As one of the 8 dimensions of wellness, social wellness is crucial for building confidence, improving your emotional wellbing, and navigating challenging situations.
There’s no doubt that our closest relationships have a substantial impact on our social wellness. However, many people underestimate the importance of casual acquaintances.
Think about some of your favorite activities and hobbies, whether it’s a workout class, church group, or something in between. Those activities are filled with casual friends. These “workout friends” or “church friends” may not be the closest people in our lives, but they often provide us with the social connection we need to stay uplifted.
There’s a sociological title for these casual friendships. Stanford University sociology professor Mark Granovetter coined the term “weak ties” and wrote an industry-changing paper on the subject in 1973¹. According to Granovetter, the strength of a social tie is base on a combination of “the amount of time, emotional intensity, intimacy, and the reciprocal services².”
Most people can intuitively determine the strength of their social ties. You might imagine “weak ties” generally involve smaller time commitments. That is why many consider their casual friends confined to certain activities as “weak ties,” you see them while you are there and maybe communicate once in a while outside of the event.
Before Granovetter’s paper, the prevailing idea was that strong ties were the ones that primarily influenced your social wellness. However, Granovetter demonstrated the incredible value of weak ties.
It’s pretty obvious to see why strong ties are so important.Those are the people we commit the most time to, confide deeply in, and trust intimately. But, it would be best if you did not ignore casual relationships. They are incredibly important in ways we would not often think of.
Casual acquaintances or “weak ties” offer many benefits for our social wellness. Granovetter’s main discovery was that weak ties are more important than strong relationships for new information and ideas².
According to his paper, the stronger the tie between two people, the more similar they tend to be. It means that there are more differences between us and our weak ties. While the high levels of similarity make sense for stronger relationships, the differences between people with weak ties are valuable. By spending more time with your casual friends, who are more different from you, you are exposed to new concepts and opportunities.
Granovetter found a specific example of this. If you were to guess, you may think you’d be more likely to get a job through one of your strong ties. In reality, 84% of the Boston-based workers Granovetter interviewed got their job through casual contacts². Why is this the case? Because our casual friends offer new information, including opportunities, that will be outside of our close circle.
Our casual friends positively impact our mental health. Interacting with weak ties is essential for our social and emotional wellbeing³. On Gillian M Sandstrom’s study Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties, she found that students who interacted with classmates more than usual felt more happiness and belonging. Additionally, she discovered that social interactions with weak ties positively contribute to our overall wellbeing. Another study from 2016 found that people who are members of a group experience a greater sense of meaning and security, regardless of age or nationality⁴.
The recent pandemic and subsequent stay-at-home protocol have left us all deprived of our weak social ties. For months, we were restricted from our usual activities, and we’ve missed out on many casual interactions. Because of this, we miss out on light conversations that are free from the emotional burdens of strong tie conversations³.
We’ve also been missing out on new ideas. The latest information from weak ties may help us land a job, but it can also give us insight on how to cope with obstacles, like the current pandemic. Missing out on the interactions with our casual friends prevents us from experiencing the novel ideas we usually get to pick up on and the other emotional benefits that Sandstrom discovered.
Despite the unconventional times, we must find a way to feed our casual relationships still. During the lockdown and after, we still need our more distant friends for our overall wellbeing. In the absence of in-person events and activities, cultivating those weaker ties may seem impossible, but it’s not.
Thanks to technology, there are many different ways to garner weak-tie conversations. For one, you can reach out to new people via social media. It may be as easy as leaving a comment on their post or sending a quick message. You may also be able to join virtual activities like an online book club, cooking class, or chat forum to interact with new people. Additionally, you can briefly check up on the weak ties in your life without engaging in full conversations. Just let them know you are thinking of them and wish them well.
Our weak ties benefit our social wellness in many ways; we do not often think of it. Casual relationships can offer new insight and opportunities and positively feed our emotions. Focus on creating and rebuilding casual connections in the midst of and after the pandemic.
(1) Leslie, I (July 2020) Why your ‘weak-tie’ friendships may mean more than you think
(2) Granovetter, M (May 1973) The Strength of Weak Ties
(3) Sandstrom, GM; Dunn, EW (April 2014) Social Interactions and Well-Being: The Surprising Power of Weak Ties
(4) Wakefield, JRH; Sani, F; Madhok, V. et al. (May 2016) The Relationship Between Group Identification and Satisfaction with Life in a Cross-Cultural Community Sample