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We spend a lot of time in this space parsing the pitfalls of life withyour one and only, but what about everyone else? What about yourrelationships with family and friends, co-workers and neighbours, thevaguely familiar people you pass on the street?

We spend a lot of time in this space parsing the pitfalls of life with your one and only, but what about everyone else? What about your relationships with family and friends, co-workers and neighbours, the vaguely familiar people you pass on the street?

Harvard researcher Robert D. Putnam, in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, argues the connections we form with others comprise “social capital,” and produce tangible benefits.

Putnam’s title comes from the disappearance of once-ubiquitous bowling leagues across America, which he sees as an indicator of a more general weakening of Americans’ connections with friends, family and neighbours, and declining participation in churches, volunteer groups or political parties.

Signs of the increasing civic disengagement he chronicles south of the border can also be seen in Canada, where only 58.8 per cent of voters bothered showing up to the polls in last fall’s election, our worst
turnout since Confederation. We’d set the previous record for apathy, a 60.9 per cent turnout, in 2004.

All is not lost here, of course. Get your car stuck in the snow, and passing strangers are still likely to stop and push you out. That, too, is social capital.

Sure, we’re social animals, and relating feels good, but the uses of social capital aren’t all warm and fuzzy richness-of-life stuff. As Putnam points out, heaps of research shows you’re more likely to get a job on the basis of who you know rather than what you know. The more, and the more varied, connections you have, the easier it is to get ahead.

In terms of social capital, as Putnam measures it, the benefits of joining a club are equivalent to doubling your income. Getting married is the same as quadrupling it.

Your relationships with others could also be keeping you healthy. Putnam stacks up study after study showing the correlation between personal connection and health: “The bottom line from this multitude of studies: As a rough rule of thumb, if you belong to no groups but decide to join one, you cut your risk of dying in the next year in half. If you smoke and belong to no groups, it’s a toss-up statistically whether you should stop smoking or start joining.”

So, do you know your neighbours well enough to gossip about them? When your phone rings, are you pretty sure it’s another telemarketer? When was the last time you saw a member of your family who doesn’t live in the same city, or one who does, for that matter?

Are you a connected and interconnected social capitalist pig, or a lone bowler?

 
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