The Importance of Social Fitness

Jan 31, 2024 | By Jenna van Schoor

People are often very concerned with physical fitness and seeing how far they can push themselves to perform. But how much thought do we give to our social fitness?

To clarify, social fitness is a “…skillset that fosters cohesion, belonging, and trust in one’s personal and professional relationships”, according to the US Marine Corps. 

It’s no secret that building and maintaining strong relationships is a part of living a happier life. However, what is becoming more evident is the link between a lack of social fitness and the onset of physical diseases like coronary artery disease, diabetes and arthritis. 

This post will discuss the incredible results of the longest-running research study into health and happiness, The Harvard Study of Adult Development. We’ll also touch on how these findings can help us to live happier lives, especially as we start to live longer!

The Harvard Study of Adult Development

The Harvard Study of Adult Development began in 1938 and included teenage study participants from various socio-economic backgrounds. Many initial participants have since passed away, but the study continues with the original participants’ descendants and an ongoing analysis of 85 years of data.

The study involves regularly interviewing participants to assess their level of happiness. Initially, the participants were all young men from various backgrounds in the United States. According to an article by the World Economic Forum, the study’s key finding is that despite differing socio-economic circumstances, the happiest and healthiest participants always had strong social connections. 

The happiest and healthiest participants also lived the longest. As the investigation shifted to studying the original participants in retirement, they found that what people missed most about work was their working relationships. For this reason, participants are encouraged to build strong relationships at work before they retire.

The study has since expanded to include women and participants’ family members. While the focus is still on happiness, all the data collected allows the researchers to dive deeper into how to best prepare for a longer life. As the intro mentions, ongoing research shows that social fitness is critical for good health.

Despite their initial disbelief, Harvard researchers saw an unmistakable link between a lack of social connection and diseases such as coronary artery disease, diabetes and arthritis. Research from other institutions backs up these claims.

Social fitness is as important as physical fitness

We can see from the long-term Harvard study that social fitness is vital for longevity. But how can we learn to be more socially fit and prevent disease?

Social fitness is essential because interpersonal connections can help you to cope better with stress. Although no relationships are perfect, knowing that you can rely on another person can help you to navigate some of life’s most challenging circumstances.

Interestingly, many of the Harvard study’s initial participants felt that money and fame were essential to happiness when the study began. However, the value of relationships was a theme that continued throughout the study, regardless of the participant’s socio-economic circumstances or how their lives played out. 

Relationships are, therefore, a good indicator of a “successful” life. However, the initial participants’ lives are vastly different from today. For example, life expectancy is increasing, meaning we must also become “longevity literate” and socially fit.

Preparing for a multi-stage life

The World Economic Forum has researched this concept of longevity literacy, which involves planning better for retirement from a financial and social perspective. Our lives have shifted from a traditional linear view that places school, work and retirement in consecutive order. Today, there is more room for finding meaning and purpose at every stage of life.

A multi-stage life could involve not officially retiring but taking on different roles as we age. This approach is also relevant for the older generation and all life stages. How would we plan our lives better if we knew what was truly important?

An emphasis on future-proofing your life aligns with SACAP Global’s philosophy of lifelong learning. Learning new skills isn’t just about making money or becoming more successful; it’s about being happier and building more fulfilling relationships.

How to boost your social fitness

The easiest way to boost your social fitness is to start talking to people. If you aren’t already part of a robust social network, learning how to chat to strangers can help. You don’t have to become friends with everyone, but reaching out and starting conversations with people in your community can help you feel less isolated.

In this article, we’ve focused on how critical external relationships are for wellbeing, but these connections can only thrive if we also pay attention to our inner world. Although influenced by our external reality, happiness is also dependent on our internal perspective on life and what we make of it.

Developing skills that will help you build better relationships and learning more about enhancing your mental health can improve how you relate to yourself and the world. Here are some links to our online short courses that can help you build the skills needed to become socially fit: 

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