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The social dimension of health

If asked, “are you healthy?”, what factors determine your response? Some would simply consider physical medical conditions or diagnoses. For example, if you don't have a chronic health condition, acute illness or injury, then you are in good health. . .or not? There is increasing awareness of the impact of mental health, so if your mental health is in check and you have no physical illness, does that make you healthy? The World Health Organisation would suggest possibly not, defining health as “a state of complete physical, mental and social well being...1

So, what is meant by social well being and how do we achieve this aspect of health? To help us understand more, let’s consider the following questions:

  1. What are the benefits of social connections?

  2. How is purpose in life linked to longevity?

  3. What simple habits can improve your social well being?

  4. Are you feeling alone?

What are the benefits of social connections?

We are all different. Numerous personality tests exist to decipher if you are an extrovert or introvert, which can be helpful to understand how best to recharge your batteries. But, regardless of which camp you fall into, all of us are hard wired to need connection with others. This isn’t about whether or not you thrive in crowds or feel anxious at the idea of entering a room of unknown people, it’s more about meaningful relationships and connections with others.

There is increasingly more understanding about the impact of loneliness on health. Importantly, loneliness is not simply being alone. Some might choose, at times, to be physically alone, but remain well connected, avoid isolation and therefore do not suffer from loneliness. Conversely, others might be surrounded by people, or have a huge number of social media followers, but lack meaningful connection and therefore feel lonely. Loneliness can result from feeling misunderstood, or fearful that people would no longer be there if they knew the ‘real’ you. In contrast, secure attachments and relationships, which are unconditional, allow people to feel connected.

Perhaps the easiest way to understand the benefits of being socially connected is to look at the increasingly strong body of evidence highlighting the health risks associated with loneliness, including:

  • Loneliness increases the likelihood of mortality by 26% 2.

  • Lack of social connection is comparable to the impact of smoking or alcohol on mortality 3.

  • Social isolation increases the risk of coronary heart disease and stroke 4.

  • Loneliness is linked to high blood pressure 5.

  • Being socially isolated is linked to cognitive decline 6.

  • Loneliness and lack of social interaction are linked to increased suicidal feelings 7 .

Compare this to social connection, which has been directly linked to happiness and longevity. An American study looked at psychosocial determinants of healthy ageing over a 75 year period. They followed a group of Harvard graduates and a group of underprivileged men from inner city Boston. Regardless of the individuals start in life, the study concluded that the single most important predictor of happiness and a long life is having meaningful social connections8.

How is purpose in life linked to longevity?

The Greek island Ikaria, has been nicknamed ‘the island where people forget to die’, as one in three of its inhabitants make it to their 90’s9. Scientists have studied