The latest science investigating the best way to improve long-term health is out, and it is good news – good relationships are the key driver for both our physical and mental wellbeing over our lifetimes. The data has come from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest scientific study of happiness to date. In a new book, the lead psychiatrist Robert Waldinger describes his conviction that the “formula” for both health and happiness hinges on positive relationships. 

While this is a robust study that we can be confident in learning from, other substantial research studies have also found a strong link between our social connections and health, with the extra benefit of longevity (improve your relationships and you will live longer!).

Also, importantly, it is the quality of our relationships—rather than the quantity—that is key to explaining all these benefits. This is a reassuring finding for those of us who are more introverted. We may be content with a small number of close connections, whereas our more extroverted colleagues at work may need relationships with more people to feel fully supported. Who the relationships are with does not seem to matter either—it can be family or friends, a neighbour or work colleagues, or chatting to the person who makes our café coffee, or checks us in at the gym. Any and all of these quality connections add up to support our wellbeing.

How do strong relationships make us healthier?

You may be wondering – how does this link between relationships and health work? Researchers have studied this also and the most common explanation suggests the pathway is via stress. Specifically, when we feel connected in our relationships, we experience our stress reactions dialling down. You may have noticed this the last time you were upset or angry about something, then talked with one of your network. Feeling understood and supported likely helped your body return to equilibrium and therefore out of a stress state. Without support, the body stays in a low-level, fight-or-flight mode, which means that there are higher levels of stress hormones circulating and higher levels of inflammation, which can gradually wear away many body systems. That’s how we think stress can grind down our health over time, and how good relationships can be protective of our health.

But we need to prioritise good “social fitness”

Of course, our relationships are not static, they are evolving all the time, and how satisfied we are with them may vary depending on our life circumstances. The dynamic nature of relationships has led experts to recommend we regularly strengthen our relationships via “social fitness”, just as we know we need to work regularly to improve our physical fitness. This fitness idea also fits well with our knowledge from psychological science that our resources help us to thrive day-to-day, as well as when hard times in life occur. So, just as when we are physically fit we can recover well from bugs or illness, we are better able to recover from tough times when we are socially “fit”.

Just as we do with physical fitness, we encourage you to approach social fitness proactively. Don’t wait to feel alone or isolated. Rather, we want to nurture our relationships, as often as we can, so we encourage you to take some small steps today to do that.

Here are some fitness “exercises” to try. In the spirit of social fitness, you may want to tag a friend or colleague to test some out with you:

Check in on your own social fitness

Just as you might do a physical fitness review with a trainer or your GP, set aside some time to reflect on your relationships. 

  • Who do you spend time with in a regular day or week? 
  • How satisfying are these interactions and connections, is there a balance between support you receive and support you give (we know we benefit from both)? 
  • Who are you missing right now or who have lost touch with? 
  • Who are the people you would like to strengthen relationships with? 

Depending on how satisfied you are with your review, you may decide to keep things as they are, make some small tweaks, or go for a larger overhaul and make improving your social fitness a priority project.

If improving your fitness is a priority, make some notes for yourself with some specific actions to take. Perhaps you might call a friend you have lost touch with to ask for a catch-up, or suggest to your favourite colleague at work that you make a regular lunch-break date. Or ask a friend to volunteer at your local community centre with you, to expand both your networks and to give back some support.

Initiate check-in conversations with your most valued relationships

Let them know about your social fitness reflections, and give each other feedback on suggestions for how you might improve your particular relationship. Do you want more time together, or to mix up routines and do some different activities together? Perhaps you want to expand your social fitness network together and you can plan to join a hobby group or a mentoring network in your industry. 

Add in new routines for social connection 

Scheduling new actions to help them become regular habits helps to make good intentions stick. Plan ahead where you can and book in regular relationship time. Having this connection time in person is great, or if logistics make that difficult, lock in a virtual time. Some people enjoy connecting over activities rather than “just” talking, so get creative on all the ways you might do this – an online spelling bee or taking a jigsaw puzzle to work, taking a hike for a talk and walk, or making a meal together. The results of our social fitness check-in (and our personality style!) is again important here – planning one or two regular routines may be enough for many of us. Or, for our more social friends, they may go for one a day and extras on weekends! 

Nurture new connections

Most of us may find this a scary prospect, so consider buddying up if this is true for you. Expanding our network and increasing the diversity of our network is one of the best ways to keep our social fitness in great shape. A simple way to connect with new people is to get involved in an activity or group that is meaningful to you. This could be a sport, a local community garden, an adult education class or any form of volunteering. The contact will give you an easy way to start conversations, “How long have you been coming here?”. It will also link you up with people who share similar interests, something that’s always helpful for boosting a sense of connection. 

Set yourself challenges

Just as we set physical fitness challenges, we can do the same with our social fitness. What social interactions would stretch you and take you out of your comfort zone? Starting up a conversation with the person next to you on your morning commute? Asking the other parents at your kid’s football training if they want to start a parents’ chat group? Or maybe stopping to say hello to the other dog owner you see every morning at the dog park. Adapt your challenge to where you are – small actions are all good!

If reading these ideas has you feeling inspired, take a look at the new book by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz “The Good Life” for further inspiration.

However, if you are feeling it is all too hard, or you are feeling too alone and reaching out is too difficult, please take one step and text or free call 1737 to speak to a trained counsellor in New Zealand. For other support options, check out the Mental Health Foundation’s resources here.

Umbrella’s Strengthening Resilience training includes a specific focus on building and maintaining strong relationships for wellbeing. Get in touch to book in a session for your team today, or find out more about our training options.