For the best health benefits, focus on the quality of your personal connections over the quantity or frequency of social contact. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

This past year has been riddled with grief, loss, loneliness and stress, all of which put a strain on our mental and emotional health.

The good news is that, despite these challenges, there are things we can do to mitigate the impacts.

One decision we can make in response to these challenges is to invest in our relationships, or create new ones.

Research indicates that close, healthy personal relationships and social connections are foundational to our mental and physical well-being. In fact, they’re a better predictor of our overall health than almost any other factor, including age, gender, and even our personal history of trauma.

As Vivek Murthy, MD, former U.S. Surgeon General, points out in his recent book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, “Strong relationships…improve our health, enhance our performance, and enable us to rise above differences of opinion…[they are] the foundation on which we build everything else.”

He goes on to say that what matters most is not the quantity or frequency of social contact, but the quality of our connections.

Taking our cue from Dr. Murthy, there are things we can do—even in a socially distanced world—to strengthen the quality of our relationships and create positive feelings about them. This includes:

  • Connect virtually. Just because we can’t be together, doesn’t mean that we can’t connect. Unlike past generations who faced pandemics, we have the option of gathering with friends virtually, keeping in touch via social media, and calling or texting on our phones. Try designating 15 minutes a day to connect with others, and during that time, focus on being fully present, without distraction. You’ll be amazed at the benefit to you and to those on the receiving end.
  • Gather outdoors. Despite the onset of colder weather, it is still possible to gather outdoors for socially distanced, in-person conversations. Bundle up with a blanket or gather around that outdoor firepit and let the conversation flow.
  • Physical activity. Pandemic or not, we all need to move our bodies. And there’s no better way to go about it than grabbing a buddy and heading outside for a socially distanced hike, jog or walk. Numerous studies show that both physical exercise and spending time in nature give a boost to our mental health. We’re also more likely to exercise when we do so with a buddy.
  • Write cards and letters. This is the old-fashioned equivalent of sending a text or leaving a comment on a friend’s social media post—but with the added benefit of providing something tactile and 3D that can be handled, touched and saved. At a time when our ability to touch or hug each other is severely limited, sending a card or letter can be the next best thing.

Are these actions cure-alls? No. It’s normal and necessary to feel some degree of mental and emotional discomfort during uncertain times. But these actions can be protective in the same way that a healthy diet and lifestyle protect our overall health.

By taking the initiative, reaching out to others, getting outside and staying active, we can help mitigate the impacts of grief, social distancing, boredom and stress. All this lays the groundwork for a full and vibrant social life after the pandemic.