The well-being benefits of strong personal relationships — a best friend, a workplace buddy, a close-knit family — have received considerable attention in recent years. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, brought to light an underappreciated dimension of connectedness: what sociologists and psychologists call weak social ties.
During lockdown days, feelings of loneliness and isolation were an ever-present risk, even if you were fortunate enough to quarantine with loved ones or you adapted to Zoom to maintain rapport with coworkers and friends.
But, for many, incidental encounters — chats in the breakroom with other employees you barely know, warm greetings from the barista who brews your latte, small talk with your hair stylist or barber, neighborhood gossip at the dog park — vanished from the social landscape. These superficial acquaintances and conversations may seem trifling, but it turns out they’re actually a vital component of emotional health — they keep us grounded and tide us over between more meaningful interactions.
Losing them may have played a major role in loneliness and alienation. Worse, those without close friends and family found themselves suddenly bereft of their sole source of connection.
The concept was originally described in 1973 by sociologist Mark Granovetter in his article The Strength of Weak Ties. He discovered that the most successful job seekers weren’t those with the strongest relationships and friendships, but those with the widest network of weaker relationships. In time, other investigators learned that, beyond the transactional advantages Granovetter identified, weak ties are essential to well-being.
Picture your personal connections as concentric circles. For many, the innermost circle will include family members. The next circle out is friends. Next, casual acquaintances — people with common interests you run into from time to time… like folks at your place of worship, neighbors, and sports league teammates. Another circle includes people you interact with superficially — mail carriers, shopkeepers, your kids’ school bus driver or crossing guard.
Research suggests that even interactions with the outermost circle, strangers, have an impact on well-being. People feel more socially connected when a passerby makes eye contact or smiles rather than looking past them.
One study found college students to be happier and experience greater feelings of belonging when they interacted with more classmates — usually described as weak social ties. The researchers observed similar results when they extended their study to community members and advise:
“Chat with the coffee barista, work colleague, yoga classmate, and dog owner — these interactions may contribute meaningfully to our happiness, above and beyond the contribution of interactions with our close friends and family.”
Weak social ties don’t replace strong connections; they work in tandem with them. The authors go on to explain:
“Just as a diverse financial portfolio makes people less vulnerable to market fluctuations, a diverse social portfolio might make people less vulnerable to fluctuations in their social network.”
Pandemic lockdowns, for example, fragmented our social portfolio, leaving us more dependent on our strongest ties. In other types of network fluctuation, like a friend’s job relocation or conflict in a close relationship, weak ties can be a lifeline. We need both.
Other studies have confirmed that a social network with varying levels of connection is more relevant to well-being, even physical health, compared to the sheer number of social contacts.
Tips for Well-Being Leaders
Facilitate connectedness, through creation of weak ties as well as reinforcement of existing relationships, by encouraging activities like these participant options in HES’s emotional well-being program, Work of Art:
- Form new social ties — Introduce yourself to someone you’ve noticed at work or in your community but never actually met
- Participate in group activity — Sign up for a team sport, class, book club, or outing
- Share appreciation — Take a few minutes each day to commend someone
- Listen selflessly — Ask an acquaintance about their day and give your full attention to their reply
- Lend a hand — Volunteer to help a cause important to you
- Show kindness — Give your seat to another commuter on public transportation during rush hour or prepare a meal for a sick or elderly neighbor.
Opportunities to build social ties are a hallmark of all HES campaigns. Features like Friends, teams, and the Wall provide space for interaction in a safe online environment, supporting participants’ diverse relationship portfolios and, consequently, their highest levels of well-being.
Learn more about levels of connection from The Greater Good Science Center at University of California, Berkeley: Are Some Social Ties Better Than Others?
Bob Merberg is an independent consultant with 20+ years in managing employee well-being programs. He specializes in helping employers increase engagement and health outcomes through innovative programs, communication, workplace environment, and organization development strategies. Bob’s well-being program evaluation results have been featured at wellness conferences and in various media outlets.