I recently wrote about what I consider to be the 6 areas in which we need to be healthy. Whilst identifying these areas is a great start, it means very little without an understanding of how to change each of them for the better. To kick the series off, I’ll begin by taking a slightly deeper dive into the matter of your social health, and looking at steps you might be able to take to improve it. Before I begin though, it is important to understand that whilst I have chosen to assign the measurement of health to 6 areas, that there is a great deal of overlap, and the methods here might contribute to another aspect of your health, and maybe to a greater extent. I feel it would also be remiss of me not to mention that these steps are ideas, not prescriptions (for that you’d need to consult a suitably qualified medical professional), and that the degree to which they impact your health will differ greatly from one person to another.
Homo Sapiens (our particular species of human) has been around for some 200000 years. Prior to that, other species of the same genus roamed the earth for between 1.5 and 2.5 million years. Whilst a modern city, a large open office, or a modern shopping centre would certainly baffle our ancestors, there are certain social structures that have stood the test of time. Whilst modern humans are more connected than ever, through the internet, fast travel and the telephone, we have retained the family, extended family, and community groupings (tribes) that would still appear familiar to even our most ancient predecessors. These social structures have provided numerous functions throughout history, most of which remain broadly unchanged in their composition throughout time. At the most basic level; the nuclear family, the mother (and to a degree father) provide nourishment, protection, education, companionship and strength in numbers from the birth of children onwards. The level to which each child contributes to these functions increases with time. These needs are further met by extended families and communities, whether that be a better hunter to guide the family’s men on a hunt to help nourish the village, or a computer technician who can assist local families with their IT needs. Strength in numbers has always been an asset, in attack as it has in defence, and in work is it has in play. That said, we are limited, almost mathematically, to a certain number of people with which we can have a close relationship. Research of both humans and primates points to 150 as the magic number. In ages predating modern, widespread religion, the majority of tribes were animists; believing in the spirit or aura of each object or animal. They believed the trees, rocks and earth all had their own soul and that all things should live in harmony. Needless to say, they got a little territorial if another band dared to kill one of their cattle, or sheltered by their rock, to which they would have spoken many times. Two ideas began to allow more widespread co-operation; religion and nationalism. Both of these gave people a common set of values and beliefs. Whether the laws were handed to a prophet on tablets, or decreed by an earthly leader of a state, they bonded people together. Most of history (or at least the famous stories which you were taught in school) are centred around the rise, fall or actions of either a nation (often expanded to an empire), or a religion. In many cases, the lines between the 2 are blurred, and even today the bounds of both are hotly disputed, often with accompanying violence.
In spite of all nations and religions, and their ever changing borders, the family and community have both stood the test of time, and transcend both of these imagined establishments.
This all begs the question, why? To put it simply, we need each other. The functions we provide each other obviously have their practical benefits, making tasks possible, or at least easier, but they also greatly contribute to our mental health. Maslow suggests that we have a hierarchy of needs, starting with our obvious need for food, water, air (and shelter, which I’d strongly contest) before moving onto our need for safety, then to be loved and feel like we belong, before moving up to esteem, and finally self-actualization. Whilst it could convincingly be argued that our social structure contributes to all of these, I think the biggest positive impact has to be to our self esteem and our sense of belonging. These two needs, whilst written down over 60 years ago, have always been true. Today, unlike any previous time in history, our ability to fulfill to these needs has been challenged. Thanks in no small part to the internet, our community is now larger, more diverse and more geographically widespread than it has ever been. Knowledge and information about oneself that even 50 years ago was the dominion of only a handful of people, all of whom knew you intimately, it is now widely disseminated to people who often have no concern for your well-being, and often may not even be aware of your existence. Having access to these communities can bring great personal reward (you can read any number of articles discussing the endorphin release associated with a small heart symbol appearing on a post on your Instagram profile), they are not fully equipped, and certainly not best placed to replace the traditional social structures, on which we have successfully relied for so long. Unfortunately, the often chirped parental advice of “just ignore it” or “it’s only such-and-such-a-gram” often exacerbate the issue, straying as far from empathy as possible, and highlighting the stark generational gulf which seems to widen by the day. The simple truth is, today’s parents and grandparents didn’t have social media, and in many cases don’t even understand that a problem exists, let alone how to fix it. The scary fact is, teenagers aren’t the only ones to suffer with depression, anxiety, panic attacks and all manner of mental health issues, both rooted in, and worsened by social media. Therapists’ offices worldwide have seen an exponentially increasing stream of these conditions in the years since social media tightened its grip on the world’s spare time. It’s important that we remember that a discussion about social health cannot be focused solely around the younger generations. The elderly are increasingly isolated, especially in Western cultures, where we see fit to dispense with our parents and grandparents as soon as they require more from us than they can provide in return. The principle of extended family, still prevalent in some cultures, and wider communities, provides adequately for elders, but this living arrangement is less popular in the west, hence the problem. So what are the answers? I’m neither arrogant or ignorant enough to suggest that a complete solution could be outlined in a blog, or by just one person. There are however, some things we know from empirical evidence that most definitely work.
Fundamental Facts About Mental Health 2016 observes that “...children and young people who have good personal and social relationships with family and friends have higher levels of well-being.”. They cite this study as their evidence. Whilst this is talking about children, I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to apply this thinking to the rest of us! In terms of application, this gives us a great place to start. One simple addition to our daily routine we can make at this point is to sit down and eat a meal together as a family. This simple act guarantees that we spend at least some time together each day. To enhance this family time, try leaving phones in another room, or at the bare minimum, putting them out of sight and on silent! If this isn’t an instant success, remember you’re attempting to remove an ingrained habit, and this takes time, patience and persistence!
Another simple step is to set aside an hour per week (more if you can spare it) to sit with friends. Whether it be over a beer, a coffee or just on a walk, talking with friends is proven to lower stress levels and reduce anxiety. The old proverb, ‘A problem shared, is a problem halved’ certainly holds true. Our group of friends also gives a nice break from those we live with, as we can need a break from family and loved ones sometimes too. Put the meeting in your diary, and commit to it with your friends, that way you’re less likely to make excuses and cancel. Level up at this point by again introducing the ‘no phone’ rule, even if just for a short while.
The next life hack is a simple one. This will only work if you’re an iPhone user, but it’s a powerful tool that takes one minute per day. Go to settings on your phone, scroll down to battery. Scroll to the bottom where the apps are displayed. At the top right is a clock icon. Press this clock, and each app listed will then display, in hours and minutes, how long it has been on screen in the last 24 hours, or 7 days, you decide. This is extremely powerful in its own right, but to make it even more so, record the numbers in a diary each day and then work out what you could have done with that time on a regular basis. You’ll soon see that the time you say you don’t have for your ‘real life friends’ is very easy to find.
This next one takes some doing. It’s not physically difficult, but many of us are far more bashful than we’d ever care to admit. Find a club, sport, gathering that interests you, and go to it! This can be more of an infrequent occasion than a regular habit, but it will help to widen your social circle. Whilst too many people in your immediate circle isn’t healthy, neither is too few. If you stop and think, you’ll be able to pick different friends or family members that you’d go to in different situations, whether that be for help, or just to enjoy a certain activity with. Aside from growing your social circle, these new activities will also give you something to talk to your existing friends and family about, and maybe alleviate a few awkward silences at family meals!
According to the Naturopathic News, social interactions stimulate the release of oxytocin (the love hormone) which in turn acts as a catalyst for dopamine releases, leading to feelings of pleasure. You can read more about the connection here, but suffice it to say there is a tangible result to be found from increasing our social interactions. In the first instance, any step that provides the opportunity for these interactions to occur is a good one, and in time they will replace virtual interaction, which often leads to more negative feelings than positive ones.
In spite of how it may appear, I’m not in opposition to social media. I think it’s a wonderful medium through which to share highlights of your life with either friends and family, or those with similar interests. It also provides a fantastic knowledge exchange, where we can discuss ideas, learn from people far and wide, and have our minds opened to differing opinions and views. Research has shown that people are far more likely to behave in an antisocial manner online, than they would in real life though. To that end, it might be worth imposing rules on yourself whilst online. Mine are simple, don’t say anything you wouldn’t say to the person concerned in real life, and keep an open mind when you encounter a different view. You’ll find this second one useful in the real world too! It’s also worth remembering that in a study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine in 2014 found that those who spent in excess of 2 hours per day on social media were twice as likely to feel social isolation. As a bonus, and to further reduce my time on social media, I’m currently experimenting with only scrolling through my news feed when nobody else is around. Simply put, I’m prioritising real interaction over its virtual counterpart.
The next few blogs will focus on the remaining five areas of health, and look at simple life adjustments that might help to improve them. In the meantime, I hope you’ve found the ideas contained in this one useful, and would love to hear if you have your own suggestions in the comments.