This is an excerpt from Foundations of Wellness by Bill Reger-Nash,Meredith Smith & Gregory Juckett.
Can you identify a recent experience that was improved by sharing it with others? For most, the answer is yes. You have close bonds with friends, family, schoolmates, and work associates. They are almost an extension of who you are. When you share positive experiences with them, your perceptions and emotions are magnified. When sadness and negative experiences are shared, the hurt diminishes.
You live, move, and define your being in a social world (Bandura 2011). What you learn and how you experience the world are influenced by the people, networks, organizations, institutions, communities, and environments that surround you (Sallis, Owen, and Fisher 2008). In return, the world is influenced by your connecting to it (Bandura 2011).
As social creatures, humans need companionship. Connecting can have positive implications for health and well-being. Some feel their strongest connection with a spouse, family member, or friend. Others feel their closest connections with a spiritual community (Widmer et al. 2013) or in prayer or meditation (Dyer 2007). Others connect with the natural world, such as when they walk in the woods. Pets can contribute to well-being, lower blood pressure, and increase longevity (Headey, Na, and Zheng 2008). Life expectancy can be extended by caring for plants (Shibata 2004). Online relationships are central for young adults (Subrahmanyam and Greenfield 2008).Connections are available when you reach out, and these experiences can immensely enhance your reality.
Whether you already have a strong social support or seek more, this chapter can further your journey. It provides guidance to enhance social connections and to build social capital, regardless of your past socialization, your habits, or current beliefs about yourself.
Social Relationships and Categories
The wellness and health of individuals depend not just on their own biology, behaviors, and environments, but also on the biology and actions of others in their communities (Smith and Christakis 2008). We are all interdependent. Both illness and wellness are nonbiologically transmitted.
House (1981) describes categories of social support. These can buffer physical, mental, and emotional challenges and augment quality of life (Thoits 2011). They include:
- Emotional - perception of being cared for
- Instrumental - aid and services to another person
- Informational - advice to help solve problems
- Appraisal - evaluation and constructive feedback
Smith and Christakis (2008) describe social network categories, which include primary relationships with other people, are as follows:
- Individuals - family, friends, romantic partner, colleagues, associates, classmates, neighbors
- Organizations - classes, support groups, civic clubs, sororities, fraternities, service clubs, religions
- Interactions - weekly book clubs, meeting friends for lunch, reunions, online social networks, family dinners
Your interactions are as varied as the various forms of communication, including coffee with a grandparent, a romantic dinner with a sweetheart, a telephone call from an old friend, a text message from a schoolmate, a meeting of colleagues, a self-help meeting, or a community protest of global warming. All can contribute to the quality of your life. The bottom line is that having even one close relationship is associated with better health, happiness, and inner peace (Smith and Christakis 2008).
Having support is vital for change and living well. James Prochaska (1994) suggested that people can reverse undesirable life patterns at any age and helping relationships and social resources are central to this process. People sometimes want to fix themselves before reaching out to others. But fixing yourself and attaining fulfillment often require first reaching out to others. Social support and social networking come together to promote social capital.
Community and Social Capital
Social capital refers to the connections between people, the resources that accrue from social networks and social support, all of which enhance health, productivity and quality of life in community (Putnam 2000). For individuals, social capital requires trust, commitment, a sense of being valued, confidence in what is being achieved, and a shared purpose in the community (Reger-Nash et al. 2006). According to Putnam (2000), civic virtue is enhanced with an established dense network of reciprocal social relationships.
Communities with high social capital have a common shared vision. A classic high-social-capital, high-trust society would be the Amish. If your barn burns down, an entire Amish community will pitch in to rebuild it in a day or two. Of course, you, in turn, would be obligated to do the same for your neighbor if his barn burned.
From the beginning of human existence, humans have lived in extended families, clans, tribes, and geographic communities. Gathering, hunting, self-protection, basic needs, and the synergy for problem solving were all enhanced through group effort. Quality of life is higher in communities where social capital is prevalent. Communities and groups can be defined and recognized by their levels of positive social capital.
Getting involved in the community can increase quality of life.
During the 1950s in Roseto, Pennsylvania, heart disease rates were observed to be half the national average and below the levels of two neighboring communities. All three communities shared the same health care facilities, physicians, and drinking water supply (Egolf et al. 1992). The social cohesion of the many three-generation households with deep Italian cultural traditions and civic commitment seemed to serve as a buffer to heart disease and other forms of ill health for the residents of Roseto. Unfortunately, those protective effects dissipated with significant family structural changes that occurred in the 1980s and thereafter. Families no longer lived together in the same households. Close family ties dissolved as adult children moved elsewhere. With those changes, the state of good heart health also declined (Wolf 1992).
The Roseto effect was also observed in an industrial region of Japan (Hanibuchi et al. 2012). The region was originally designed to serve one particular large manufacturing industry. At about the same time people moved to the region to engage in industrial work. Thus, the families shared common bonds and better health in four of nine domains assessed, versus the comparison regions (Hanibuchi et al. 2012).
The landmark Ni-Hon-San study (Japan, Honolulu, and San Francisco) looked specifically at the strong bonds common to traditional Japanese culture and the way in which those connections affect the health of Japanese people living in Japan, compared with those living in Hawaii and San Francisco. Heart disease prevalence was lowest in Japan and highest in San Francisco (Marmot et al. 1975). The traditional close-knit Japanese family experienced high levels of social support and lower rates of heart disease. Even subgroups in Hawaii or San Francisco who maintained the cultural traditions experienced one-third the rate of heart disease compared with that of the United States in general (Marmot and Syme 1976).But for those Japanese in Honolulu and San Francisco who intermarried and did not maintain their cultural and family traditions, the rate of heart disease equaled that of their American counterparts. For these Japanese Americans, living without cultural and social support was as much of a risk factor for heart disease as high cholesterol, high blood pressure, or smoking.
In addition to towns and cities, a number of nongeographic communities exist, including trade or industrial unions, political parties, fraternal organizations, youth and religion-based groups, virtual self-help groups, veterans groups, and support groups. Each grows and thrives out of the shared interest of members. These communities serve the function of assisting members in defining their personal values, facilitating relationships with others, and finding personal meaning. High levels of social capital are common in these types of communities.
Greek fraternities and sororities on college campuses represent social networks that can promote reciprocity, social trust, and academic excellence. The companionship for students involved can be helpful because they support each other and work to address mutual needs in the academic and general community.
The social environment of some organizations, however, can foster group think. Organizations, Greek or otherwise, can become counterproductive when it comes to drinking to excess, partying, and manifesting insensitivity to others. Your choice of groups to belong to, now and as you age, will require discernment. Remember, your social environment can strongly influence your individual behavior, for better or worse. Often you become like the people you associate with the most.
Businesses, agencies, corporations, workplaces, and governments constitute communities well equipped for social support and networks. Their importance lies in the consistency of contact with the other people present. They present opportunities for interpersonal skill development and conflict management. Many of these groups have highly formalized goals, structures, and rules, and they often define themselves in relation to their members' shared interests and values. A number of large organizational structures (multinational corporations) and institutions (religious, educational, finance) have positive features for individual members and for society. These entities serve as major sources of employment, ensure that work is accomplished, and consequently provide social networks in which many people function well, contribute, and feel needed.
You should recognize the power that institutions hold on your life, for good and for ill. Both your perceptions and your values will aid in maintaining balance. To maintain optimal health through social support and social networks through established institutions, you need to
- be aware of their influences,
- discern whether those influences are desirable, and
- brainstorm ways to strengthen or weaken their hold on your best interests.
Volunteering means to give personal time and talents to perform tasks to a community for which you receive no financial payment (Volunteers 1982). Americans have a rich history of volunteering and provide more community service than do citizens of other nations in the Western world (Putnam 2000). This propensity was described nearly 200 years ago by Alexis de Tocqueville (  2003).
Although the number of volunteer hours in the U.S. has waned compared with 50 years ago, the number of people providing volunteer service has not decreased (Putnam 2000). Note that such time investment not only helps the community but also contributes to the physical and psychological well-being of those engaged as volunteers (Thoits and Hewitt 2001). This kind of service is a component of positive psychology (Donaldson, Csikszentmilhalyi, and Nakamura 2011). Volunteering enables people with different levels of social status to interact with equivalent status, thereby facilitating cooperation and social capital within a community (Ferlander 2007).
The most substantial volunteer-related influence on personal well-being occurs when you help others in need. The positive effects include increased happiness, life satisfaction, self-esteem, sense of control, good health, and less depression (Thoits and Hewitt 2001). The mechanisms for the beneficial effects might be that the volunteers feel appreciated by those being served (Thoits and Hewitt 2001), have an enhanced sense of purpose (Thoits 1992), and find the engagement intrinsically rewarding (Donaldson, Csikszentmilhalyi, and Nakamura 2011). Volunteering represents a worthwhile investment because it is the right thing to do.
Learn more about Foundations of Wellness.