Healthy Social Relations and How to Build Community Networks That Support Them

Research has demonstrated a link between social isolation and morbidity and all-cause mortality. Socially isolated persons are at the highest risk for a variety of diseases and fatal health outcomes, and social integration directly influences the onset, progression, and recovery from illness. This association has been shown for diverse physical health problems, such as the common cold, cancer, HIV infection, cardiovascular diseases, and cardiovascular reactivity.

Social relationships impact physiological systems, which in turn, impacts morbidity and mortality. In a review of studies of social relationships and physiological processes, researchers found strong evidence for beneficial effects of relationships on aspects of the cardiovascular, neuroendocrine, and immune systems.

Familial ties as well as emotional support are important dimensions in protecting people from damaging pathophysiological processes. Loss and bereavement, for instance, are followed by immune depression, which compromises cellular immunity. This, in turn, reduces overall host resistance, so that the individual becomes more susceptible to a variety of diseases, including infections and cancer.

Furthermore, research on relationships associate emotions with biological development of the brain and the neurological system. Social relationships are closely linked to a variety of psychological processes including feelings of distress, depression, loneliness, and other emotional states. Studies show that social relationships encourage health behaviors that prevent the onset of illness, slow its progression, or influence the recovery process.

Physical exercise is closely linked to social integration and social relationships. Perceived support by family and friends can help in developing the intention to exercise, as well as initiation of the behavior.

Social relations occur within communities, and building community requires five basic social structures. Organizations that attend to the five structural components below will form a sustainable community, and conversely organizations that fail to address these components will inhibit the growth of community.

Intermediate Size. The structure must be small enough for people to experience them (provide a “sense of community”) and large enough to provide incorporation into the larger societal structure.

Presence of Significant Primary and Secondary Interaction. The organization must provide both a primary (directly personal) and well as a secondary (access and reference to a larger group) interaction.

Key Institutional Setting. The members of the community must view the community services as central, and to some degree essential, to their well-being.

Relative Stability. The structure must endure over time.

Concreteness. The structure must maintain relevance by incorporating people with whom a significant number of community members interact and identify with.