Lonely? Sad? Want to live longer? Get a group.

There’s loads of talk lately about the importance of ‘social connectedness’ to human health, and how relationships can be a pathway to wellbeing. But what does it mean to be ‘socially connected’ and how can we get more of it in our lives? Well the late news is, it ain’t about the number of followers you have on Tweeter, and you can’t get more of it by posting cute-as duckface pics on FriendFace. True social connectedness comes from a sense of closeness and belonging with other people, via meaningful relationships that are positive, secure and reciprocated.

There’s a tonne of ways people can feel socially connected, most commonly through interactions with family and friends. But a less recognised path is through ‘civic engagement’, or getting involved in community activities with people who share your interests and goals. This might be volunteering with a charity, joining the committee of a fishing club, starting a choir, or helping out at a community garden. Before we delve into the benefits of joining a group or participating in your community, we should probably take a look at why social connectedness is so important in the first place.

Social connectedness: who needs it?!

Um, everyone?! Humans are a social species, and we have a profound drive to connect and interact with others. In ye’ olden evolutionary days, natural selection favoured those with a tendency to care for their relatives and form cohesive organised groups. People who were able to successfully reach out to, bond with, or collaborate with others got sexual partners, and lived longer due to more secure and safe families and environments. The more popular and long-lived you are, the more you procreate; and the more you procreate, the more you populate the world with tiny little socially connected versions of yourself. As a result, the fundamental drive for social connection is now hardwired into human DNA, and is a core psychological need required for people to be happy and healthy.

This article from Greater Good Science Centre gives a nifty overview of the what, why, and how of social connection.

Connecting with others teaches us about ourselves

From a sociological perspective, we also learn about ourselves and who we are through our interactions with others, making social connectedness a vital ingredient in our ability to form a healthy sense of self-identity. In his theory of the ‘looking-glass self’, Charles Horton Cooley claimed we see our identity reflected in the ‘looking glass’ (or mirror) of family, friends and acquaintances, and subsequently modify our appearance, behaviour, and beliefs in response to people’s reactions to us. The more time we spend with others the more developed our sense of self-concept becomes, through constant honing and tweaking in response to others. Over time, this constant interplay of external judgement and personal impression management helps us to find our most socially acceptable self. The virtuous cycle, of course, is that being more socially acceptable allows us to have more relationships, and more relationships teaches us to be more socially acceptable through further feedback and honing of identity. What makes group and community participation an important part of this development, is that it can take us out of our usual circles and provide a level of honest feedback not always forthcoming from family and friends. Let’s face it, if our mum was always candid about our talents and quirks, there wouldn’t be a veritable glut of YouTube videos dedicated to the world’s worst (and angriest) singing auditions.

Connecting with others builds social capital

A similar concept to social connectedness was forwarded by Putnam, who argued that the connections we make with other people, and the trusting, cohesive relationships that arise from them, are a form of ‘social capital’: a valuable asset that allows us to get on in the world by better understanding and cooperating with individuals and groups. One Australian study found that greater social capital is linked to improved physical and mental health, although some of the results varied with gender and culture. In the same way that we build economic capital, we can also build social capital, by putting ourselves out there and making new connections in a range of different areas. The more diverse and significant our group participation, the more valuable our social capital will be, and the bigger the benefits to wellbeing. And in the same way that stepping outside our immediate family and friend group can be good for seeing our identities more clearly, getting involved in the wider community based on our diverse interests and goals can be good for increasing our social capital and our ability to connect with and draw support from others.

The following video explains very calmly why social capital is important; especially if you’re ever in dire need of a pump.

The importance of group and community participation

In this paper, researchers outline three types of social connectedness: informal social connectedness, which is contact with family, friends, and neighbours; civic engagement, which includes activities such as volunteering and membership in community groups; and political participation, involving actions such as local activism and political protesting. It’s the civic engagement idea that we’re interested in here. And this includes actions like attending community fetes, festivals, markets or shows; going to church or another place of worship; or volunteering your time to sporting clubs, community groups, school events, charities, or on boards.

Beyond helping identity formation, group membership and community participation has a tonne of benefits to health and wellbeing. Participating in a group or your community can improve your physical health, quality of life, happiness, psychological wellbeing, mental health, resilience, and give you a sense of belonging. It can keep us motivated and interested in a cause, and provide a ready made community to draw support from in times of need. Some pretty amazing recent research shows that stronger social relationships can even make you live longer. In a meta-analytic review of 148 studies involving over 300,000 participants (that’s a way-solid sample size), it was found that people with stronger social relationships have a longer life expectancy than those with weaker relationships. In fact, they had a 50% greater chance of remaining alive longer, regardless of age, sex, and health status. Super duper interesting is that the negative effects of low social connectedness on a person’s health rival those of smoking, alcohol consumption, physical inactivity and obesity. This makes a pretty compelling case for the importance of social connection in people’s lives, and why it should probably be routinely included as a risk factor in health evaluations in the same way as things like diet, smoking, and exercise (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, Layton, & Brayne, 2010).

Not all forms of community participation are created equal, though. While informal social connectedness and civic engagement are both strongly linked to improved mental health, being involved in political participation (including activities like volunteering for a union or political party, contacting politicians or local councillors about issues, or involvement in a group that’s trying to make a difference in the community) may actually be linked to worse mental health. Of course, ‘correlation doesn’t equal causation’, as we say in the science biz, and it’s unclear as to whether it’s the demands of political participation that lead to poor mental health, or if people with mental health problems are drawn to politics.

Community participation is not a cure all

While getting involved in a community group is generally seen as good for wellbeing, not everyone experiences equal or consistent benefits from their participation, and some activities work better for one groups than others. For instance, older people get more cognitive benefits from community participation than do younger people, while older men benefit more from shared, hands-on activities in familiar surroundings like sporting clubs and men’s sheds than they do from formalised, structured classes or activities (Golding, 2011). Young adults and adolescents, meanwhile, aren’t as civically engaged as older adults, and tend towards group participation that involves friends and peers rather than community-based activities.

For women, group participation can even have negative effects, caused by stress, interpersonal conflict, and gender inequality. Many women find it hard to combine community participation with family responsibilities, forcing them to get involved primarily in groups focused on parenting and kids, rather than activities that reflect their intrinsic interests and goals. This can lead to reduced gains from participation compared to what they might experience if allowed to explore their true passions with likeminded others. Finally, immigrants face a number of barriers to community participation, due to language difficulties, cultural restrictions, and discrimination. As a result, they can tend to seek out people within their own ethnic circle or religion, missing out on opportunities to socialise in the wider community.

Making the most of our communities

Unfortunately, being part of a group – or simply joining more groups – doesn’t guarantee improved health and happiness. Circling back to our earlier discussion about identity, we can see that it’s not simple ‘social connectedness’ that provides the link between community participation and wellbeing; it’s a sense of shared identity that helps us define who we are. What works is finding groups that are relevant and meaningful to us, and that are filled with people who share our intrinsic interests and goals. Without a meaningful reason for joining a community group, people will struggle to maintain interest and fail to connect with other members.  

So if you want to increase your wellbeing through community participation, ask yourself where your true interests lie; then explore if there are any existing groups in your community dedicated to these activities. If not, do you know anyone who might share these interests, and could you start a group together? For those already involved in the community who feel like they’re not reaping the full wellbeing benefits of social connectedness, consider the groups and activities you’re involved with right now, and ask yourself if you’re truly invested in them. If the answer is no, you may want to revisit your intrinsic interests, passions, and goals. It can also help to list any barriers to participation, and think about how these might be holding you back, and how you might work around them to better engage with your community and interests.

The following video is American and aimed at young adults, but it has some great suggestions for the many types of community groups you might join, and where to find information about what’s on offer.

Featured image at top by Roman Synkevych on Unsplash

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