How Your Real-Life Social Network Can Benefit Your Health

Social and behavioral scientists continue to show how, on both an individual and population level, our social networks matter. They aren’t referring to thousands of Facebook friends and Instagram followers, but rather the “IRL” (in real life) friends and acquaintances that we interact with in meaningful ways. With some experts saying that a good social network may be as impactful on health as quitting smoking, it is clear that there is a need to understand how and why this happens.

The novelty and mystery of measuring social networks, social trust, and social capital were discussed in a recent episode of the Freakonomics Podcast. Host Steven Dubner picked the brains of social scientists and economists in an attempt to hone in on how a strong social network can improve individual and community health. The basic principles are easy to understand; the more real-life connections you have, the more likely you are to have someone to take care of you when you’re sick, bring you soup, or drive you to a doctor’s appointment. When you think about the last job opportunity you had, chances are you got it through your social network. Places with high social trust and social capital tend to have lower crime rates, higher economic growth, and better school performance among children.

Given all of these benefits, it would make sense that we would want high social trust in the US, where it is currently pretty low. Researchers think they know why; high levels of diversity tend to correlate with low trust levels. This has been demonstrated in an experimental setting, where people were given loans and allowed to either invest the money or cheat by keeping the money for themselves. Researchers found that most of the cheating occurred across racial lines, especially when the lender was Asian and the person receiving the money was white. This is affirmed by the fact that less diverse countries, like Australia and Norway have much higher social capital and trust than their more diverse counterparts, like the US and UK.

Social scientists agree that both diversity and social trust are extremely important; a diverse society is one that encourages creativity and novel thinking. So how can societies be both vibrant with diversity and close knit with the benefits of tight social networks? It appears that experiences like going to college, where you live with people who are from different backgrounds, increases willingness to trust others. Another thing we can work on as a society? Turning off the television! Experts say that more screen time equals less time at PTA meetings, in sports leagues, and having real life interactions with friends.

In order to reap the benefits of your social networks, both health and otherwise, get involved in your community. Get to know your neighbors, learn about the people you live near, whether or not they have the same background as you. These are the people you want to check on you in an emergency, let you borrow an egg or two when you’re all out, or help you do some heavy lifting. As social scientists continue to quantify the exact health and economic effects of social networks, it’s clear that we can all afford to learn to trust our neighbors just a little more.

Do you feel social trust has improved your life and wellbeing? Sound off below.