We’re all used to being told that we need to improve our physical health, and we’re becoming increasingly accustomed to talking about our mental health. But what about our social health?
It’s easy for ideas around social health to be confused with mental health or with a more general conversation around “wellness.” Whilst social health does have strong connections with both of these ideas, it’s important to understand how it is different and recognize the benefits of improving your social health.
What is social health?
Your social health is an overall measure of how well you’re able to connect with others. It includes aspects such as how well you cope with social situations, whether you have supportive relationships with friends and family, and your ability to set healthy boundaries.
How to improve your social health
Just like it’s never too late to improve your physical health, there’s always time to improve your social health as well. And just like increasing your fitness, increasing your social health will take effort. Here’s how to begin creating a more socially healthy lifestyle.
1. Learn to be comfortable alone
It might sound counterintuitive, but learning to be happy alone can help to improve your social health.
People who are uncomfortable being alone can find themselves spending time with people who don’t actually make them feel good about themselves. You may also struggle to find a healthy balance between time spent alone and time spent with other people.
When you spend time alone, you can’t use other people as a reason to do things. You might go to an art gallery just because you like looking at art. Similarly, you might start tidying your flat because it makes you happy. This can help you learn to see your own needs as important.
You will find more tips on how to be comfortable being alone in our article on how to enjoy life without friends.
2. Build a tribe of supportive people
Not everyone will help fulfill your social needs. Improve your social health by surrounding yourself with good people and forming healthy, meaningful relationships.
The people you choose to spend your time with will become your ‘tribe’. They’re the people you can lean on and trust to be there for you when you need them.
Try thinking about the people you spend the most time with at the moment. Do you want to be more like them, or are you heading in a different direction? Do they share your values and support you in your endeavors? Do you trust them to have your back?
If the answer to these questions isn’t a clear “Yes,” consider whether you have the friendship group you want and deserve. If not, you don’t have to give up on your current friends entirely, but you can start to build an additional friendship circle that better reflects your needs and values.
3. Have hobbies and interests
Having hobbies and interests is an important part of building your social health. Hobbies, even solitary ones, can usually help you meet other, like-minded people. They can often help you create a social network.
For example, reading is typically something you do alone in your home, but there are plenty of reading groups you can join, both online and in person. You might discuss recommendations with other readers or run into someone interesting at your local library or bookstore.
Being interested in something also helps to keep you active and engaged, which is essential for your mental and social health. Hobbies and interests often drive us to be curious and to want to learn more.
If you’re short of ideas, check out our suggestions for social hobbies.
4. Practice self-care
Having great social health includes making sure that you have the energy to share in social situations. If you’re exhausted, burned out, and stressed, you won’t be able to improve your social health. You may feel drained by social events or guilty that you’re not supporting others in the way you’d like.
Focus on self-care to ensure you have the energy (physical, mental, and emotional) to be social.
Self-care is a popular term at the moment, but it can be surprisingly difficult to get right. Rather than focusing on special treats or pampering, try to develop a self-care mindset. This means making sure your needs are met and treating your happiness and well-being as genuinely important.
Think about things that will benefit your medium-term well-being, and remember that your needs will be different each day. Sometimes you might be short of time and stressed, so getting takeout might be an act of self-care. Another day, you might crave takeout, but realize that making a healthy, home-cooked meal will actually make you feel better. Try to understand what works for you, and then prioritize it.
5. Nurture your relationships
Even when we’ve found our tribe, we still need to put some effort into nurturing and strengthening those relationships.
One of the biggest things we can do to help cultivate close friendships is to devote time and energy to them. Generally, the more time you spend with the people you care about, the closer you will feel.
Try to stay in contact with close friends (or people you would like to become close friends with) at least once a fortnight. This might be meeting up for lunch or just dropping them a quick text to see how they’re doing.
Your time is limited, so try not to spread yourself too thin. Research suggests that we can only really have between 5 and 15 close friends. Spending your time and energy nurturing some relationships might mean that you don’t have enough spare to keep others going. Try to be mindful of who you prioritize, and think carefully about who makes you feel best.
6. Set boundaries
Having good social health isn’t about always having to be social or needing to always be there for others. It’s actually about making sure that you are getting what you need socially. Having strong boundaries is important here.
Social situations can do more harm than good if you don’t feel that your boundaries are respected. Having good boundaries makes sure that you get the most out of your relationships.
It can be difficult to set boundaries with people you care about. You don’t want to offend them or hurt their feelings, but it’s also important that your needs are heard and respected. We have an in-depth breakdown of how to set boundaries to help you.
7. Improve your communication skills
One of the great things about being social is feeling that we’re understood. Some therapists even see this as a fundamental human need. Social situations can leave you feeling lonely (which is bad for your social health) if they leave you feeling misunderstood.
Improving your communication makes it easier for others to understand you.
8. Get better at small talk
If there was a single theme running through our comments section, it’s that loads of readers hate small talk. Unfortunately, small talk is an essential part of forming connections and friendships with new people and improving your social health.
The good news is that we have loads of advice about how to get better at small talk.
The first step to improving your small talk is to understand why you’re doing it. Small talk is about building trust by showing that you can be polite and kind. It’s also a chance to show that you’re enjoying talking to the other person and you’d like to talk more.
Use this knowledge to help you make small talk. Try to be generally positive, smile and make eye contact, ask questions, and share information about yourself as well. This can help you build relationships so you can start talking about the bigger issues that really matter to you.
9. Learn to lean on the people around you
When things get difficult, lots of us want to withdraw and deal with it alone. If your emotional and mental health is suffering, withdrawing can harm your social health as well. Instead, try to learn how to lean on the people around you in times of stress.
Asking for help can be a huge struggle, and accepting it can be even harder. Despite it being uncomfortable, the vulnerability we feel can help build our connections with others. Reaching out, asking for help, and showing weakness can actually help you develop stronger bonds and increase your social health.
10. Use exercise to meet others
If you struggle to make new friends, try joining an exercise group. Even if gym class was the worst part of school (as it was for many of us), an adult exercise class will be very different. Take the time to find sports or activities that you actually enjoy. You can always join a class aimed solely at beginners if you feel awkward or shy.
Having social forms of exercise helps you improve your physical health at the same as working on your social health.
11. Be assertive and direct
Good social health is about forming good social connections with others, but it doesn’t mean being a people-pleaser. In fact, people-pleasers often have quite poor social health, as they aren’t getting their own social needs met.
Try to be assertive and direct with the people who matter to you. Be upfront about your needs whilst also taking their needs into account.
For example, what would you do if you felt upset that you always had to call a particular friend, and she never called you? A passive response might be to just accept it and internalize your feelings of sadness. An aggressive response might be to yell at her and tell her she’s selfish and doesn’t care about you.
An assertive (and socially healthy) approach would be to tell her that you’ve noticed you’re the one instigating your conversations and explain that it’s left you feeling a little hurt. You could ask her how she sees the whole situation. Our guide on how to not be treated like a doormat may help you learn how to be more assertive.
12. Be yourself
Being around others is most rewarding if you feel that you can really be yourself, but this can take courage. Practice being authentically yourself in situations that feel safe to help you get used to it.
Different people will feel safe enough to be themselves in different circumstances. Most people only feel able to be their true selves with people they know well and who have built up a strong relationship based on mutual trust.
Other people have the exact opposite experience. They find it easiest to be themselves when they’re surrounded by strangers or when they’re anonymous online. This is often because the stakes are higher with people you care about.
When you start practicing being your authentic self, remember that this isn’t an all-or-nothing situation. Start small by being a little bit more authentic and a little bit more vulnerable.
13. Take a balanced approach to socializing
Improving your social health isn’t always about being more social. In the same way that too much physical exertion, extreme focus on “clean eating,” or even just drinking too much water can harm your health, you need to find the right balance of social interactions that supports your wellbeing.
Experiment to see how much social interaction is right for you and what kinds recharge you. Extroverts will typically find social situations to be more energizing than being alone, while introverts will have the opposite feeling.
You might find that one-to-one conversations give you the best feeling of connection, or you might want to be in a busy nightclub full of energy.
Even once you know the kinds of socializing that you find easiest, try to have a range of different kinds of socializing. Each situation will hopefully give you something different, and it can also make it easier to adapt if your preferences change over time.
14. Keep yourself safe from toxic people
The benefits of being social are usually based on the assumption that the people around us are well-meaning and kind. Unfortunately, this isn’t always the case. Some people are unkind or actively harmful to your mental and social health.
It can be difficult to distance yourself from toxic people, but it’s an important aspect of looking after your social health. Often, the biggest difficulty is in recognizing that our “friend” is actually toxic. If you’re not sure whether your friendship is healthy, check out our guide to recognizing a toxic friend.
You may also feel under pressure to hang out with a toxic person because they’re part of your friendship group. If you’re feeling awkward about not wanting to hang out with someone toxic, remind yourself that you’re not the one creating the problem. You were happy to be their friend until their behavior was hurtful to you.
15. Create good social habits
Looking after your social health shouldn’t be an afterthought. Try to incorporate something to improve your social health into every day. This might be something small, such as texting a friend to say “good morning” or a larger event such as a weekly meetup.
To help you remember, try having a ‘social health check-in’ at lunchtime. Ask yourself whether you’ve taken care of your social health that day, or if you have plans later on. If the answer to both questions is no, try to think of something you could do right then. Try texting a friend, saying, “Hey. I was just thinking of you and wanted to check in and see how you’re doing.”
16. Consider volunteering
One great option for creating a good social habit is to start volunteering. Many volunteering opportunities need people who can make a regular commitment, and they’re often full of considerate people who want to make you feel welcome.
Knowing that someone else is relying on your volunteering efforts can make it easier for you to gather your energy for being social. You’ll probably feel better once you’re there.
17. Choose your commitments wisely
Part of looking after your social health is making sure that you get real benefits from the social events you commit to. You only have so many hours in the day, and you may only be able to manage a certain number of social events, so make sure that you only commit to things that are good for you.
Saying no to invitations, whether to a planned event or just to hang out, can feel awkward. If it’s just that it’s a bad time, try to offer an alternative. For example, you could say, “I’m feeling swamped this week. Could we do it next week instead?”
Why is social health important?
Your physical, mental, and social health are closely connected. If any one of them begins to decline, it impacts both of the others. Poor social health has been linked with higher rates of heart disease, worse outcomes for cancer patients, higher blood pressure, and a variety of mental health issues.
Examples of good social health
- Maintaining friendships you can lean on when you need to
- Balancing spending time with others and being alone
- Feeling confident in new social situations
What is the difference between social health and social wellness?
Social health and social wellness are very closely related. The main difference is that social health is what you are trying to achieve, and social wellness is the process by which you achieve social health. Social wellness is about creating a lifestyle that supports your social health.