When you picture the habits that help you stay physically and mentally healthy you might consider signing up for a gym membership, swapping hot chips for a side salad, or seeing a psychologist. But there’s one part of wellbeing that often gets overlooked — connection. No, we’re not talking about fixing your dodgy Wi-Fi router — the quality of your relationships is critical for your quality of life.
Catching up with mates, checking in with family, or connecting with your community, might not seem like a priority when life’s stressors start to pile up. It can also feel awkward to organise when once-tight social circles fall out of contact. That’s why it’s important to create, and maintain, habits that make your social health a non-negotiable for the long term.
Why are social connections important?
Social connections are the relationships you have with the people around you, ranging from friends, family, neighbours, and colleagues, to those in the community like the person that makes your daily coffee or your bus driver. Strong and supportive relationships are essential to human survival.
They’re linked to lower rates of anxiety and depression, higher self-esteem, greater empathy, a stronger immune system, and they may even lengthen your life — a landmark study shows strong social connections lead to a 50% increased chance of longevity. On the flip side, it also found a lack of social connection can have a greater impact on health than obesity and smoking.
“Social connection is a critical part of what we require to remain well,” Psychologist Narelle Dickinson says. “Humans are social creatures and when we're not engaging in social relationships, we wither in terms of our psychological wellbeing.”
Despite its obvious importance for our health and survival, Beyond Blue research shows that a quarter of Australian men struggle to maintain them.
“It's a minority who don't go through a bit of a lonely patch at some time,” Beyond Blue Lead Clinical Adviser Dr Grant Blashki says. “We found that loneliness in men is common in their middle years, particularly 35 to 54, and it was disappointing to see that one quarter of men say that they don't have someone else they could rely on other than their immediate family.”
They also found that one in three men aren’t satisfied with the quality of their relationships, typically because they don’t feel emotionally connected or supported.
“It's not about the quantity of relationships, but it is having sufficient relationships of a good enough quality,” Dickinson says. “Some people can feel great having one really good friend who they can have in-depth conversations with and get that emotional support from, in comparison to people who have a really big social, social network and a big group of friends who they don't feel like they're actually getting that support from.”
So how can you tell if you’ve got strong social connections?
“A good question is, do you have anyone that you could call in a crisis?” Dr Blashki says. “As a GP, I'm always a little bit astounded and sometimes a bit sad when people think, ‘Oh, I'm not sure who I would call,’ — there are some pretty isolated people out there.”
What’s the disconnect?
“Some of the risk factors for poor social connections are things like unemployment, financial hardship, and sometimes injury or illness where you’re withdrawn from those opportunities where you might meet some other people,” Dr Blashki says.
Other major life events like moving cities or countries, having kids, a relationship breakdown, or the death of a partner, can also lead to a decline in connection and highlight feelings of loneliness. Many men can find it difficult to remedy the situation.
“For men it can be hard to sometimes make those social connections, there’s sort of a stigma around it, a sense of ‘oh I’ll just work out things on my own’ or they might be a bit sceptical about social arrangements that seem a bit too manufactured,” Dr Blashki says.
Expectations of stoicism (the endurance of pain or hardship without the display of feelings and without complaint) are also restrictive when it comes to getting more emotional support from the connections they do have.
“Notions of masculinity have been rapidly changing but sometimes trying to get that balance right between being a sort of masculine guy or being more open to vulnerability and discussing the things that you're worried about,” Dr Blashki says.
Loneliness and lacking social connections is an alarmingly common experience, but it isn’t inevitable.
Continuing the connections you’ve got
1. Keep in touch with tech
Reach out and say g’day if it’s been a while — whether it’s a text, a call, or setting up a group chat — keeping up contact can help maintain relationships. Online forums and message boards can also be an accessible and non-threatening starting point for men who might feel awkward about making new connections.
“There's the Meetup app, which has got all sorts of categories where you can meet people with shared interests and they have scheduled times where you actually get together,” Dr Blashki says.
And that’s an important distinction —online relationships aren’t always enough of a substitute for in-person interactions.
“It’s probably because the way we interact online tends to be a little bit different,” Dickinson says. “It’s much harder to fill the emotional cups quite the same way in most online experiences, which tend to be a little bit more superficial or a little bit briefer.”
Social media can also influence how you perceive the quality, and more often the quantity, of your relationships.
“Social media generally can be a bit of a trap when you start comparing your life to others and the problem is that you're comparing your day-to-day life with a curated version of other people's lives,” Dr Blashki says. “Make sure that some of the social connections are not digital, but they're actually face-to-face.”
2. Strike up the courage to ask for support first
If you’re one of the many men who are after a bit more emotional support from their relationships, get over the awkwardness and ask for it.
“A simple inquiry is really powerful,” Dickinson says. “Programs like R U Ok? Day have done a really good job of normalising being able to talk and to ask.”
Maintaining strong relationships requires opening up, actively listening, and sharing what you’re going through.
“You may need to pop a little toe in the water of letting someone know you’re not okay and seeing which of the people in their network are able to hear that and to respond in some way and let them feel like it's safe enough to ask for a little bit more support,” Narelle says. “People are often surprised when they do reach out, how many people, or who is it, that are able to say, ‘Oh, how can I help? What do you need?’”
3. Make standing arrangements
Instead of a one-off coffee with vague promises to catch up again soon, lock in a regular arrangement.
“Sometimes scheduling a regular activity is better than having to instigate it every time,” Dr Blashki says. “I say to a lot of my male patients who are a bit isolated, if you’re linking in with some good friends to make it regular. Say, right Saturday morning we're going to go for a walk or Tuesday morning we’re going to go to for a ride, keep it as a sort of a standing arrangement.”
Making new mates
1. Bond over shared interests
Opportunities to meet new people gradually decline as we get older, without school or study to extend our network. We might also be set in our ways when it comes to our day-to-day habits.
“A lot of men with strong social connections, often that's around a shared activity like a sport or a hobby,” Dr Blashki says.
Think about what your interests are or new hobbies you might like to try and look into what local programs, clubs, classes, or communities are around, like Men’s Sheds.
“The overarching thing is to try and create more opportunities where you might actually meet people and get chatting, for a lot of men that sort of communication where you're actually doing something else is sometimes a bit more comfortable,” Dr Blashki says.
2. Give back
Whether it’s volunteering to walk rescue dogs, joining local clean-ups, or just asking your neighbours if there’s anything they need a hand with — giving back to your community can help you connect with others.
If you’re trying to deepen your connections or make new friends, don’t expect instant results. Creating good relationships takes time and effort but is worth it for your wellbeing.