The importance of being social

The social network revolution engineered by Mark Zuckerberg and his fellow visionaries has been truly world-changing – and the world will never change back. The upside has been dramatic: the ability to place a free Skype call to chat to relatives on the other side of the world; hearing the voice of a son, daughter, mother or father on your mobile wherever you are; keeping in touch with friends and sharing stories, photos and instant opinions.

Many of those aspects of social networking are a force for good, reducing loneliness and maintaining contact. But, and it is a significant but, the very ease which we can Facebook, Tweet, LinkedIn, Google and Skype can lead to less personal social interaction than ever before, especially in an era of fragmented families and disrupted communities.

Our immediate community can not only give us a better quality of life but a longer life.

Somewhere in the mix, the joy of face-to-face conversations, social ties and direct contact has got lost. It’s a classic chicken and egg situation. Social networking helps fill some of the holes left by our retreat indoors and our lack of trust of the outside world, but is its success leading to even less personal interaction?

There is a school of thought, backed up by research, that suggests that we need to achieve a happy balance, enjoying the plus points of online networking but working hard to restore the kind of social connection that promotes good emotional health through sustained relationships with like-minded people.

It seems that the relationships that bind us into family, friends, neighbours and our immediate community can not only give us a better quality of life, but a longer life.

Networking shouldn’t be just a concept connected to the business community – with organised events to make potential business connections.

We are talking here about a different kind of connectivity, a slower, calmer, gentler way of meeting other people with no expectation of material gain, but the chance to rebuild community spirit and revive the idea of friendship and neighbourliness.

In Seattle, a project has been set up called Stop and Chat, an initiative to encourage people to take five minutes to stop and talk to their neighbours when they see each other in the street. It is simple and self-explanatory, and at the heart of how easy it is to restore that human connection. Rather than counting the number of ‘friends’ and ‘followers’, depth and quality of relationships is the key.

There is a real reason for doing this: sharing time together, respecting each other, working together, makes us feel good. It is one way of counteracting the onset of shrinking horizons caused by our attachment to the computer or because we are less able to move due to advancing years. Solitude, one heart specialist recently said, has become the new tobacco, because it damages our overall health so much.

Staying connected with the community – either through joining a club, singing in a choir, volunteering to help in a care home, act as a guide, or clear up a riverbank – is a chance to offer your time and energy and to gain from the enthusiasm and friendship of others.

Your own expertise and knowledge is valuable. Mentoring schemes are a fantastic way of helping younger people and discovering what they have to offer you back – building bridges across the age range.

Social connections and making a few friends is part of the process, but so is making sure you build time in to strengthen relationships within your own family and group of friends: organise trips out together, encourage them to come and help you with a local charity.

Let’s get out there and connect…