July is social wellness month.
Although the World Health Organization has defined health in terms of physical, mental, and social wellness as far back as 1948, neither the concept nor the term was firmly planted in our cultural landscape until about 5 years ago, when the loneliness epidemic became more widely acknowledged. And still, even with the 31 days of July dedicated to it, there is not a consistent understanding of what social wellness actually is. The most common description I see is that social wellness is the quality of our closest social connections and the personal capacity to create and foster those intimate relationships.
There is no doubt that those relationships are essential to our wellbeing. There are myriad data demonstrating the physical and mental health benefits of social connection, including boosting our immune systems, staving off depression and anxiety, protecting our heart health, and bringing more joy and fulfillment to our lives. Conversely, loneliness and isolation have been linked to a variety of poor health outcomes, including an increased risk of early mortality.
Being able to nurture the relationships that support us is fundamental to our health. The relational skills such as listening, empathy, and accountability that allow for mutually supportive relationships to flourish are essential. We can’t be socially healthy without an intimate circle of people that feel like home: where we are known, loved, and accepted.
But is social wellness bigger?
To me, social wellness is being at home in my skin and at home in the world.
The past year and a half of social isolation made our world and social circles feel smaller in many ways. During quarantine, we had to choose who was in our bubble. While we grappled with the uncertainty and anxiety of the pandemic, we sought comfort in our nearest and dearest. We did everything we could to stay bonded while separated from our people. As we clung to our intimate circle our loose ties got looser. Physical distancing prevented us from seeing our fellow commuters, the person who walks their dog where we do, the friends of our friends, and the doorman at our office building.
Personally, I felt untethered by giving up my loose ties during this time of social distancing. For me, feeling in flow with the world requires shared frustrations on subway platforms, untangling the leashes of our excited dogs, small kindnesses from doormen, and exchanging amused smiles at the antics of a cranky toddler while waiting in line.
Having to give up those interactions only showed me how vital they are; how affirming it is to have shared moments where we recognize each other’s humanity, respond to each other’s needs, and even just return a supportive smile. No doubt our social wellness increases when both our intimate connections and the loose ties that bind us to our communities reflect back to us that we are valued and that we belong.
It is time for us to think more expansively about social wellness.
But where do we begin? By extending the reach of our relational skills. The same tools that create strong bonds to our loved ones create healthier communities too: compassion and empathy.
Compassion is what leads people to serve food at a homeless shelter, stop and help someone on the street, or stand up when others are bullied. It is the emotional response we have to seeing people suffer and the authentic desire to alleviate that suffering through taking action.
Compassionate acts may be spontaneous or planned, and while they often come from a place of selflessness, they also help the social wellness of the giver. For example, there is ample research that shows that volunteering has the potential to greatly reduce feelings of loneliness because it facilitates new friendships and provides a sense of meaning. Giving of ourselves to others has even been proven to light up the brain’s pleasure center.
Better still, compassion is contagious. Research shows that acts of compassion compel others to act, leading to a chain reaction of compassion. That pleasure center lights up just from seeing an act of compassion! When we see someone else act compassionately or even just hear about it, we are more inclined to act compassionately and generously, uplifting ourselves and those around us. And it doesn’t have to cost us, giving money or giving hugs has the same effect.
Even Darwin, who is most quoted for his survival of the fittest rhetoric, also believed in survival of the kindest, and commented that “communities, which included the greatest number of the most sympathetic members, would flourish best…”
Compassion is a full-cycle road to social wellness.
Empathy is often the precursor to compassion. Empathy allows us to understand, and then share, someone’s feelings. When we are able to perceive another person’s distress, we are compelled to help. Empathy has been demonstrated to translate into sustainable giving and receiving of social support in communities as the compassion that comes from a place of empathy instills a sense of belonging.
Empathy does not require an intimate connection, although it certainly deepens our intimate connections. With those closest to us, it’s easiest to understand and interpret their emotions, and we are motivated to do so to maintain our close bonds. Interpersonal empathy comes naturally, we are wired for it.
Our empathy can be extended, however, to those unlike us and outside our circles. And when we do, our communities are stronger. This takes a real desire to listen and understand and requires that we suspend judgment and engage our curiosity and imagination. When we can see ourselves in the stories of others, our compassion reaches beyond our immediate circles and we are all healthier.
Social empathy, a concept introduced by Elizabeth A. Segal, is perhaps the foundation of the biggest and most expansive definition of social wellness. It builds on interpersonal empathy so that we not only imagine what it is like to be another person, but we consider the social, economic and political environment that shaped them. This broader understanding motivates us to engage more fully in the community and to work to address structural inequalities and disparities. In this way, individual and collective healing can begin, and we can head toward a stronger and more resilient future.
Collective social wellness
Recognizing our interdependence, seeing ourselves in others, and interacting with compassion increases our own social wellness and ripples out to improve the wellness of others.
We need our inner circle. It’s deeply comforting to be seen, valued, and cherished by those closest to us. It’s exhilarating to know it’s you and me against the world.
We need our loose ties. It’s deeply validating to be seen, valued, and cherished by our greater community. We’re more engaged when it’s you and me in our world.
We also need our varied perspectives. It elevates us to reach across our differences to understand each other and create a world that sees all of us, values all of us, and cherishes all of us.
This is true social wellness: you and me for the world.