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The power of social connection - your health depends on it!

We explore the impact of social connection on our wellbeing and share five easy ways to boost your social relationships – it’s easier than you think!

Two women walk through a park with dense foliage, while chatting with one another.

Socially well-connected people are happier and healthier according to the latest research. Over the past couple of years, we’ve socially distanced and isolated ourselves from our whānau, friends and communities, so what has been the impact on our wellbeing?

What is social connection?

Social connection is the experience of feeling close and having a sense of belonging with others. No matter your age, gender or culture, social connections are a fundamental human need. Positive and meaningful relationships make us feel happy, connected and secure.1

How do we feel connected?

We feel connected to people when we interact with them in our daily lives, whether that’s face-to-face, over the phone or online. This may include interactions with family, friends, workmates, neighbours or anyone else you regularly engage with in your community.

Why is social connection important?

The Covid-19 pandemic highlighted how a lack of social connection made many of us feel stressed, isolated and lonely.

Having positive social relationships doesn’t just make us feel good. There is evidence to show that stronger social connections can positively impact our mental, emotional and physical wellbeing,2,3 including:

  • lower levels of anxiety and depression
  • higher self-esteem
  • greater empathy for others
  • strengthened immunity3
  • reduced risk of developing dementia as we age2,3
  • increased longevity.2,3

How does social connection impact heart health?

Many of the benefits of staying socially connected also impact our heart health. For example, lower anxiety levels, depression or severe mental illness mean a lowered risk of heart disease.4

There is also a relationship between loneliness and our heart health, with evidence showing that loneliness is associated with a 27% increased risk of heart disease in people over 50.2,5 While loneliness may be more common in some groups (i.e. older adults), anybody can experience it at any age and life stage.3

Five easy ways to connect

As we find normality in our lives again, now is the time to prioritise connection. It could be as simple as grabbing a coffee with a workmate, calling a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while or chatting over the fence with your neighbour. Don’t underestimate these simple interactions’ value as they collectively fill your cup and support your health and wellbeing.

1. Reach out to your network

Sometimes the hardest part is picking up the phone or sending a message to contact a family member or friend, especially if it’s someone you haven’t spoken to in a while.

Try pairing a catch-up with a walk or time outdoors as this will also positively impact your health and wellbeing.6

You may know people in your network who’ve experienced changes in their life (such as retirement, job loss or becoming a new parent). These people are at greater risk of loneliness and are likely to welcome connection.6

Two women are meeting at a local coffee shop. Friends hugging each other at a cafe.

2. Look for opportunities

One way to establish new connections with others is to find a shared interest. Many groups and networks suffered during the Covid pandemic but are starting to rebuild.

Here are some ideas:

  • Check out what’s on at your local community centre, church, library or leisure centre – you may be surprised at what is available.
  • Try a new sport, activity or hobby.
  • Join a class, workshop or social group.
  • Find a walking group.
  • Visit your local food or clothing market.
  • Find volunteering opportunities in your area.
Group of older female cyclists enjoying a bike ride together in a small New Zealand town. They are grinning, and some are raising their hands in the air in celebration.

3. Switch from online to in-person

Although being at home is comfortable and has its perks, there are considerable benefits to connecting in person.

Here are some ideas:

  • Organise a face-to-face catch-up instead of a phone or video call.
  • Visit a store instead of online shopping.
  • Cook a meal for someone instead of ordering takeaways.
  • Arrange to work at home some days and in the office on others.

As with everything, finding a balance between online and in-person activities that works for you is essential.

4. Connect with food

Food is much more than the nutrients it provides our bodies. It is a catalyst for bringing people together to share, celebrate and connect. We also tend to eat better when we eat with others.7,8 This could be as simple as inviting someone over for a meal, having a pot-luck picnic in the park or sharing surplus food or produce with a neighbour.

An intergenerational family enjoying a picnic together at a park in New Zealand

5. Use social media in a positive way

Social media can be an excellent tool for connecting with others – as long as it’s used positively.

When social media is used for social support and connectedness, it is associated with lower levels of depression and anxiety.5 However, negative interactions with social media, such as prolonged use and social comparisons, have been associated with higher levels of depression and anxiety.5

One way you could use social media for connection is to join a local support group or your local community’s page. This is a great way to connect with what’s happening in your community.

What can we learn from the ‘Blue Zones’?

There are five locations around the world termed the ‘Blue Zones’. These include Ikaria (Greece), Sardinia (Italy), Okinawa (Japan), Loma Linda (California, USA) and Nicoya (Costa Rica). People living in these locations are 10 times more likely to reach 100 years old than the general population.9

All these populations lead relatively healthy lifestyles, but they also have good spiritual, family and social networks, which are likely to contribute to health and longevity.9

Find what works for you

Social connections aren’t just about the quantity of your relationships and contacts. Quality is often the most important factor for our wellbeing. Not all approaches to connecting with people will work for everyone, so try something different to see what works for you. At the end of the day, when we spend time with people who make us feel valued, we not only have a sense of belonging but also reap health and wellbeing benefits.

Lily Henderson, NZRD

Lily Henderson, NZRD

National Nutrition Advisor

I am passionate about improving the health of all Kiwis from young through to old. I have enjoyed working in nutrition in the UK, Australia and New Zealand.


  1. Connect, me whakawhanaunga. Mental Health Foundation.
  2. National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine (2020). Social Isolation and Loneliness in Older Adults: Opportunities for the Health Care System. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.
  3. Australian Institute of Health and Welfare. 2021. Social isolation and loneliness. Canberra: AIHW.
  4. Ministry of Health. 2018. Cardiovascular Disease Risk Assessment and Management for Primary Care. Wellington: Ministry of Health.
  5. Valtorta, N. K., M. Kanaan, S. Gilbody, and B. Hanratty. 2018a. Loneliness, social isolation and risk of cardiovascular disease in the English Longitudinal Study of Ageing. European Journal of Preventive Cardiology 25(13):1387–1396.
  6. Wolfgang et al (2022): Clinical guidelines for the use of lifestyle-based mental health care in major depressive disorder: World Federation of Societies for Biological Psychiatry (WFSBP) and Australasian Society of Lifestyle Medicine (ASLM) taskforce, The World Journal of Biological Psychiatry, DOI: 10.1080/15622975.2022.2112074
  7. Ruddock et al. A systematic review and meta-analysis of the social facilitation of eating. American Journal of Clinical Nutrition. 2019;110(4):842-861.
  8. Chae et al. Association between eating behaviour and diet quality: eating alone vs. eating with others. Nutrition Journal. 2018. 17, 117.
  9. Poulain, M et al The Blue Zones: areas of exceptional longevity around the world, Vienna. Yearbook of Population Research, vol. 11, 2013, p. 87-108.