A Quick Guide To ‘Social Health,’ And Why You Should Care About It

Experts talk at length about the importance of physical health: we need to exercise and follow healthy diets, otherwise we risk running into chronic illnesses like cancer or heart disease. The concept of mental health has also been normalized, and with it, therapy and other preventative approaches. Now, it is time to start shining a spotlight on another dimension of health, one that has not yet worked its way into our vernacular: “social health.” 

 

The Loneliness Pandemic 

 

A pandemic has taken hold globally. If you haven’t heard, it is not your fault — this pandemic has been playing out in silence, behind closed doors. Indeed, this is a public health crisis defined by isolation: the loneliness pandemic

 

While loneliness as such isn’t new, the extent and pervasiveness of it is. People are getting lonelier, and while certain groups are particularly vulnerable, the trend can be seen across ages and across continents. The COVID-19 pandemic, and the necessary albeit strict social distancing measures adopted by many countries, didn’t help either. It ignited an issue that was smoldering just beneath the surface. 

 

The alarm bells are finally starting to ring. In 2018, the United Kingdom published the world’s first government strategy dedicated to tackling loneliness. Japan followed suit in 2021, appointing a “Minister of Loneliness” to help tackle the issue. Since then, the US has joined the ranks of countries making loneliness an official talking point for policy. And finally, towards the tail-end of 2023, the World Health Organization (WHO) launched a commission to combat global social isolation —a paucity of social connections— and loneliness —the subjective experience of lacking meaningful relationships. 

 

Understanding Social Health 

 

So, what is “social health,” and why should we care about it? Essentially, it’s a metric to gauge someone’s well-being along social lines. In the same we use “physical health” to keep tabs on how we are doing physically, “social health” refers to how we are doing socially; it is about the quantity and quality of human relationships in our lives and whether the deep-rooted need for human connection is being met. 

 

A recent study offers an intuitive way of grasping the idea. The authors introduce their work by sharing a snippet of text by William James, a psychologist active in the late 1800s: 

 

“No more fiendish punishment could be devised, were such a thing physically possible, than that one should be turned loose in society and remain absolutely unnoticed by all the members thereof. If no one turned round when we entered, answered when we spoke, or minded what we did, but if every person we met ‘cut us dead’, and acted as if we were non-existing things, a kind of rage and impotent despair would ere long well up in us, from which the cruelest bodily tortures would be a relief; for these would make us feel that, however bad might be our plight, we had not sunk to such a depth as to be unworthy of attention at all.”

 

The above scenario is the most extreme example of poor social health: no one even recognizes your existence. There are no relationships to speak of, let alone any meaningful ones. It is not by accident that solitary confinement is considered one of the severest forms of punishment — we all understand, implicitly or otherwise, that human connection is a critical need. And being deprived of this need has serious negative consequences. 

 

Strong social health, on the other hand, is characterized by a sense of being seen and heard, by having a community you are integrated into and can rely on. 

 

Importantly, and not unlike physical or mental health, social health exists along a spectrum and can change over time. Moving to a new city, for example, might be accompanied by a drop in social health while you build up new relationships and connections. The addition of a new park in your neighborhood, on the other hand, may boost social health, even if you already have plenty of fulfilling friendships. 

 

Strategies for Boosting Social Health 

 

In an increasingly disconnected world, loneliness and social isolation have emerged as pressing public health concerns. Governments, health organizations, and urban planners are exploring various strategies to tackle this issue, recognizing the profound impact it can have on mental and physical well-being.

 

One promising approach lies in strengthening social infrastructure through investments in public spaces like parks, libraries, and community centers. These shared spaces facilitate social interaction and connection, providing opportunities for people to gather, engage in activities, and forge meaningful relationships. Additionally, implementing school-based programs that teach healthy relationship skills and designing workplaces that promote social connections can help cultivate a culture of connection from an early age.

 

Research has shed light on the effectiveness of different intervention strategies, with group interventions, animal therapy, and technology-based interventions showing particular promise. Group sessions foster active participation and interaction, while animal therapy has proven remarkably effective in reducing loneliness, especially in long-term care settings. Technological interventions, such as videoconferencing, have also helped maintain social connections, particularly for older adults.

 

The very design of our cities can also play a significant role in mitigating or exacerbating loneliness and social isolation. Walkable neighborhoods, access to public transportation, and proximity to green spaces have all been linked to reduced feelings of loneliness. These features encourage people to spend time outdoors, interact with others, and participate in social activities, fostering a sense of community and belonging. Conversely, poorly designed urban environments, characterized by high density, lack of communal spaces, and inadequate maintenance, can contribute to feelings of isolation and disconnection. 

 

Takeaways

 

The power of the concept of social health lies in its ability to shift our attention from treatment to prevention. Right now, the conversation is centered around how to help people who are already lonely; what we should be discussing are steps that we can take to prevent —or minimize— the number of people who end up lonely in the first place. Public health is at its most effective when it prioritizes preventative measures. It is no different when it comes to loneliness. 

 

Still, as we continue to grapple with the challenges of loneliness and social isolation, a multi-faceted approach that combines policy interventions, community-based programs, and thoughtful urban design is essential. By fostering social connections, promoting healthy relationships, and creating environments that encourage interaction and engagement, we can build more resilient and connected communities where no one feels alone.

© William A. Haseltine, PhD. All Rights Reserved.