Having built a strong social network is one of the essential predictors of health, longevity and happiness in older age. Social isolation and loneliness can be as deadly to life expectancy and well-being as smoking, being sedentary or being overweight. Our close friends and family help keep us motivated, engaged, and active – but looser social ties are more important than we may realize, according to a recent BBC Life Project report.
Most people make an effort to spend quality time with their families and long-time friends which is vital to feeling connected and belonging to a community. The little daily interactions with people at work, in shops, or at the dentist are also meaningful and can boost happiness even if they lack the deeper connection we experience with those closest to us. We may dismiss the importance of a shared lighthearted joke with socially “weak ties” or people we consider acquaintances that may only briefly appear from time to time.
Our lifelong friends and family members may know us well, and be able to offer comfort and compassion during life’s challenges. But often it’s the people outside our immediate circle that give us new opportunities to grow and learn. Weak ties can share new information and expose us to new activities, work openings, and different ideas that can boost creativity. A pleasant exchange between someone we know only slightly can leave us feeling seen and connected – which after long periods of pandemic isolation, many no longer take for granted.
A 2016 study of respondents in Italy and Scotland found that regardless of age or nationality, people who belonged to groups like sports teams or worship communities experienced a greater sense of meaning and security. The more groups they belonged to, the better – with weaker ties, conversations tend to be lighter, less demanding and don’t carry the emotional burden of deeper relationships.
Chatting with new people can shake things up a bit when days become dull with routine, and our old friends and family members have heard all of our stories. Light interactions through social media can be a way to connect with people we may not know well, without requiring a big time commitment. Now that the world has largely returned to a more normal pace, with some changes to be sure, making the effort to connect with our network of more casual acquaintances can yield a valuable result.