How does Your Environment Impact Social Fitness?

healthy longevity place social connection Mar 14, 2024

Physical fitness is well-understood, but what is social fitness?

As we learn more about well-being and healthy longevity, there is growing recognition that social fitness is an essential life skill. Social fitness encompasses more than friendship. Social fitness is the ability to interact successfully with others, build and maintain positive relationships, and adapt to different social contexts. It includes skills such as communication, empathy, cooperation, conflict resolution, and emotional intelligence. While friendships are an important component of social fitness, social fitness extends beyond individual relationships to encompass interactions with acquaintances, colleagues, family members, and strangers.

People with strong social fitness are more likely also to be physically healthy.


People are spending more time alone... a trend that started well before the pandemic (Source: American Time Use Survey via Washington Post)


Americans Have Stopped Hanging Out

The problem is that our modern society is becoming less socially fit.

About 25 years ago, Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam was among the first to recognize a societal shift away from social fitness (and social capital – a term he coined) in his seminal book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community. Putnam chronicles how weekly bowling leagues faded in favor of more irregular individual play and its negative impact on the health of society.

These trends towards alone time, often in the form of digital and social media consumption today, have only accelerated. In a recent Atlantic article, “Why Americans Suddenly Stopped Hanging Out”, writer Derek Thompson asserts that “if Putnam felt the first raindrops of an antisocial revolution in America, the downpour is finally here, and we’re all getting washed away in the flood.” In general, real-world socializing has declined for both men and women, for all ages, for all ethnicities, and for all levels of income and education. The decline has been about 1/3 over the last twenty years.

Experts believe that the spike in anxiety and depression is a result of a society that is becoming increasingly socially disconnected.


Some places have cultural norms that make socializing easier and more common (Photo by Elevate on Unsplash)


Role of Environment in Impacting Social Fitness

Environment plays a significant role in shaping social fitness. A place’s cultural norms matter. These norms dictate acceptable behaviors, communication styles, and social expectations. Growing up in a culture that values cooperation and collective harmony, for example, may foster stronger social skills related to empathy and conflict resolution.

Neighborhood and housing design play a key role, too. The trends toward larger homes in suburbia have exacerbated these challenges as it takes more effort to see people regularly. In less dense housing, we have fewer neighbors, and, even still, only about ¼ of people know most of their neighbors.


Suggested Environment Antidotes by Life Stage

Below are suggestions for environmental interventions by life stage to elevate social fitness. 

Antidote for Young People: View Universities (and Work Environments) Through the Social Fitness Lens. Choosing a university includes a myriad of factors, with social fitness being an important one. Questions to consider include: how collaborative is the environment? How strong is the community during and after? Are the profiles of students a match for the type of people I seek as friends?

Antidote for Young Parents: Create In-Person Rituals with Like-Minded Families. In the Jewish culture, Shabbat is observed every Friday night, which brings family and friends together. It is a ritual that promotes social connectedness. Young parents should consider something similar that regularly brings like-minded families together for a meal or other activities. It can improve social fitness for both parents and kids alike. 

Antidote for Empty Nesters: Critically Evaluate the Role of Your Place in Establishing Social Connections. Empty nesters can find themselves out of place with kids no longer part of their daily routine and responsibility. This freedom can inadvertently lead to boredom and alone time. Empty nesters should consider being more proactive in creating a new social calendar that invests in friendships. Moving for greater social connection can be a wise decision in cases where they have less in common with their neighbors and community than they once did.

Antidote for Older Adults: Recognize that Aging in Place Can Often Mean Aging Alone. Aging in place is a strong preference for most older adults. However, this can often mean being in an environment not conducive to social fitness. Particularly when driving is no longer possible, living in a single-family home in the suburbs may result in being alone most or all of the day. Older adults (and their families) should recognize this trade-off as they plan for the future.


Some homes inherently compromise on social fitness for other benefits, such as a view (Photo by Abby Rurenko on Unsplash)


Give Social Fitness Your Time and Attention… and Value the Role of Place

In the bestselling book The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness, author and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development Robert Waldinger concludes that “good relationships keep us healthier and happier. Period.” He makes the case for social fitness, amidst an increasingly anti-social society. For every chapter of life, we are best to appreciate that where we live can either be a step towards or away from being socially fit.


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