What is Social Wellbeing and How do We Achieve It?

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Social wellbeing is an important topic, but one that can mean different things to different people. One way to view ‘social wellbeing’ is the following:

For an individual, social wellbeing can include elements like social acceptance, actualization, contribution, coherence, and integration. For a community, the term can include factors like education, health, safety, housing, food and water infrastructure, as well as fair, peaceful institutions.

Finding a workable definition is only have the battle, though. Below we dive a bit more into what these things mean as well as how we can go about achieving social wellbeing for ourselves and our communities.

The Components of Social Wellbeing

Currently, there is no universally established definition of what constitutes social wellbeing. However, many researchers, policymakers, and analysts have put forward various ways to think about social wellbeing and even ways to measure it. 

Unlike other terms used in policymaking, there is no strong push to establish a definition for the term once and for all though. Much of the credible literature on the subject makes note that the ways in which we think about social wellbeing depend on the communities we are in and what is important to us as individuals.

Not only does the definition depend on the context, but it also depends on whether we are trying to achieve social wellbeing as individuals or for our community. Both perspectives are important to understand. Below is a closer look at each view.

Why Is Social Wellbeing Important for Individuals

Managing social relationships are critical for our physical and mental health and, in essence, we can view social wellbeing from the perspective of the individual as to how we manage those relationships. 

Human beings are by nature social animals and engaging with others has important physiological and psychological benefits. For instance, one study conducted by the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research found that doubling the amount of your friends has the same impact on happiness as a 50% increase in income!

Research has also shown fascinating links between social wellbeing and health. A study out of Columbia University showed that social integration was highly correlated with better recovery for people who had suffered from a stroke. Conversely, the study showed that social isolation was a high predictor for post-stroke complications. 

Similarly, research out of Harvard showed that social integration was correlated with better memory among the elderly, and those who felt isolated showed more signs of memory loss.

But, social wellbeing doesn’t just depend on having relationships. It also depends on the quality of the relationships that we have.

One study out of Ohio State University showed that having supportive interactions with a partner can have benefits for physical healing. The study looked at the rates at which blisters healed for individuals in relationships. Researchers found that couples who were in hostile relationships healed at 60% the rate of those in supportive relationships. The study found that even a single conflict among the couples slowed the healing process.

Understanding the importance of social wellbeing has led many researchers to look for means by which we can measure social wellbeing and, hopefully, improve it when need be.

While there is no single definition of the term as stated above, one of the most popular definitions in sociology comes from Corey Lee M. Keyes. Keyes suggested in 1998 that social wellbeing can be thought of as consisting of five major elements. These include:

  • Social acceptance (how we accept others – sometimes thought of as tolerance)
  • Social actualization (how much of our potential we feel we are living up to)
  • Social contribution (how much we contribute to our communities)
  • Social coherence (how much we understand and are in harmony with our communities)
  • Social integration (how much we feel apart of our communities)

These five elements are useful guideposts to improve wellbeing, but it’s important to take stock of your own life and think about what you consider important to your own wellbeing. Combining the research with your personal reflection is the most powerful way to improve your wellbeing.

Achieving Social Wellbeing: Theories and Activities for Individuals

Using the five elements of social wellbeing discussed above, we can design a template for individuals to improve their wellbeing. Below is a bit more on each of the five aspects and how to improve upon them.  

Social acceptance

Social acceptance is focused on how much we accept others. This may sound easy at first. Most people don’t think of themselves as judgemental, but the fact is that judging others often becomes an ingrained response among adults – with distinct brain patterns

Above we spoke about the impacts of social isolation on individuals, but it’s also important to note that excluding others can have severe consequences for communities at large too. The science of acceptance and rejection is a newer field of study but is already making important discoveries. Research published in Aggressive Behavior, for instance, showed that in an analysis of 15 school shooters all but 2 of them had faced social exclusion.

With this in mind, here are two ways to be less judgemental and more accepting:

  1. Monitor your thoughts in a non-judgemental fashion. Viewing your thoughts through an objective lens helps disassociate your true beliefs from fleeting thoughts. So, when you catch yourself judging others, you are better able to question your assumptions and try to see things from the other person’s perspective (e.g. maybe they’re having a bad day).

    This is the basis of mindfulness meditations and studies show that it does increase wellbeing. Research done at Duke University, for example, showed that mindfulness is strongly correlated with better social wellbeing and higher quality social interactions.
  2. Actively look for a positive interpretation of social interactions. ‘Thinking positive’ may sound like a trite suggestion, but it’s well-known among many in healthcare that positive thinking has clear consequences for an individual’s wellbeing and, consequently, their relationships.

    The Mayo Clinic, for example, champions positive thinking as an important way to combat stress. It’s important to keep in mind that positive thinking doesn’t mean deluding yourself. It means finding the silver lining in the challenges we face in life and looking for the positive aspects in those around us.

Social actualization

Social actualization is focused on how much of our potential we are living up to. Naturally, how much of our potential we are living up to is a question that each individual must answer for themselves. 

A portion of reaching our potential lies with our own efforts. A degree of initiative and follow-through is necessary to fulfill any amount of potential. It’s equally important to maintain a growth mindset and make sure that we don’t put limitations ourselves or we may be giving ourselves an excuse not to take risks – ultimately leading to long-term dissatisfaction.

On the other hand, it’s important to understand social-political factors may place extra burdens on individuals. These burdens can bog down efforts at achieving social actualization.

For example, the ‘school-to-prison’ pipeline has become a well-known social pattern in the U.S. The term describes the consistent trend of children of color being channeled from urban public schools to prisons.

Common social patterns playing out among our demographics are important to be conscious of when we think about our own actualization. While the factors leading to these circumstances can be systemic, it’s still possible to break free of social habits or the expectations of those around us in order to reach our potential.

Regardless of your circumstances, here’s two powerful ways to increase your chances of achieving your goals and fulfilling your potential.

  1. Rely on your own experiences and judgment. Abraham Maslow was a famous psychologist that suggested theories of achieving self-actualization. One important attribute that he noticed in the people he studied who were considered ‘self-actualized’ was that they were able to make decisions independent of those around them and avoid the ‘group think’ mentality. The ability to think independently can help us avoid limiting our potential and/or can help us break free of social trends and expectations as discussed above.
  2. Visualize your success. This might sound like another trite suggestion, but visualizing success has been proven to improve performance. One reason visualizing is important was revealed by a study conducted by Harvard University. The study showed that our brains don’t distinguish between real memories and imagined ones. Repetitive visualizations, then, have a similar impact as physically doing an activity. Research has shown that visualizations can improve everything from public speaking to athletic performance.  One study from the Cleveland Clinic Foundation even reported that visual workouts actually resulted in increased muscle gain.

Social Contribution

Social contribution is focused on how much we are giving back to our communities. The health benefits of contributing to society both through work and volunteering have been well documented. These activities tend to give participants a sense of purpose, for example, and a study conducted at Northwestern University showed that having a sense of purpose in life is correlated with healthier sleeping patterns. 

It’s important to note that meaningful purpose can be found outside of our day jobs too; volunteering is a great way to do this and a proven method of improving our health. 

Research done at the City University of Hong Kong found that volunteering had clear benefits for physical and mental health as well as social wellbeing and life satisfaction. What’s important to note, however, is that the benefits of volunteering were only felt by volunteers who were motivated by helping others as opposed to seeking benefits for themselves.

Sometimes it can be difficult to know just how to get involved though. There are two things that I would suggest keeping in mind before finding a way to get involved. First, figure out what would be fun and engaging for you to get involved with. If you have a special skill or hobby, that’s usually a good place to start so you can search for volunteer opportunities that will allow you to engage in the activities you already love.

Second, it’s important to remember that consistency is key. Whether it’s daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly your efforts at giving back to the community compound over time and with regular engagement.

With that in mind, here are two ways you can find opportunities to get involved in your community:

  1. Idealist.org – a trusted website with many opportunities. I have personally found jobs and volunteer opportunities off of this site.
  2. Volunteermatch.org – is another well-known site. I cannot speak to the platform personally, however.

Social Coherence 

Social coherence refers to our ability to understand and remain in harmony with our communities. This concept may seem more abstract than previous concepts. But, while harmony with those around you might seem like it’s in the realm of philosophy or spirituality, research has shown that even social cohesion can have measurable effects on the body.

While research in this field is still young, the HeartMath Institute has reported intriguing findings. Researchers were able to determine that social harmony in relationships correlated with alignments in heart wavelengths between individuals. 

Not only that, but the research showed that, in the context of work environments, self-regulating emotional responses “combined with heart rhythm coherence training results in significant improvements in communication, employee satisfaction, productivity, problem-solving, reduced turnover, and a significant return on investment, both financially and socially.”

This research suggests that being in harmony with your community and those around you starts with your emotional responses to social situations. It also concludes that cohesion can be improved by focusing on your physiological state.

These conclusions are truly groundbreaking; they indicate that we subconsciously pick up on the physiological states of those around us and that we may be able to change relationships or interactions by changing our physiology.

With these insights, here are two ways to improve your social coherence:

  1. Pay attention to your inner state during social interactions. In the social acceptance section above we discussed the importance of mindfulness and reframing social interactions to be positive. These tools are important for building social coherence as well. The key here is to pay attention to your physiological state during social interactions.

    When you begin to experience negative emotions such as stress, observing your state objectively and reframing the situation into a positive experience can alter your physiology and, with practice, can do so almost instantaneously. Again, while you don’t need to delude yourself into thinking every experience is positive, what’s necessary is to find the opportunities for growth in difficult situations. The research from the HeartMath Institute discussed above would suggest that focusing on these internal states will bring you more into harmony with others.
  2. Practice nonviolent communication. Nonviolent communication is a theory founded on the idea that all humans have the ability to be compassionate and empathetic. More to the point, the theory indicates that all human behavior is an attempt to fill basic human needs and that those needs are never in conflict – only the strategies to meet those needs are in conflict. Therefore, with the right communication methods, we can reduce conflict in our relationships.

    Marshall Rosenberg is often thought of as the founding father of nonviolent communication and puts forward four components to effective interactions: observation, feelings, needs, and requests. Paying attention to these four components of social interactions and practicing nonviolent communication has been proven to improve social cohesion.

    One study from the University of San Francisco found that practicing nonviolent communication improved harmony between a cohort of nursing students as well as with their patients. Naturally, this has consequences on the level of care patients receive and the amount of stress nursing students face. If you want to know more about nonviolent communication, I suggest starting with Rosenberg’s Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life: Life-Changing Tools for Healthy Relationships.

Social integration

Social integration is concerned with how much we are accepted by others. In some societies such as in the U.S., cultures can value the idea that we shouldn’t care what people think of us. While there is some merit to the notion that the opinions of others shouldn’t impact our beliefs about who we are, we are social creatures nonetheless and do need to be mindful of how others see and accept us.

How much we are accepted by others may seem out of our control or may conjure up ideas of popularity contests. But, introverts and the adorably awkward among us have nothing to fear – acceptance is just as much in reach for those without the Hollywood charm as it is for those lucky enough to have it.

Integrating into our communities can be challenging though – even for the most charismatic among us. Research done in the 1960’s even suggested that gaining the acceptance and the respect of our peers are inherently at odds with one another. We are, therefore, in a constant balancing act between gaining affection and winning admiration.

What’s important to note about social integration is that while having more friends has proven to increase our happiness (discussed above), more often than not those who are most satisfied in life focus on the quality of relationships as opposed to the quantity. Maslow noted that self-actualized people often have fewer social connections but tighter bonds than those who felt more dissatisfied with their lives. 

So, how do we build bonds with others? Here are two ways to start:

  1. Accept yourself and pursue group activities that you love. Another seemingly trite suggestion! But, wait! This is hugely important and something that, sadly, many individuals dismiss. Self-acceptance has been proven to be correlated with mental health and the quality of wellbeing. Research done at the Canterbury Christ Church University, for example, showed that mental health disorders such as depression and severe anxiety are correlated with low self-acceptance.

    Self-acceptance has huge consequences for our confidence and, therefore, how we interact with others. Accepting who you are and what you love to do is a big first step in getting others to accept us. To work on this, see the mindfulness suggestion above. Once that’s in progress  – seeking out group activities will inevitably build social connections.

    Activities that happen on a regular basis and put you in contact with the same people consistently who share similar interests as you can be some of the most valuable types of activities for social wellbeing. It’s been shown that face-to-face interaction does improve likeability no matter your charm levels.
  2. Be vulnerable and make efforts at appreciating others. Here’s a trick that I’ve learned from some of the most fragile social interactions: make yourself vulnerable and be willing to show your mistakes. I’ve personally supported and worked with individuals who negotiate releases of international prisoners of war.  The number one piece of advice from these negotiators? Be vulnerable.

    Indeed, there is ample evidence that suggests opening up or making a mistake in front of others actually makes us more likable. Some research does show that making a mistake can decrease our likeability if we are not already viewed favorably. However, other research suggests that the phenomenon even works with people’s likeability of robots – where people preferred a robot that made mistakes regularly. This would suggest that being vulnerable helps us be seen as more human – so no need to be a perfectionist.

    I would, personally, suggest that vulnerability be combined with sincere forms of admiration. Giving genuine compliments to others has been proven to increase our likability – so while it’s important to remove our personal defenses first, it’s also important to look for the good in others.

    When we compliment others, studies show that recipients of the compliment and observers of the interaction associate the traits pointed out with the person that gave the compliment. In other words, if you tell your coworker how smart they are – they will inevitably associate you with being smart.

Social Wellbeing for Communities

Above, we’ve mainly explored social wellbeing from the perspective of an individual trying to achieve social wellbeing for themselves. To have a solid understanding of the concept, though, it’s worth briefly exploring how wellbeing is viewed from the perspective of community leaders and decision-makers.

As noted in the introduction, there is no real drive among policymakers to establish a universal definition or metric for social wellbeing. Many governments have devised ways of measuring the wellbeing of their citizens that are specific to their countries and time periods.

For example, the below table shows how three different institutions went about measuring wellbeing in three different communities at three different times. All are trying to capture slightly different understandings of wellbeing that are appropriate for their time and context. The table below lists each factor considered to be a part of wellbeing.

OECD well-being framework (2019)Australia’s welfare indicator framework (2017)Amárach Consulting Index of ‘Goodness’ developed for Ireland (2002)
Income and wealthMaterial living conditionsPeople’s personalities (pessimistic vs optimistic)
Jobs and earningsHealth and vitalityState of health – including levels of stress
HousingWorkMarital status and family circumstances
Health statusPersonal safetyThe local environment in terms of safety and cleanliness
Work-life balanceEnvironmentFinancial circumstances
Education and skillsSkills and learningReligious beliefs
Civic engagement and governanceCommunity engagementSatisfaction at work
Environmental quality
Demographic variables such as age, gender, and educational qualifications
Personal security

Natural capital

Economic capital

Human capital

Social capital

Subjective well-being

Social connections

As you can see, there is no right or wrong way to measure wellbeing for communities, but it can still be done. What’s interesting to note is that the indicators used to measure wellbeing for a community are more reflective of the institution’s values and mission than the society at large.

It’s not uncommon for departments or agencies within governments to develop their own measures of wellbeing. More customized wellbeing indexes allow policymakers to understand how a specific public service is performing.

For instance, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) created its own index of wellbeing in order to understand the agency’s impact better. The framework includes eight domains:

  1. Connection to nature
  2. Education
  3. Health
  4. Leisure time
  5. Living standards
  6. Safety and security
  7. Social cohesion
  8. Spiritual and cultural fulfillment

Readers will note that the first indicator listed is ‘connection to nature.’ So, EPA’s understanding of wellbeing then includes the organization’s mission and provides a measurable way for the EPA to improve people’s wellbeing.

Other institutions have pointed out that wellbeing can take on a different meaning depending on socio-political contexts – specifically in post-conflict environments. The U.S. Institute of Peace (USIP) put forward a framework for social wellbeing during times of reconstruction and stabilization in communities.

USIP’s framework simplifies wellbeing into four main categories:

  1. Equal access to and delivery of basic needs services (water, food, shelter, and health services),
  2. The provision of primary and secondary education,
  3. The return or resettlement of those displaced by violent conflict, and
  4. The restoration of social fabric and community life.

In this way, policymakers are better able to prioritize services and resource allocation in moments when the social fabric is strained and cooperation may be low among community members.

For policymakers, then, social wellbeing must be understood according to the time and context in which the trends are being examined. Further, measuring social wellbeing must be done with organizational missions in mind in order to understand how best to provide services to the community. 

So, policymakers best serve the social wellbeing of their communities when they continuously reexamine their assumptions and modify their frameworks to account for changing times and circumstances.

Are you looking to get involved? Check out our post on community involvement for more important information about improving the quality of life for you and your community.

Dan Jasper

Dan Jasper is the founder and primary author of Street Civics. He specializes in advocacy and international affairs.

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