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Increasing social connectedness: Let’s make a difference

Melanie Ferris

In Robert Putnam’s book, “Bowling Alone,” he demonstrated that since the 1960s, Americans have become less involved in their communities, less trusting in their neighbors, and less likely to give of their time and resources. In short, he concluded that the fabric holding together neighborhoods is slowly unraveling.  And he warns that our stock of social capital has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.

We’re also learning that lack of social capital – also called social connectedness – in our communities is bad for our health.

When we are socially connected, good deeds are reciprocated and people help, trust, and rely on each other. These relationships not only help us feel emotionally supported, but also play a role in supporting our overall health and well-being. Research has shown that higher levels of perceived social connectedness are associated with lower blood pressure rates, better immune responses, and lower levels of stress hormones, all of which contribute to the prevention of chronic disease.

Social relationships can also affect our health indirectly. For example, the values and behaviors of friends and family members may influence our own health choices, such as the type of foods we eat or how often we are physically active, and can be sources of emotional support. We may learn new information about how to improve our health while having lunch with coworkers or while talking with our neighbors.

Alternatively, groups can form around specific interest areas to take action to influence health policy, such as when parents of students advocate for changes in a school’s lunch menu or cycling enthusiasts advocate for improved bike lanes.

Connect for Health initiative

So – how do we increase social connectedness in our neighborhoods? At an individual level, it all sounds easy enough. Call your friend. Meet your neighbors. Join a walking group. Yet, as Putnam pointed out, changes in technology, urban sprawl and other factors make it more difficult to build social connections within neighborhoods.

What can communities to do increase social connectedness? That’s one of the key questions the Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota Foundation is trying to answer through its new Connect for Health initiative.

Through the Connect for Health Challenge, up to 20 organizations will receive grants of up to $20,000 to implement strategies to increase social connectedness in low-income communities, and one additional grantee will be awarded up to $100,000 for work focused in this area. By following these projects, we have the potential to learn what works, and what doesn’t work, to increase social capital in communities and to learn more about how social capital can be leveraged to improve neighborhood conditions and the health or residents.

A place to start

While at first glance, it may seem too simplistic to think that we can lower the rates of chronic disease or reduce health care costs simply by finding ways to get residents to connect with one another, it’s an easy place to start. So – if you are part of an organization or business that brings people together, consider ways to make your building space and program activities more welcoming.

Or – as an individual – simply get involved by saying hi to the neighbor down the block who never seems to have any visitors, attending a neighborhood meeting, or inviting an old friend along to meet up with you and your new buddies.

Let’s see if we make a difference.

Melanie Ferris is a research scientist at Wilder Research, and an evaluator of the Connect for Health Challenge. The Connect for Health challenge is open for submissions until May 15.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by myles spicer on 05/11/2012 - 11:59 am.

    Don’t get your hopes up

    Sorry Melanie…as we race towards more technology (read iPhones, email, Twitter etc), I fear the impersonalization in our society will increase. Albert Tofler in his book Future Shock described (and predicted this) about 40 years ago, and he was right!

  2. Submitted by Greg Kapphahn on 05/11/2012 - 05:17 pm.

    I Fear It’s Not That Simple

    The deteriorization of social connectedness is not the problem, in itself, it’s only the symptom of another, deeper problem. A particular set of psychological dysfunctions are being routinely programmed into each new generation of the children of those who now pass for “conservatives,” by the child rearing practices they commonly use.

    These dysfunctions render people unable to experience or express empathy or compassion. Lacking those attributes of a healthy personality, such people are uniquely inept at social relationships of every kind.

    The painful situations they inevitably experience at the hands of peers and romantic interests whose signals they are unable to read let alone understand and appropriately respond too, as well as those at the hands of parents who are incapable of comprehending that their children are unique individuals to be guided into making the most of who they are, rather than as widgets to be forced into the mold deemed proper for male or female offspring, cause such youngsters to shy away from all social relationships.

    Many, if not most, use financial resources and material goods, things which can bring or buy at least temporary pleasure, as a sort of substitute for actual social relationships, but since this kind of “happiness” is so transitory, such people end up chasing unconscionable (and unnecessary) resources for themselves no matter the cost to others or the environment.

    Until we learn to provide better “love AND limits” parenting, the number of people shying away from participation in society and social activities will likely continue to shrink.

  3. Submitted by susan smith on 05/12/2012 - 11:43 am.

    Ask questions

    Talking to your neighbor about health can also trigger questions you can ask your doctor or other providers. Do I really need an MRI for my knee pain? How much does it cost? Are there alternatives? You’ll be surprised what you will learn when you ask questions. http://whatstherealcost.org/video.php?post=five-questions

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