Community and you: at the heart of your health

Participating in your community is a fundamental aspect of wellbeing, and not being part of your community through social isolation, real or imagined, can make us feel unsafe. Therefore, being socially isolated can be interpreted as a threat even to our survival.

In this article, we discuss the importance of community connectedness and how crucially important it is to our health and wellbeing. A lack of community can lead to negative health consequences and even shorter lives. The size of the effect has been shown to be as serious as smoking and high blood pressure on life-expectancy.

Identifying community as a priority even if it means stepping outside of your default comfort zone can have unexpectedly positive side-effects. Our 2018 Wellbeing Survey revealed that over half (51%) of people believed ‘meaningful relationships’ defined wellbeing for them.

We’ve got more information at our fingertips - more so than ever before thanks to the internet – but social interactions have consistently been shown to improve and prolong our lives. So, let’s take a closer look at how community can help enhance wellness.

Community and life expectancy

Areas of the world with the highest number of people living over 100-years-old have been studied to learn the lessons of their higher life expectancies. These areas, known as Blue Zones, include Sardinia (Italy), Ikaria (Greece), Okinawa (Japan), Nicoya (Costa Rica) and Linda Loma (California). Research in Blue Zone communities shows that participation in the local community on a regular basis and a sense of belonging to a group is an essential component of a longer life.  

Another study found that being part of a faith-based community and attending services 4 times a month increases life expectancy by up to 14 years. You don’t have to be religious to enjoy the health benefits of community living – the fundamental aspect is about building relationships with others. In fact, an analysis of many research studies showed a 50% increased survival for people with stronger social relationships, taking into account risky behaviours like smoking and alcohol. That’s the equivalent to the benefits of stopping smoking!  

Family matters

The connections we have with other people – friends, relations, acquaintances – make a big difference to our wellbeing. Having family close by is also beneficial where the young and old look after each other.  

An analysis into the impact of family relationships on health found that support from a loved one may improve physical health in several ways. You can benefit from improved emotional health and your family member can help reduce risky behaviour which could negatively affect your wellbeing. Having family nearby can also enable early detection and treatment of conditions, as well as help your recovery.

Factors of wellbeing

As mentioned, our 2018 Wellbeing Survey revealed that 51% of people questioned believed that ‘meaningful relationships’ are key to their wellbeing and 43% regularly socialise to improve their wellbeing. That might include talking with a family member or going out with friends – any kind of interaction that works at reducing feelings of loneliness.  

Other research has actually suggested that social interaction could be even more important to our health than the NHS, showing that it’s the biggest contributing factor along with environmental influences.  

Lonely vs alone

Being alone isn’t the same as feeling lonely, and loneliness isn’t the same as social isolation. We can be surrounded by many people, and yet still feel lonely. That’s because loneliness is defined as a distressing feeling you get when your social needs aren’t met by the amount or the quality of your social relationships. Loneliness may even be considered as the social equivalent of physical pain, hunger or thirst.  

But there’s also nothing wrong with being on your own if you’re comfortable with it - it’s more to do with fulfilling your own needs for social interaction which are different for everyone.

Banish loneliness

Recent research has well-documented the detrimental effects that loneliness has on your health. Studies have found that feeling lonely is as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and social isolation can increase your risk of death by 29%. Feeling lonely predicts depressive symptoms, poor sleep, reduced physical activity, impaired cognition and cognitive decline. So, there are an awful lot of reasons to prioritise building relationships with others.  

But there are groups of people who might not have the opportunity to meet up regularly with others, increasing their risk of loneliness. It’s been shown that age, illness and home-owner status can all play a part in someone’s tendency to feel lonely. According to the Office for National Statistics, the groups most vulnerable to loneliness are:

  • Widowed, older homeowners living alone with long-term health conditions
  • Unmarried, middle-aged people with long-term health conditions
  • Young people renting with little trust and sense of belonging to their area.

Community and mental health

It isn’t just a matter of living longer and reducing your risk of early death – staying healthy for as long as we can, both physically and mentally, is paramount. Social networks are shown to consistently and positively reduce illness and prolong life, but also protect against dementia and minimise the risk of developing depression. In a report comparing people with and without mental health problems, social participation was found to be the biggest differentiating factor.

Benefiting everyone

A project in Frome, Somerset brought the community together through a range of projects. The scheme resulted in a 17% reduction in people needing hospital and GP services. Essentially, this shows that social action can lower A&E attendance, planned and unplanned hospital admissions and outpatient attendance. This is great for our NHS and staff, helping reduce the strain on these services that we all rely on. But what does all this mean for you as a patient though? Well, it means that integrating with your community can make us all healthier.

Give it a rest

We all know how important it is to balance work and leisure. Doing an activity for fun, relaxation, or connecting with other people is undoubtedly good for us. However, how much time do we spend doing these things on our own or with other people?  

Just by taking part regularly in activities that involve meeting up with friends can be beneficial to your health. For instance, playing golf with others is a particularly healthy pastime.

Taking back control

It’s not just relationships that matter. It’s also how much control you have over your life, work and play. Those with less control over their work, for instance, die earlier from heart disease.  

Community and the three 3 Cs

So, what are the key steps to better wellness through your community? Just remember the 3 Cs! To stay well, we need:

  • Contact with other people that is meaningful and constructive. That leads to:
  • Confidence to see ourselves in a positive way, to be in a position to take actions and responsibility and to have a positive impact on those around us. That leads to:
  • Control over the circumstances of our own lives  

It’s also good to take up the evidence-based 5 ways to wellness:

  • Connect
    Connect with the people around you. Invest time in developing relationships.
  • Be active
    Go for a walk or run. Step outside. Cycle. Play a game.
  • Take notice
    Be curious. Catch sight of the beautiful. Remark on the unusual. Notice the seasons.
  • Keep learning
    Try something new. Rediscover an old interest. Sign up for that course.
  • Give  
    Do something nice for a friend or stranger. Smile. Volunteer for a local group

Feel better, together

If you decide to try any of these self-help strategies to improve your community connections, be sure to check back in the Evergreen Life app and retake your test to see how your score has changed. We’re with you every step of the way.