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Social connectedness and wellbeing

Social connections play an important role across many aspects of people’s lives, from finding employment and getting advice on important decisions, to receiving support during difficult times and having someone to enjoy life and relax with.

The Ministry of Social Development (MSD) commissioned this paper as part of the Families and Whānau Wellbeing Research Programme.

It is intended to serve as a foundation for future work exploring how social connectedness affects resilience and wellbeing for New Zealanders and how the development and effectiveness of these networks might be supported by government action.

Social connectedness is a key driver of wellbeing and resilience. Socially well-connected people and communities are happier and healthier, and are better able to take charge of their lives and find solutions to the problems they are facing. With this review, we hope to better understand:

  • the different elements that constitute social connectedness,
  • how social connectedness affects wellbeing, and
  • how to best measure social connectedness.

A large body of research shows these components of social connectedness affect people’s wellbeing, including their subjective wellbeing, physical and mental health, labour market outcomes, and educational outcomes.

The exact way in which social connectedness influences wellbeing depends on additional factors such as the social norms in a person’s network, the strength of a person’s social identity, and a person’s personality type.

Certain groups of people appear to be at risk of lower social connectedness outcomes, including young adults and older people, people with low socio-economic status, people from dysfunctional family backgrounds, single parents, people living with poor health or a disability, and people living alone.

The three elements of social connectedness

Based on the review of the literature, three common components of social connectedness can be identified as socialising, Social support, and Sense of belonging.

In its most narrow form, social connectedness refers to the social ties between people.

Importantly, consideration must be given as to whether this is simply a person’s number of friends and the frequency of contact with friends and family members, or whether the quality of person’s social relationships is equally, if not more, important to wellbeing.


As social beings, we thrive on interactions with others to be and feel well and research shows that activities are typically more satisfying when shared with others. Socialising is the interaction between two or more people coming together (whether planned or unplanned) to have a good time and enjoy each other’s company. Examples of socialising include friends or family members spending time together, colleagues having lunch together, or neighbourhood residents having a street party.

Social support

Social support refers to the support from people in a person’s social network that is either provided or perceived to be readily available in times of need.

A key difference between socialising and social support is that socialising refers to two or more individuals who come together as more or less equal partners.

In contrast, social support refers to situations in which one person or group needs help to achieve an objective and another person or group offers resources to provide help.

Social support is typically divided into emotional, instrumental, and informational support.

  • Emotional support refers to the amount of “love and caring, sympathy and understanding and/or esteem or value available from others”. Emotional support is most often provided by someone close, although less intimate ties can provide such support as well.
  • Instrumental support focuses on help with practical things, such as financial assistance, lending items or help with child care responsibilities.
  • Informational support refers to people who serve as information and referral sources (eg, housing or job referrals) or who provide advice on expert matters such as medical, legal, financial or technical advice.

Another distinction is between perceived support and received support. For instance it is not necessarily the receipt of support that is critical, but that a person believes it will be available when needed.

Sense of belonging

A sense of belonging is the feeling of being connected to and valued by other people. Whether it is sourced from family, friends, co-workers, club members, or a church community, people have an inherent desire to belong and be part of something greater than themselves.

Having a sense of belonging is a protective factor that strengthens people’s resilience. In contrast, feelings of loneliness are a risk factor and are argued to indicate a deficit in one’s sense of belonging.

Loneliness is distinct from aloneness or the lack of social ties per se: a person who feels lonely might be surrounded by or connected to many people (none of whom satisfactorily fulfil his or her need to belong). At the same time, a person can be alone or have a limited number of social contacts without feeling lonely.

The three core elements of social connectedness are interrelated.

For example, socialising tends to strengthen individuals’ willingness to provide social support as well as their sense of belonging. At the same time, people are more likely to ask for or receive support from people they socialise with more often and feel more connected to.

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Social connectedness and wellbeing literature review

Dec 2018

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