Social Connectedness

What is social connectedness about?

Social connectedness is a sense of belonging to a group, family, or community. It’s about the relationships people have with each other and their engagement with the broader community. Social connection is an integral component of health and well-being. 

A socially connected community is a place where everyone feels like they belong. It’s where people know their neighbours and everyone has the proper support to get involved, build relationships and contribute to the creation of strong social networks.i It’s a place where spaces exist for people to gather with friends and neighbours. It’s also a place where all planning and strategic initiatives take social connectedness into account.

Social Connectedness

  • Social connectedness can be defined as the experience of belonging to a social relationship or network.ii It can be assessed by the number of people you confide in or your perception of community belonging.
  • Feelings of acceptance and belonging are affected by systemic inequities and social determinants of health, such as racism and discrimination. In order to address these barriers, communities must identify the fundamental systems, structures and institutions that exacerbate inequality.iii
  • The Vancouver Foundation’s Connect and Engage Survey,iv conducted in 2017, measured social connectedness using indicators such as community members’ sense of feeling alone, the number of close friends in one’s neighbourhood, involvement in community activities, and degree of neighbourhood ties.
  • Intergenerational connections are highly valuable—research shows that these relationships increase self-esteem and feelings of well-being, and decrease tolerance for elder abuse and neglect.v

Why is social connectedness important for health and well-being?

Building and cultivating social connections benefits both individuals and communities as a whole. People with extensive and strong support networks tend to have:

  • Better physical health due to lower rates of participation in behaviours that negatively impact health (such as smoking, drinking and inactivity).vi
  • ​A lower prevalence of mental illness.vii

Social support is also important for buffering the effects of an adverse event or stressful life circumstance. Research shows that those with strong social connections and support networks reduce their risk of premature death.viii Additionally, participation in civic life is an essential component of healthy communities, as social connectedness encourages people to support one another, give back, and take pride in the condition of their communities.

The Building Resilient Neighbourhoods project in Greater Victoria, B.C. has identified the connection between neighbours, residents’ socializing, and connection to civic life as essential characteristics of a resilient community. Resilient communities proactively adapt to change and are better able to withstand and respond to threats, stresses and disturbances.

However, systemic inequities make it difficult for certain members of a community to be socially connected. Equity is defined as the redistribution of opportunities, power and resources to those who face greater systemic barriers to overall health and well-being. Social connection, like all opportunities for better health, is not necessarily equitable. Applying an equity lens means acknowledging that systemic and historical discrimination and colonialization have resulted in an uneven distribution of resources.

Some groups face greater barriers to health than others, such as older adults, youth, LGBTQ+ folks, and Indigenous people. These groups must be focused on, not because they are vulnerable, but because our systems and structures are not set up with their well-being in mind. These groups may lack or be denied certain resources, rights and opportunities, making them more susceptible to social isolation and exclusion. By considering health through an equity lens, systemic inequities are identified and focus is turned to those who have traditionally been underserved or excluded. Only then can we begin to create plans, policies and strategies that are responsive to community needs, are community-driven and supported, and are sustainable in the long-term.

Did You Know?

  • A 2013 report based on the findings of that year’s General Social Survey examined Canadians’ social connections and found that those with more family and friend support had an increased likelihood of good physical and mental health. Three-quarters of surveyed participants under 35 reported high levels of self-rated physical health, compared to 56% of those with no close friends. Similarly, 56% of adults 65 and over with close friends reported their physical health as very good or excellent, compared to 33% of those with no close friends.ix
  • In 2013, the McCreary Centre Society’s provincewide Adolescent Health Survey found that students who felt connected to their community were more likely than those who felt unconnected to:
    •  See only positive future outcomes for themselves (92% vs. 80%);
    • Think they were really good at something (83% vs. 66%); and 
    • Report feeling happy all or most of the time in the past month (80% vs. 50%).
  • ​A study published in 2015 by the University of Queensland found that retirees who had and maintained two group memberships prior to retirement had a 2% risk of death in the first 6 years of retirement, a 5% risk if they lost one group, and a 12% risk if they lost both groups.x

Why does social connectedness matter for local governments?

Local governments, as directed by the Community Charter, have a duty to foster the “social well-being of their communities.” Local and Indigenous governments are in a great position to do this through the use of planning and community design, policies, programs and partnerships. They must also develop, own and support community infrastructure, such as community and recreation centres, parks, libraries and arts facilities, which are often hubs of community connection for residents.

Indigenous and local governments also have much to gain from supporting social connectedness in their community, including increased neighbourhood safety, people connecting with the services and support they need, strengthened resilience during emergency events, increased volunteering, and a stronger sense of community pride. However, in order to reap these benefits, Indigenous and local governments have to first ensure that everyone has the opportunity to be socially connected—this means applying an equity lens across environmental, social, economic and cultural domains in order to remove barriers to entry, such as discrimination, lack of access to or sense of safety in a community, and othering tactics.xi

B.C. has been home to Indigenous peoples since time immemorial.xii, xiii Traditional healing recognized a sense of place and belonging as important to overall well-being, and a First Nations conception of wellness highlights the social, cultural, economic and environmental determinants of well-being, which include key components of social connectedness.xiv Indigenous governments work both within and beyond colonial systems of oppression to reconnect their communities to the land and to cultural values using community-driven planning, policy, programming and partnerships. Indigenous governments also support community infrastructure, including recreation, cultural and community gathering facilities, and are well positioned to support social connectedness for community members.

Colonial systems of oppression and the process of settler colonialism in Canada and B.C. have created barriers for Indigenous governments to support social connectedness. In particular, Canadian and provincial government policies which facilitated the forced removal of Indigenous people from their unceded traditional territories, and created disconnect between families and communities through residential school systems, continue to have negative impacts on the well-being of many Indigenous communities. For Indigenous communities, the governance of land and resources can be extra challenging because colonial systems imposed in these communities do not always align with traditional interpretations of land use and governance.xv

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i Taylor, L. (2016). Get outside and connect with your community. Victoria Foundation.

ii Garofalo, D. (2013). The whats and whys of social networking for academic libraries. In Building Communities: Social Networking for Academic Libraries. Chandos Publishing.

iii Othering & Belonging Institute (2020). Toward Belonging Creative Fellow. University of California Berkeley.

iv Vancouver Foundation (n.d.) Connections and Engagement.

v B.C. Ministry of Health (n.d.) Intergenerational Connections. Province of British Columbia.

vi Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Health and Behavior: Research, Practice, and Policy (2001). Health and Behavior: The Interplay of Biological, Behavioral, and Societal Influences. National Academies Press.

vii Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) (2008). National Survey of Mental Health and Wellbeing: Summary of Results, 2007.

viii  Vancouver Coastal Health & Fraser Health.(2018). My Health My Community: Social Connection and Health.

ix Sinha, M. (2014). Canadians’ connections with family and friends. Statistics Canada.

x Steffens, N., Cruwys, T., Haslam, C., et al. (2016). Social group memberships in retirement are associated with reduced risk of premature death: evidence from a longitudinal cohort. British Medical Journal Open.

xi Hamfelt, A. (2019). Social Inclusion: The key determinant of mental wellness. Canadian Mental Health Association, BC Division.

xii First Nations Health Authority (n.d.) Our History, Our Health.

xiii Belshaw, J. Nickel, S., Horton, C. (2020). “Since time immemorial.” in Histories of Indigenous Peoples and Canada. Thompson Rivers University.

xiv First Nations Health Authority (n.d.) First Nations Perspective on Health and Wellness.

xv Beringia Community Planning, Inc. (2019). Our Sacred Land: Indigenous Peoples’ Community Land Use Planning Handbook in BC. Real Estate Foundation of BC and Indigenous Services Canada.

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