How weak social connections boost wellbeing

We all know the importance of family and close friends. What is less talked about, but possibly as important, are our ‘weak ties’. By Nick Herrick, Community Connector.
Smiling Black Man

We all know the importance of family and close friends. It takes time to build these relationships and they provide vital support and emotional stability. They can frustrate us and hurt us, but they can also offer love, affection, attention and a whole raft of other things that we need as humans. We are social animals and having these strong ties around us is a well-documented need. What is less talked about, but possibly as important, are our ‘weak ties’.

In any community there will be people who we know and people who we don’t – of the people we see there will be some who we recognise and some who we don’t, some that we would generally say hello to and some that we wouldn’t. Weak ties are those people who we recognise and say hello to but don’t share long conversations with. We have probably never been inside their home, and we probably don’t know anything about their history or family. That’s ok. What makes them so important and valuable is what they offer us in that short interaction. Social interaction, even at a low level, has a psychological and physiological effect.

I worked on a project focussed on loneliness for two and a half years before taking up my current post, itself a role where isolation is a common theme amongst service users. I have seen the difference between people who withdraw from their community and those who are still an active part, between those who maintain their weak connections and those who don’t. People often miss out on weak social connections and casual social contact, particularly having avoided socialising over the past few years. There is significant evidence to suggest that these connections are really important for individual wellbeing and for helping people to feel more integrated and more comfortable within their own community.

This goes back to research done in the 1970s at Stanford University in the USA. It has been revived recently and discussed more widely. The short version is that social interaction, including with weak connections, releases chemicals in the body that make us happier and less stressed. For more detailed discussion of this, check out this BBC piece, written during the main part of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read BBC article

In 1973, Mark Granovetter, a sociology professor at Stanford University, published a paper entitled The Strength of Weak Ties. It went on to become one of the most influential sociology papers of all time. Until then scholars had assumed that an individual’s well-being depended mainly on the quality of relationships with close friends and family. Granovetter showed that quantity matters, too.

Ian Leslie, BBC Worklife

People who stay at home don’t see many others. Visitors will generally fall into the strong connections category and will be less common. What we see then is that socially isolated people often lose the habit of going out and experiencing weak connections. They miss out on the chemicals the body releases and therefore will be less happy. Even smiling at someone in the street or having a short conversation with a shop assistant can have this positive affect. Attending a group activity and engaging with people there will do the same thing. It can be really difficult for someone who is socially isolated to motivate themselves to do these things but getting back into those habits and seeing those local people again can make a huge difference to someone’s wellbeing. It is something we should all focus on, both for ourselves and those around us.

I know a person who used to get out most days and would visit various local shops. He would chat to people in the street and in the shops. He was a fairly happy and energetic person. Just before Christmas he became unwell and wasn’t able to get out for a few weeks. In that time, he went from being vibrant and independent to being, anxious, down and depressed. He felt that he had “become old” and that he would die like that. Recently, he has been able to get out again and is slowly becoming more like his old self. Part of this is his perception of himself as someone who can do things and live the way that he wants to. Another part of it is that he was not seeing many people and losing his sense of position in the community. He wasn’t getting the smiles in the street, the chats in the shops, his little boosts of happiness. He wasn’t getting his weak social connections.

Now more than ever, it is important that we remind ourselves how important these weak connections are and cultivate them. COVID-19 is still around and will be for some time, but we are seeing a return to relatively normal day-to-day life. Understandably, there are sections of society that are more cautious about going back to normal, but with that caution there needs to be an understanding of what is lost when we stay at home. Yes, there are potential health risks to mixing with others but there are clear risks to physical and mental health if we don’t.

Through the work that Reach and Connect does, and the work that many other people inside and outside of the voluntary, community and social enterprise sector do, we see how quickly people can become isolated and lose touch with their community. People don’t always know or like their neighbours and we can become stuck at home and feel that we don’t belong to our area.

Getting out, seeing people and being part of groups all help us to maintain a sense of belonging and familiarity with our community. When we wave at someone in the street or talk to someone in a shop, we are sharing an unspoken agreement that this is our community and we both belong here, and that makes us happy – so do take the time to smile as you pass someone by, or ask someone how their day is going. These are not strangers. They are a part of the community that we live in, and they form a crucial network of connections that help us all to feel that we are not alone, that we are safe, that we belong.

Connection Matters Conference

Public Voice and Haringey Circle are proud to be joining the Haringey Reach and Connect programme of events, to support the annual campaign which raises awareness of Loneliness and gets people talking about it.

This event we will bring policy makers, professionals and the public together to tackle this issue of loneliness at a local level. Your presence will really make a difference, so please do make time to attend.

Lunch will be provided.

Find out more