in: People, Social Skills

• Last updated: June 3, 2024

The Importance of Developing and Maintaining Your Social Fitness

Four people dressed in casual clothing sit around a table, smiling and holding cups, with the text "The Importance of Maintaining Your Social Fitness" above them.

Started in 1938, the Harvard Study of Adult Development represents the longest longitudinal study on happiness ever conducted. It set out to follow a group of men through every stage of their lives, from youth to old age, and continues to study their descendants.

The Harvard Study aimed to discover what makes human beings flourish, and its overarching conclusion was this: it’s all about good relationships. The Harvard Study has found that the quality of a person’s relationships has the biggest influence on their health and happiness. 

Robert Waldinger, the current director of the Harvard Study, uses a great phrase to refer to this relational factor: social fitness. However, in the book he co-authored, The Good Life, he never directly explains and unpacks what the concept of social fitness involves.

Below, we’ll take a stab at doing so.  

What Is “Social Fitness”?

We typically talk about fitness in terms of physical fitness, but it’s a very apt way to describe our social lives as well. We’ll get into the parallels between the two concepts in a moment, but let’s first explain what social fitness is.

“Fitness” can refer to a couple of things. 

One is a person’s current state and condition. (“He is fit.”)

The other is a person’s capacity to perform a certain role, task, or function. (“He is fit enough to ____.”)

Physical and social fitness each encompass both of these qualities. 

When you’re physically fit, you’re in good shape. Your cardiovascular system is healthy, your weight is normal, your muscles are toned. You are also sufficiently fit to perform certain athletic activities, like running a certain distance or lifting a certain amount of weight.

Likewise, when you’re socially fit, your relationships are in good shape. You have a sufficient number of ties and a sufficient amount of contact with them. Your relationships are marked more by intimacy and warmth than stress and strain. 

To assess the state of your social fitness, ask yourself how much you agree with statements like:

  • I don’t often feel lonely.
  • I’m happy with my number of friends.
  • If I had an emergency, there’s someone I could call for help.
  • If I had a bad day, there’s someone I could talk to about it.
  • I feel like I can be honest in most of my relationships.
  • I feel generally supported and loved.
  • If I need advice on a practical matter, there’s someone I could talk to.
  • There is at least one person in my life who challenges me and encourages me to grow.
  • There is at least one person in my life who makes me laugh and helps me have fun.
  • I’m happy and fulfilled in my romantic relationship.
  • There is at least one person in my life who knows nearly everything about me. 

Social fitness not only encompasses the state of having healthy relationships, but also the capacity to show up well in these relationships. 

To assess the “fit for” element of your social fitness, ask yourself how much you agree with statements like:

  • I would feel comfortable walking into a room where I don’t know anyone.
  • I feel comfortable making small talk with a stranger.
  • I can listen intently to someone without getting distracted.
  • I am able to cultivate genuine curiosity about anyone.
  • I’m adept at reading social signals and adapting my behavior accordingly. 
  • I know how to ask questions that facilitate conversation and deepen relationships.
  • I am able to offer feedback and advice in an appropriate way.
  • I am able to empathize with others in a helpful and comforting manner.

Of course, both of the elements of fitness are inextricably connected. In both the social and physical realms, you become fit by exercising your capacities, and the more fit you are, the more capacities you can exercise.  

The Parallels Between Physical and Social Fitness

To better understand the concept of social fitness, and how it’s developed and maintained, it’s helpful to think through its parallels with something we’re more familiar with: physical fitness.

Physical and social fitness were once defaults, but now require intention to maintain. 

In our primitive past, people had to move their bodies by way of necessity. Physical activity was built into the tasks of daily life. 

In the modern world, it’s possible to perform most of life’s necessary tasks from a seated position. Exercising takes intentional decisions and will.

In the same way, social fitness used to be an automatic part of life. Primitive peoples lived in small communities, which were filled, morning to night, with face-to face interactions. Today, with the rise of technology and work-from-home jobs, it’s possible to go very long stretches without talking to someone in the flesh. 

Just like the physical movements that arise naturally during the day (like walking to and from your car in a parking lot), are not enough to maintain your physical fitness, the amount of spontaneous social interactions that crop up in your routine are typically not enough to maintain your social fitness.

Social health does not happen by default; it requires dedicated effort.

Ignoring your physical and social fitness results in serious health consequences. 

You know the potential health consequences of a sedentary lifestyle: cancer, obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety. You’ve probably also heard that many of those same maladies are linked to loneliness.

The Harvard Study found that “The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest (mentally and physically) at age 80.”

Thousands of years of human history has designed us to move, and to socialize. If we ignore these hardwired needs, both our physical and our mental health deteriorates.

Physical and social fitness offer freedom from and freedom to.

Related to the idea of fitness as both a state and a capacity is the fact that in both its physical and social forms, fitness offers an individual freedom from and freedom to. It’s both a protective and proactive quality — something that prevents the bad and allows us to do more good.

Physical fitness gives you freedom from diseases, fatigue, poor sleep, and mental malaise, while also granting you freedom to navigate varied environments, play sports, climb mountains, play with your children, and so on. 

Social fitness likewise offers freedom from bodily and mental maladies and also keeps the burdening stresses and sadnesses of strained relationships at bay. At the same time, it provides the freedom to enjoy rich friendships, get ahead at work, feel confident at parties, find love, and experience joy in a happy and long-lasting marriage. 

If you don’t use your physical and social fitness, you lose it.

Have you ever been out to a social engagement after a long hiatus from face-to face interactions and noticed that all your behaviors came out cringe-inducingly creaky? You felt like a social Tin Man who’d gone too long without an oiling. 

Even if you lift weights for years and years, once you stop, your muscles will begin to atrophy. Likewise, if you fall out of the socializing habit, your interpersonal skills get rusty.

Some people are more inclined towards physical and social fitness than others, but everybody needs them all the same.

Some people are more physical. Some people are less. Some people truly enjoy working out. Others highly dislike it. Regardless of what category someone falls into, getting exercise is equally important for their health.

Some people are more social. Some people are less. Some people are naturally inclined towards extroversion; some people are more introverted. Regardless of what category someone falls into, socialization is equally important for their health. 

In the case of both social and physical fitness, a minimum amount of exercise is needed to maintain good health. But the amount someone needs beyond that minimum to be at their best will vary. 

Some people need to work out an hour every day to not go bonkers. Others only need to do 30 minutes of dedicated exercise several times a week to stay trim and feel copacetic. 

Some people need to be out socializing multiple times a week to feel happy; others are content with far more occasional gatherings. 

Dr. Waldinger says that one of the questions he’s asked most frequently is how many friends someone needs to have. He says there’s no set answer; it depends on the person. Some people are perfectly happy having just one good friend; others need a dozen. 

In a similar way, different people are drawn to different forms of social and physical exercise. Just as some people like playing tennis and others like yoga, some people enjoy small talk and others like deep, emotion-exploring conversations. But just as someone who likes running but dislikes weightlifting may need to lift weights in order to stay healthy for running, even people who dislike small talk must engage in it as an on-ramp to more intimate exchanges. 

While the natural desire for socializing, optimal social circle size, need for interactions, and inclination towards certain types of socializing will vary from person to person, everyone needs a quality stream of socialization in their life.

Cultivating physical and social fitness constitutes both a self-interested exercise and an act of service.

Working on your physical fitness offers personal advantages: you look and feel better and are capable of engaging in life’s most fun and adventurous pursuits. But it also confers a benefit on society: you’re prepared to assist others in an emergency, are less of a burden on the healthcare system, and have the vim and vigor to do as much good as possible in the world.

In the same way, working on your social fitness is both a self-interested and an altruistic act. Socially fit people enjoy a richer life themselves, while also benefiting others by providing a listening ear, supportive companionship, and nourishing recognition. 

As David Brooks argues, the moral fabric of a society frays when people stop feeling seen and heard; the resentment that results moves them to act out and act badly. Witnessing this bad behavior prompts people to interact with and trust others less, which only makes folks feel lonelier and less recognized, which leads to more behavioral ruptures, and the negative cycle continues. Being adept at socializing pushes this cycle in the other direction. It’s an act of service.

Maintaining physical and social fitness requires endless monotonous exercise, but when you need it, you’ll be glad you have it. 

You don’t typically see immediate benefits from working out, besides an elevated mood. Health benefits accrue slowly and subtly. You don’t need to typically put the strength and physical skills you’re building to use. You put in hours each week and don’t experience an obvious payoff.

But, when you need your physical fitness for something fun or in an emergency — a friend invites you on a backpacking trip; a family member needs help moving a couch; you have to walk a marathon all over Disney World; you need to run from a burning building — you’re surely glad you have it.

The same thing is true of social fitness. A lot of the conversations and exchanges you engage in may be fairly mundane. But, when you find yourself meeting an important client, going on a date with someone you’re nuts about, or getting to know a friend you can tell will turn out to be special, you count your lucky stars that you’re prepared. 

By consistently exercising your interpersonal fitness in mundane, day-to-day ways, you ensure that you’re socially agile, confident, and adept when the interaction really counts.

You’ve got to regularly exercise your physical and social fitness whether you feel like it or not.

People typically understand that even if you don’t feel like working out, you have to do so anyway, for your health.

Socializing, however, seems more optional — something you only do when you feel like it.  

We recognize we shouldn’t give much credence to our mood when it comes to deciding to exercise, but frequently let our mood dictate whether or not we’ll attend a party.

But the same consistent commitment should prevail in both areas. Sometimes social exercise is something you look forward to, and sometimes it’s akin to eating your spinach — something you do, even though you don’t feel like it, because it’s good for you.

Regularly getting in social “workouts” means saying yes to after-work drinks or a networking event, not because of an innate desire to go, but simply because you recognize you need the exercise to stay interpersonally limber. It means striking up a chat with a coffee shop barista simply to practice your chit-chat. It means asking a couple to go out to eat, even if you’re not terribly excited about their company, to keep your conversational muscles in tone. 

To maintain your social fitness, you’ve got to get in the reps, whether you feel like it or not.

Even when you don’t feel like exercising your physical and social fitness, you’re always glad you did.

When you don’t want to exercise, but get after it anyway, by the time you’re done and all red-faced and sweaty, riding that post-workout high, you’re invariably glad you decided to fight through the inertia.

When you don’t want to socialize, but you put in the effort anyway, you’re almost always glad you did and walk away feeling better and even a little buzzed — a little more human, a little more healthy, a little more fit.

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