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Support Network and Health

These days it’s not uncommon for neighbors to be strangers. We get in our cars, parked in our locked garages, and leave for the day. Our evenings are a blur of chores and obligations. Who has time to chat by the fence with a neighbor? A growing body of research suggests we should make time. In fact, the health of our selves and our communities depend on it. Social connections whether chatting with a neighbor or volunteering for a community event are the backbone of a healthy life - and a healthy community. Here’s why and how you should widen your social circles:

Social bank account

You save money in a bank account so if you need it, whether for a dire emergency or a fun trip, you can tap into your reserves. The same holds true for social connections. Called social capital, this is the type of investment that will pay dividends for years to come.

“A number of recent studies suggest that individuals and communities who stockpile social capital are more resilient,” says Susan Jakes, Extension Specialist -- NCSU.

Here’s how it works: Say you’re involved in your children’s school: you volunteer in the classroom, lead a Scout troop, organize meals when a parent falls ill. You are building a hefty social bank account. Not only do you feel good about helping out, but you’re building relationships and trust. If you ever need help you’ll have it before you have to ask for it.

“When you invest your time and energy into other people, your investment will come back to you,” says Jakes.

When we look at social capital, we usually see three components:

Reciprocity or Giving and Receiving.

When you watch a neighbor’s house while she’s on vacation, you’re giving. When that neighbor watches your child so you can make an appointment, you’re receiving. That give-and-take builds rich, strong relationships and social capital.

Social Norms or Minding your Manners.

When a co-worker’s mother dies, you send a card. When a friend’s daughter wins an award at school, you congratulate her. These are small gestures that mean a lot to the person. They also build reserves in your social bank account.


This comes with time and by building your social network. As you build relationships and invest in your community, trust grows.

Growing apart

In his book Bowling Alone, Harvard sociologist documents the way American communities have grown more isolated over the past 25 years. The book’s title highlights the fact that Americans used to bowl in weekly leagues, but now find themselves too busy for that kind of social interaction.

“The challenge is to make time for social activities,” says Jakes. “It’s not always easy, that’s true. But it’s well worth your efforts.”

How to reach out and volunteer:

Take stock of your interests and skills. Do you attend religious services? Your religious organization may be a good place to start. Do you love gardening? Perhaps a public garden needs volunteers. Animals? Call the Humane Society.

Your local school wants you. If you have children, their school will be happy to make room for another volunteer. (And your kids will love having you there!) You can volunteer at your grandchildren’s school as well. Even if your family is far away, your local public school will welcome your involvement in any number of ways.

Volunteer listings. Many newspapers list volunteer activities. If not, check your public library for a list of organizations needing volunteers.

Strengthening your circles

Start close to home. Look on your own family tree ? or down your block ? for people you can connect with. Make a lunch date. Or meet at a park. Vow to reach out to someone on a regular basis.

Work pals. Are there co-workers you’d like to get to know more? Organize a book group at work or a lunchtime walking group. Does your place of business organize volunteer activities? Not only will you feel good helping your community, you’ll likely meet new friends as well.

Managing your time

Baby steps. Be realistic about the time you can give. If you’re just getting started, go slowly. Set a small goal and work toward it.

Nothing’s perfect. Not even volunteer activities. Expect glitches and bumps even volunteer mates you’re not fond of and you’ll handle any disappointment with much better humor.

And remember that Southern author and essayist Wendell Berry said it best:

“Only by restoring the broken connections can we be healed. Connection is health”