Whether it’s meeting for a weekly tennis match, attending the same HIIT class every Saturday or taking part in a monthly drinks date with friends, social connections can impact your health just like getting enough sleep, a good diet and other healthy habits do.
“Clubs and communities offer members connection and that feeling of belonging, which is instrumental to bringing balance to one’s life,” says Glenn Scott, LCSW, a therapist at Loma Linda University. “When you feel connected to something or someone, it boosts your mood and outlook on life.”
"We have a deep desire to be in healthy relationships — separateness is at odds with our biology."
“Research, ancient wisdom and personal experience tell us that human beings are wired for connection,” says Lia Avellino, LMSW, therapist and Director of Head & Heart at THE WELL. “We have a deep desire to be in healthy relationships — separateness is at odds with our biology.”
Indeed, studies have found that people who regularly connect with family, friends and their community experience less depression and anxiety and live longer — and those that don’t, suffer from health problems. In fact, one study found that loneliness increases your chance of stroke or coronary heart disease by 30 percent.
Face-to-face communication, especially, helps reduce mental health symptoms. In one study of older adults, researchers found that those who met in person with family and friends regularly were less likely to report symptoms of depression, compared with the adults who just emailed or talked on the phone. This is even more important in an era when so much of our communication happens digitally. Last year, Americans spent an average of three hours and 43 minutes on their phones, which robs time from face-to-face interactions.
Finally, an in-person touch can even take our pain away — literally. Research shows that the touch of a loved one during a time of distress caused people to rate their pain as significantly less than those who had to go it alone, Avellino says.
Make the Most of Your Community
Just because you've signed up for a marathon-training class or joined a book club doesn’t necessarily mean health-improving connections are guaranteed. Your body language and behavior can work for (or against) you.
1 Put Your Phone Away
“Eighty percent of communication is non-verbal,” says Avellino, "so be aware of how you are communicating with your body." To reap the benefits of being a part of a community, it's important to demonstrate openness to it verbally and non-verbally. Some tips:
Ask yourself: Are you looking at your phone, or are you willing to make eye contact with others? Are you sitting hunched over, or in a welcoming, open position? Do you arrive late and leave right on time, or have you left some room in your schedule to mingle?
Also, don't be afraid to get real. No matter what kind of community you've joined, show up as your real self by saying the things you genuinely think and feel. "Sharing just one true thing about yourself creates magical opportunities for connection," says Avellino, who runs Support Circles at THE WELL.
"When talking with others, listen closely and ask questions that show your desire to learn more about them."
1 Practice Conscious Listening
Listening may seem like a passive practice, but it's really an active pursuit. When talking with others, listen closely and ask questions that show your desire to learn more about them. Avellino calls this “conscious listening.”
“The art of developing more satisfying connections in our romantic, family and professional relationships begins with listening,” she says. “Conscious listening means being open to taking in how the other person feels without trying to solve their problems or airing your own thoughts and feelings."
2 Stay Present
Make the most of the time you spend with your community by trying to leave the outside world behind — even if it’s just turning your phone to silent or reminding yourself to be present.
“When we are engaged in an activity with others, we have an opportunity to take a break from whatever else we have going on in life,” says Scott, adding: often we unexpectedly end up receiving as much or more than we were offering.