Creating the Social Support You Need

This post is a section of our report, A Leader’s Guide to Well Being. For a copy of the whole report, email

Meaningful friendships. A more personal connection with colleagues. A sense of community. Oh, how you would love to have these things. But you’re so busy and friendship seems so much more elusive than it once did.

Yet, social support is one of the most crucial parts of our well-being. Adults with strong social support have a reduced risk of depression, high blood pressure, unhealthy body mass index, and are more likely to live longer than those with fewer connections.

One meta analysis of over 140 studies found that people with low-quality social support have a life expectancy comparable to that of smokers. Too little social support is also worse for your health than obesity and a lack of physical activity.

According to the Mayo Clinic, social support can:

  • Increase your sense of belonging and purpose
  • Boost happiness and reduce stress
  • Improve self-confidence and self-worth
  • Help you cope with traumas like divorce, serious illness, job loss, or death
  • Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, like excessive drinking or lack of exercise

When life is hard, human connection is the glue that holds us together. Given the intense demands of leadership and family, a strong social circle can make all the difference.

Too little social support is also worse for your health than obesity and a lack of physical activity.

How to strengthen your social life

Friendships require active effort and care. But there are ways to bump them up on your list, even if you are intensely busy.

Change your mindset. Like exercise, nutrition, and rest, friendships aren’t just “nice to have.” They’re vital to your physical and mental health.  They also make you a more well-rounded leader. That mindset can make it easier to prioritize them.

Make daily routines more social. Whatever you enjoy doing–do it with others. Cyclist? Ride with a friend. Swimmer? Join a swim team. Have dinner with family every night? Include friends from time to time, even if it’s just by Zoom.

Create recurring social engagements. You have regular 1:1s with your direct reports. What about friends and extended family? Set up weekly or monthly video chats, walks, hikes, or whatever. This eliminates the activation energy for each get together.

Be proactive. Don’t passively wait for invitations–make the first move. Some of the most socially connected people we know are great at reaching out to others. “When can you come over?” This one thing will create more social connection.

Be responsive. Text back, email back. You would never leave an email from your CEO or Board hanging. Don’t leave friends hanging! Respond to every friendly reach out. Say “yes” to invitations more often.

When life is hard, human connection is the glue that holds us together.

Reactivate old social connections. Have some dormant friendships? The pandemic is a great time to reach out and reconnect because socializing on video is normal and can be done with anyone in the world.

Adopt a positive mindset.  Assume that people will like you. One study found that volunteers who were led to believe that a new acquaintance liked them began to act in ways that made this belief more likely to come true.

Work through social anxiety. Try a mindfulness exercise: each time you imagine the worst, pay attention to the actual outcome.  Your fears usually don’t materialize. Even if they do occasionally, remind yourself that it’s temporary and you can handle it.

How do you make the initial connections?

If your challenge is connecting with people in the first place, look for activities that provide repeat exposure to the same people. Repeated interaction enables the “mere exposure effect,” the tendency to like things the more familiar they are. Here are some ways to do that:

Try a MeetUp. MeetUp is a community-based app with a huge variety of hosted group events. Think: drawing, improv, hiking, or discussing technology. Organizers now take extra Covid-19 precautions—all events are outdoors and social distancing is encouraged.

Be social online. Platforms like Living Room Conversation, where volunteers host discussions on hot topics, have emerged as a new way to connect.

Seek community events. Look for groups focused on your interests. Find them in community bulletin boards, online sources, social media groups, and newspapers.

Volunteer. People form strong connections by working alongside those with shared values and passions. Volunteer Match is a great place to get started.

Try a new hobby. Hobbies help us relax, recharge, hone new skills, become better problem solvers, and make connections. Take a painting class or community college course, pick up an instrument, or join a library book club.

Leverage the support circle you already have. Tell friends or acquaintances you are looking to strengthen your social circle. Ask if they know someone that you might enjoy meeting.

Finally, expect some false starts. Don’t be discouraged by setbacks. You wouldn’t expect every date to turn into a relationship; friendship is much the same.

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