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How healthy is your social life?

"Well-being" is "the condition of being healthy, happy, and comfortable ...." according to Bottom line, it's how you see and feel about your life.

Many things play a part in our well-being. There are the basics like food, shelter, and health. And then there are the less-concrete things: our relationships with others, feeling like we have value, or feeling like our lives have meaning.

It's easy to think that as long as peoples' basic needs are met, everything else is just sugar on top. But for a long time some have believed there has to be a link between our well-being and our bodies' health. And now, scientists are finding this is true: there are very real connections between how we're feeling and how we're doing.

Relationships are a big area of interest. A Gallup management Journal article reports on a study that compares the state of a couple's relationship with their physical ability to recover from injury. Doctors made small wounds on the arms of 42 married couples, and then watched how fast those wounds healed. What they saw was very dramatic. The couples with good, low-stress relationships healed twice as fast as couples with relationship problems.

This study, plus other research, leads experts to think that people who have major surgery or illnesses will take more time to recover if they're having relationship problems.

Five vital elements of well-being

Gallup management Journal says its scientists have studied the idea of well-being, and what's behind it, for more than 50 years. Over that time, they've come up with five things that most people need to feel good about their lives. They say these five things hold true in the more than 150 countries they've studied so far:

  1. Liking what you do (career well-being)
  2. Having strong relationships and love in your life (social well-being)
  3. Being able to manage your money (financial well-being)
  4. Being in good health, with enough energy to get things done each day (physical well-being)
  5. Feeling engaged with where you live (community well-being)

Good days vs. bad days

More than a few studies say "social time" makes a difference in how rich our lives are. The Gallup study reports that people who say they're happy and healthy have an average of six hours of social time a day. Social time includes time on the phone, emailing, sending and getting text messages, or being with family and friends in person.

The study goes on to say that people with zero hours of social time in a day have even chances of having a "good" or "bad" day. But people who have more social time tend to have more "good" days than people who say they have no social time. In fact, each hour of social time, up to six hours a day, seems to raise the odds of a day being a "good" one.

Can't we be friends?

What if you're just not a "relationship person"? Well, we can't get into that here; we can only report that friendships seem to make a very big difference in peoples' health. In one workplace study having a friend, and even better, a "best friend," at work helps us do our jobs much better. People who have close friends at work are seven times more likely to do higher-quality work, care more about their jobs, serve customers better, have a better sense of well-being, and are less likely to be injured at work.

Close friends at work also help us meet that "six hours of social time" mark. Also, people with work friends are more productive at work. Even their "chit-chat" seems to add to productivity – tell that to your boss next time you're at the water cooler. But truly, this study says, these people seem more engaged at work. And the study shows it's not what people are doing that makes them more engaged at work; it's with whom they're working. A sense of community makes a big difference.

So if you come to work, sit at your desk, don't talk to anyone all day, and then wonder about your job performance reviews, it might pay to remember that doing well at work seems to be linked to being social at work. You might get a nice surprise on several fronts. Even those who say "I'm just not a people person" find friendship worth the effort in the long run.

Social connections and aging

Being sociable also improves your memory. A study of more than 15,000 people over age 50 showed that those who were socially active had less than half the rate of memory loss of those who spent more time alone.

And here's more support for a social life leading to a longer, healthier life. Another study of older African Americans in 2011 says that social relationships seem to improve emotional health in old age. Having support from family and friends seems to reduce some of the negatives that come with aging: in particular, the loneliness and depression that can lead to poor physical health.

Volunteering: help someone else, help yourself

One way to meet more people and feel like you're part of a community is to volunteer for something. It can be hard to find the time to do, but every year, people who volunteer find themselves reaping the rewards of friendship and self-worth. Plus, there's no better way to stop thinking about your troubles than to try helping someone else with theirs. The right volunteer match can help you find friends; improve the places where you live, work, or worship; learn new skills; and even move your career forward.

It can also be good for your mind and body. An article from the nonprofit resource lists some ways volunteering improves both mental and physical health:

  • Volunteering helps people gain self-confidence.

    When you volunteer, you do something good for others. This gives you a sense of self, pride, and a healthy feeling of accomplishment. And from such a place, you're much more likely to have a positive view of your life and future goals.

  • Volunteering fights depression.

    A major risk for depression is social isolation – basically, withdrawing from others and being alone – which then too easily becomes lonely. From there it's too easy for depression to creep in. When you volunteer, you stay in touch with people. You can also build a good support system, which can help you fight stress when you're facing life's tough times.

  • Volunteering is good for your body.

    Volunteering can help your health at any age, but especially as we get older. Studies have found that those who volunteer have a lower mortality rate than those who don't, even when the volunteers have health issues to start with. Volunteering has also been shown to ease symptoms of chronic pain or heart disease.

Places where you might find your spot include:

  • Community theaters, museums, and monuments
  • Libraries or senior centers
  • Service organizations such as Lions club or Rotary clubs
  • Youth organizations, sports teams, and after-school programs
  • Historical restorations and national parks
  • Places of worship like churches or synagogues
  • Online databases
  • Community food banks, aid groups
  • Community-action groups

The best way to volunteer is to match your personality and interests. Here are some tips from the World Volunteer Web on how to focus your search:

First, ask yourself if there's something special you want to do. For example, ask yourself "What do I want?"

  • To make it better around where I live?
  • To meet people who are different from me?
  • To try something new?
  • To do something with my spare time?
  • To see a different way of life and new places?
  • To try the type of work I might want to do as a full-time job?
  • To do more with my interests and hobbies?
  • To spend more time doing something I'm good at?"

Other ways to improve your outlook

Just because we're busy doesn't mean we can't take a little time to improve our communities and ourselves. Again, to be part of something you have to take part in something. has written a short list of 30-minutes-or-less ways you can put more "social" into your life:

  • Take a garbage bag on a walk.

    Walk through your neighborhood with a garbage bag, and pick up any litter along the way. Your neighborhood will look better, and you'll get exercise, too.

  • Shop with locally-owned businesses.

    Part of the sales tax goes to your community. And you may wind up saving more than time: many local businesses offer services like gift-wrapping and delivery.

  • Visit a local festival or other event.

    Most festivals raise money for non-profit groups that are supported through sponsorships. Since sponsors look at attendance to decide how much to give, you can add to the number and help boost sponsorships for the next year. Better yet, many of these events are free, and fun.

  • Write to local elected officials and inspire them to make good decisions for the community.

    People work harder when they know they are appreciated. And elected officials seldom hear enough encouraging words.

  • Put a plant on yo