It takes a village: Social connections for health and wellbeing

In June 2017, the Association of Ontario Health Centres' annual conference brought together more than 600 delegates to share experiences and insights, learn and connect with each other. The closing plenary explored the importance of building connected, caring communities where people feel they belong. Guest speaker Susan Pinker, developmental psychologist, researcher, and best-selling author of The Village Effect, presented the science that shows social isolation harms peoples' health and shortens lifespans. Below, we share a blog post inspired by the talk. The post by Rebecca Byers first appeared on the HC Link blog.


By Rebecca Byers, HC Link

“Social isolation is the biggest health concern of our day,” said psychologist and best-selling author Susan Pinker during her closing keynote address at the Association of Ontario Health Centres (AOHC) Shift the Conversation conference I attended last week. She was referring to the science that shows social isolation harms peoples' health and shortens lifespans – material she covers in her latest book, The Village Effect, that explores how face-to-face contact is crucial for learning, happiness, resilience and longevity. Over the course of her talk, Susan shared the benefits of social connections and made the case for creating more inclusive communities where people know, and talk to each other, face to face.

Susan told us about her visit to a mountain village in Sardinia, Italy – one of the world’s “Blue Zone” areas as it is home to one of the highest proportion of super-centenarians. Her research of the over-100 club in Sardinia revealed that these centenarians typically had frequent and close connections with family and friends.

There is support for this observation; one study showed that social integration (loose in-person connections to many others) and close relationships (those tight bonds of friendship) are the strongest predictors of longevity – greater than perhaps more obvious things such as smoking, alcohol-use, diet, exercise, weight, hypertension.

According to Susan, having loose in-person bonds, together with close relationships, creates a personal “village” around us, one that exerts unique effects. She went on to say that social contact (the face-to-face variety), like a vaccine, has a protective effect on our health, and it seems our bodies know it as it is a biological drive much like food and sleep. From birth to death, we are hard-wired to connect to other human beings and this connection gives us a sense of belonging.

It’s a biological imperative to know we belong. – Susan Pinker

Simply put, belonging matters. As mentioned by another presenter earlier at the conference, it’s the “secret sauce” to wellbeing. This is a belief supported by the Canadian Index of Wellbeing (CIW), which measures eight quality of life domains to provide a greater understanding of wellbeing and support evidence-based and community-focused decision-making. “Social relationships” is one of the categories of well-being indicators within the CIW’s Community Vitality domain - which looks at quality of life with regard to the communities we live in, how safe we feel, and whether or not we are engaged in community activities or socially isolated.

AOHC has been one of the pioneers to adopt the CIW. Over recent years, the association and its member organizations have worked to apply the CIW in a variety of innovative ways. One of the ways that community health centres are applying the CIW is by incorporating a Be Well Survey to collect information about the health and wellbeing of the people and communities they serve. The survey contains standardized questions that cover all eight CIW domains with a particular focus on Community Vitality and its components such as belonging, social connection, and inclusion.

Susan closed with the following recommendations for the audience of AOHC members, which I think hold true for all organizations, communities and people alike:
  • Build “third spaces – social hubs that are neither work nor home. It doesn’t have to be fancy – can be as simple as providing tables and chairs. What’s important is that it draws people.
  • Build “villages”. Relationships help people thrive. Social contact should be built into all prevention and treatment plans.

[This post first appeared on the HC Link blog]