In life, being able to build healthy relationships is a very important skill. Those with a strong social network tend to find that the tough times in life are easier to handle, and that the good times are even more enjoyable.
Good friendships and a positive social network increases our overall happiness, and makes us more resilient. Unfortunately, a culture of growing individualism, and social ties frayed by social isolation during the coronavirus pandemic can often move us away from the importance of simple human connection.
Yet our supportive relationships define us, reflect us, provide safety and understanding. Even for the most introverted of us, social wellness is an essential aspect of happiness.
In the wise words of one of our favorite characters from the movie The Hangover: “I tend to think of myself as a one-man wolf pack. But when my sister brought Doug home, I knew he was one of my own. And my wolf pack… it grew by one.”
Let’s explore the value of cultivating a wolfpack in a way that feels good for your personal needs.
What is social wellness?
Social wellness refers to the role of relationships in overall well-being. It’s about quality connections with friends, family, colleagues, mentors, mentees. In his bestselling book Lost Connections, journalist Johann Hari’s comprehensive breakdown of the root causes of depression and anxiety highlights loneliness, and the lack of a positive social network, as a crucial factor.
That’s not surprising when you consider we are experiencing a “loneliness epidemic” that has only been increased by the pandemic. In a major study by Havard, 61 percent of 18 to 25-year-olds reported serious loneliness and a lack of supportive relationships. We have technology that can facilitate and encourage communication with the other side of the world in the blink of an eye, yet genuine, heart-to-heart, face-to-face interactions are on the decline.
It’s a worrying trend. Other people help us in times of need — physically, emotionally, spiritually, or even financially. It’s no cliche to say that all of us are stronger together, and a social support network acts like infrastructure to support us during life’s ups and downs.
Why is social wellness important?
Johann Hari’s conclusion, having studied depression and anxiety in-depth, was social prescribing. Instead of relying on medication for chemical imbalances, Hari discovered the value of social wellness. Loneliness can’t be solved by a pill — it can only be solved by reaching out and cultivating experiences with others.
Hari notes another catch, though:
“To end loneliness, you need other people—plus something else. You also need to feel you are sharing something with the other person, or the group, that is meaningful to both of you. You have to be in it together—and ‘it’ can be anything that you both think has meaning and value.”
Social wellness isn’t just about avoiding loneliness or suffering. Social wellness enables us to thrive socially, and enhances life based on our relationship with others. That involves finding common ground and shared meaning, be it cooking together or losing hours playing video games. This wellness, our social immune system’s ability to protect us, can be incredibly strong.
One of the most intriguing insights in Lost Connections is that, when feeling low, there’s a huge boost in focusing on serving other people. This is something I’ve found to be true. While there’s value in being able to share how I’m feeling with people close to me, I also find that helping others shifts me out of a low mood. Social wellness is a two-way street.
The path to social wellness
Like all journeys, the path to social wellness begins with a single step. Actively viewing relationships as part of your overall well-being can shift your perspective.
This isn’t about viewing relationships as transactional, or ways to get an emotional boost. Instead, it involves being intentional in the way you approach social wellness, which includes considering the social needs of other people in your life. Practicing healthy habits, like learning to practice active listening and using other tools to build healthier relationships, is crucial.
We often spend more time thinking about investing in our careers, education, finances in order to become a success. Acknowledging the value of social wellness creates a mindset shift. It allows you to become more purposeful with your relationships. That means when planning or scheduling, you’re more likely to consider meaningful ways of socializing with others.
Because social wellness depends on quality, not quantity, additional skills such as conflict management, emotional awareness, intimacy, and trust are all part of developing healthy relationships and a strong social network.
4 tips to improve social wellness
Even though social wellness includes other people, it begins by getting clear about your unique approach to relationships. Everyone has a difficult social capacity; for some a strong social network includes a few close friends, while others might enjoy regular group interactions.
Improving social wellness can include letting go of some relationships that aren’t healthy. Some of us need to create boundaries, and sometimes it is these healthy boundaries that encourage communication and depth in the relationships we choose the focus on.
Other tips to get started on the path to social wellness include the following:
1. Take inventory of your social blueprint
Start with where you’re at. Consider your current quality of relationships and your way of socializing. Are you happy with your friendships? Your relationship with your family? Your romantic interests?
Taking inventory involves a lot of self-honesty and personal responsibility — consider the tendencies that you have that will influence the way you interact with other people.
This self-awareness will pay off in the long run. For example, I’m aware of my lone wolf tendency. I can convince myself of my own self-importance, at times, and this desire to be alone can mask the fact that, in truth, I’d like to be spending time with others, but I’m afraid of rejection or don’t trust my boundaries.
2. Visualise your perfect social life
Good social wellness is about what works for you, not what you think you should be doing socially. There’s nothing wrong with wanting to spend more time alone, just be clear if this is authentic, or if it stems from avoidance or social anxiety.
Equally, if you’re always surrounded by people, consider if you are avoiding spending time alone with your thoughts.
When you visualize, bring to mind the ideal image of what perfect social health would look like for you. Imagine the way you’d spend your time, the types of conversations, the common interests. What does your calendar look like? Do you have regular dinners with groups of three or four people, parties with friends and plus-ones, or regular one-on-one coffee dates for in-depth discussions?
Believe in your ability to create, and be purposeful. It’s easy to wait for others to take the initiative, but the more you feel inspired by your vision, the more likely you’ll be the person to whom others are drawn. For more on this, read about the power of positive affirmations.
3. Work on honest communication
Intimacy is scary. Getting beyond surface level is scary. But ultimately, the more deep relationships you can cultivate, the more satisfying your life will be.
That will involve a healthy dose of courage and some time and energy invested in improving your communication skills. You might have to address trust issues, work on trauma, or develop your active listening skills to be a support for others.
Honest communication is a way to greatly enhance your existing relationships. It won’t be for everyone, and you can’t force it, but you might be surprised to see what changes when you are more open about life’s meaningful topics.
4. Find ways to improve, and work on them every day
Making friends as an adult is hard. Once you’ve taken inventory, visualized your dream social life, you might find yourself feeling more lonely. That’s okay. It’s crucial to believe in your ability to make friends, while acknowledging it does take time and effort. A great way to initiate this is to reverse engineer by considering what your interests are.
What type of friendships are you looking for? Perhaps you’d like someone as motivation for your exercise routine, in which case consider joining a fitness club. Or maybe you love movies and join a movie club, or book club, or attend the local meditation or yoga classes to meet like-minded people.
It’s rare for us to be so purposeful in creating ideal friendships, but it’s possible. It could be that you meet someone new and the relationship grows in a direction you could never have planned — that’s awesome! But equally, having a clear idea of the type of relationships you’d like can help you cultivate them.
Social wellness highlights the need for every wolf to have a wolfpack. In a culture of individualism and success, it’s easy to become complacent with relationships. But we are all stronger together, and our relationships with others go a long way to our overall happiness.
Get clear about what you want, and go after it. Whether you build this power by reading self esteem quotes or by building relationships, you’ll find that not only will healthy relationships improve your life, you’ll realize that you too have value and worth to offer others. Don’t be afraid of sharing those gifts, people need it.