52(12):1451–1461.
- Optimum Performance Institute. 2018. 7 Ways to Cultivate Social Wellness for Life. Retrieved from: https://www.optimumperformanceinstitute.com/life-coaching/7-ways-to-successfully-cultivate-social-wellness-for-life/
- WebMD. 2018. Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/balance/news/20180504/loneliness-rivals-obesity-smoking-as-health-risk