Your Health

The social network

Personal connections are essential to your health and well-being

Personal connections are essential to your health and well-being
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Get the most out of social relationships

BY LAURIE MCPHERSON
Winnipeg Health Region
Wave, March / April 2011

Whenever someone talks of a "social network" these days, they're usually referring to one of the online communities found on Facebook or some other social media website.

That's no surprise. Having a "social network" has taken on new meaning in the 21st century, largely because technology is changing the way we communicate with each other. Thanks to the Internet and smartphones, it is possible to have "relationships" with people we never meet and conversations with "friends" we never talk to.

But there is another kind of "social network," one that is much more important than the one we can create by tapping on a computer keyboard. This one operates on a much deeper, human level and generally includes family, special friends, colleagues and neighbours. And, unlike its virtual counterpart, this social network can have a significant impact on our health and social well-being.

The benefits of having caring people in our lives are plain to see. They can, for example, provide us with support when we are struggling through challenging times. And, just as importantly, they allow us to do the same for them. In this way, we feel needed and valued. A sense of belonging is another aspect of wellness. Everyone needs to feel that they belong, whether it is in a family, neighbourhood, club, workplace, or community.

There are other aspects of our social well-being that may not seem as obvious. For example, social well-being is demonstrated by people who hold a positive attitude towards others and are generally accepting of human differences. A positive and accepting attitude attracts more positive interactions with others and promotes healthier and more meaningful relationships. By contrast, when someone is continually judgmental and critical of others, they tend to generate a great deal of negativity and stress, which limits their ability to connect meaningfully with others and results in poorer physical and emotional health.

Each person has a different comfort level when it comes to social engagement. Some of us prefer to be with other people in one-on-one situations or in small groups, while others enjoy the hustle and bustle of larger groups. As well, most people need some time to be alone, to enjoy peace and quiet, or to pursue solitary activities like reading.

People of all ages, from very young children to older adults, need positive social relationships. Young children need secure attachments to their caregivers, which lays the foundation for a healthy learning environment. They also need other young children in their lives so they can begin to practise building their social skills. School-age children develop a variety of more complex social skills by working co-operatively with classmates, negotiating differences on the playground and developing deeper friendships. As children grow into adolescents, peer relationships become more important to them, but experts advise parents that their support and guidance during these years is vitally important, even though your teenager may have you think otherwise.

As adults, different types of relationships fulfill different purposes in our life. Adults often benefit from connecting with others who share their values, interests and life experience. Interest and hobby clubs, support groups, parent groups, fitness classes, faith groups and many other types of social connections make up the variety of opportunities to enhance social wellbeing.

What happens when we are disconnected from others? People who feel like they are on the outside looking in or who feel they don't belong often struggle with poor self-concept and loneliness. Loneliness is not only a painful emotional experience; it has been linked to poorer physical health such as increased heart disease, Alzheimer's disease and other dementias, as well as depression. Researchers have found that people who have more diverse social networks actually showed greater resistance to the common cold. It's clear that people who have positive relationships with family and friends have better health and tend to live longer as well.

None of this is to suggest that the online version of social networking is without value.

For example, on-line communication can stimulate social connectedness in adolescents. However, research suggests this positive effect is only evident when adolescents predominantly talk with their friends in person.

Knowing how to use the latest technology can be helpful for quick communication, but it should not replace the ability to communicate effectively face-to-face with others. Young people in particular need to develop the skills of communicating effectively with others by knowing how to listen, share their thoughts and feelings respectfully, and to problem-solve with others. These basic communication skills will go a long way toward building healthy and meaningful relationships that will serve them well through their whole life.

Laurie McPherson is a mental health promotion co-ordinator with the Winnipeg Health Region.

About Wave

Wave is published six times a year by the Winnipeg Health Region in cooperation with the Winnipeg Free Press. It is available at newsstands, hospitals and clinics throughout Winnipeg, as well as McNally Robinson Books.

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