Based on a conversation with Va’Ronda Varnado, FNP
Carving out space for yourself within a supportive community isn’t just a luxury — it’s a necessity for good health. If you’re wondering what a network of friends, family, acquaintances, and like-minded individuals can do to benefit your well-being, consider this: humans are inherently social creatures. Because of that biological fact, we need to be connected to those around us in order to survive and thrive. The social and cultural bonds that form between members of a community are the foundation for a support system that boosts individuals’ physical and mental health.
While all of that may sound reasonable within the context of our predecessors who lived in communal dwellings and relied on one another for food, clothing, childcare, and more, you may be wondering how the benefits of community translate to modern life. It turns out that staying connected to friends and family positively impacts an individual’s health along three dimensions: 1) Behaviorally, 2) Psychosocially, and 3) Physiologically. Here’s how that breaks down:
- Behavioral health describes the connection between behaviors and well-being. Think of seemingly simple everyday habits like eating, drinking, and exercise. Eating meals and engaging in physical activity with family and friends can provide an opportunity to come together, strengthen ties, and build better relationships. It can also promote sensible eating and exercise habits, which may help manage weight and improve personal health.
- Psychosocial health encompasses the mental, emotional, social, and spiritual dimensions of well-being. Healthy relationships with others can lower stress levels and improve mood, which can lower anxiety and depression. A healthy connection with family and friends can also improve self-esteem and coping skills.
- Physiological health refers to the ability to maintain health or to recover to a healthy state after disease. Supportive relationships can be beneficial to individuals who have underlying mental and physical health conditions. These types of relationships can provide the emotional and financial support, which may be required to manage health conditions. Individuals who have stable relationships may be more proactive in managing their overall health.
What does the research show?
The benefits of human connection aren’t just theoretical; they’re scientifically proven. Numerous studies have demonstrated the connection between strong relationships with others and happiness, better health, and longevity. There are also studies that demonstrate the relationship between social isolation and its negative impact on an individual’s health. To put it simply, having meaningful connections with family and friends creates a go-to network of people you can trust and lean on for support in both good times and bad, and that security can go a long way in improving your overall well-being.
Here are just a few of the most significant studies on that matter and what their findings reveal about the impact of community on individual health:
- In a 2016 paper, researchers at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill and Renmin University in Beijing, China detailed greater longevity in aging adults with robust social connections. These findings indicate that strong social relationships can reduce health risks at every life stage.
- A study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine found that supportive ties were related to better sleep quality.
- A study published in 2001 studied adults with coronary artery disease and found that the socially isolated were 2.4 times more likely than their more socially-connected peers to suffer cardiac death.
- A study published in Behavioral Medicine found that social isolation increased a woman’s risk of dying of cancer. It also found that men with few social connections showed significantly poorer cancer survival rates.
Consequences of loneliness
It’s impossible to discuss the myriad beneficial aspects of community without acknowledging the flip side of the equation: the potentially devastating consequences of loneliness and isolation. A lack of community can create physical and psychological problems, including alcoholism and drug use, altered brain function, progression of Alzheimer’s disease, decreased memory and learning ability, and increased stress levels. Individuals with weak social connections to others also have elevated rates of depression and suicide.
Investing in your relationships with others is just as important to your well-being as exercise, a healthy diet, and routine medical checkups. Living in and making time to be active members of communities in which individuals look out for each others’ needs are important sources of social and mental support.
How to find your community
If you’re not already part of a close-knit community, you may be wondering how to seek out a supportive network. “While building community may seem like an easy task, it can be especially difficult for introverts,” says Ezra medical provider, Va’Ronda Varnado, FNP. For anyone in the early stages of community building, Varnado suggests starting with a simple online search for local meetups or community events that suit your interests. “The first step is to know yourself and seek out others with similar passions,” she says. “Finding your community will require an effort but the physical and emotional benefits are worth it.”
Here are a few more tips for getting started:
- Gravitate towards your interests. Choose groups that your interests and personality align with, for example join a book club, gym or exercise class, culinary and/or art class.
- Seek connections within your industry. Attend events and join clubs for people in the same industry that you work in. Besides helping you meet new people, getting more involved in your industry can also help build your career.
- Volunteer for a local non-profit or charity. Volunteering allows you to collaborate with others and bond over shared values and goals. Spending time with others through volunteer work can help you develop close friendships.
And if you already have a community, but you feel you’ve lost the spark of connection and closeness, it’s never too late to reconnect. “With travel restrictions now eased, it’s a great time to reconnect with our family and friends,” Varnado says.