The mental health industry is booming. Next up? Social health innovation

Increasingly, if you want help strengthening your social muscles, you will be able to choose from a vast array of options.

To draw a parallel, mental health companies flooded the market as our collective understanding of what it means to be healthy broadened from physical to mental—and the idea of taking care of our minds in addition to our bodies became mainstream. Today, the mental health industry is booming, valued at over $380 billion globally in 2020 and expected to surpass $530 billion by 2030.

We are about to see a similar influx with social health, as awareness grows that health is not only physical and mental but also social. Social health is the vital dimension of your overall well-being that comes from your relationships with family, friends, coworkers, and community.

The first sign of this emerging trend is the rise of organizations launching to address loneliness. Having developed an app to help people deepen their relationships back in 2013 and advised technology leaders more recently, I’ve paid special attention to technology solutions and tracked hundreds of startups. These include digital platforms to help isolated older adults find community and apps to help employees feel less alone while working remotely. Outside technology, thousands of initiatives have launched around the world in government, education, and other sectors to tackle loneliness.

Countless more products and services are coming to help people proactively cultivate social health—and prevent them from becoming lonely in the first place. Let’s explore a few examples of what will be available to you in the years to come.

A gym for social fitness

In North America, there’s no shortage of places you can go if you want to work out your body, from high-energy gyms to tranquil yoga studios. But where can you go that’s a dedicated space for strengthening your social muscles? Community centers and social clubs come to mind, but they don’t typically train you in how to be socially fit the way an exercise class trains you to be physically fit.

I predict that over the next five years, you will see the rise of social fitness gyms for this purpose. They will offer classes and other opportunities for adults to make new friends, learn how to connect more meaningfully, and generally practice relational skills. Like gyms for physical fitness, gyms for social fitness will charge monthly membership fees.

One example of a brick-and-mortar approach already doing this is Peoplehood. In 2023, the founders of SoulCycle opened a “modern community center” in New York City for people to try a “workout for your relationships.” Peoplehood’s signature hour-long sessions focus on guiding people to share openly and practice attentive listening.

A personal trainer for human connection

You can hire a personal trainer if you want to get into better physical shape or meet with a therapist to improve your mental health. But who can you turn to for personalized support for your social health?

Kat Vellos is one of the world’s first connection coaches. Formerly a user experience researcher and tech designer who made software user-friendly, she’s now a certified coach and facilitator who makes friendship user-friendly. For instance, Kat leads the Platonic Action Lab, a two-month bootcamp for people who want to cultivate meaningful friendships in their local communities. Members meet weekly to participate in Kat’s virtual workshops and support each other as they take intentional, proactive steps to become more socially healthy.

Just as with social fitness gyms, I predict that you will see a surge of connection coaches in the next five years.

In particular, they will offer social health classes and programs in workplaces as an employee benefit, as more and more companies recognize that social health benefits the bottom line: People with a best friend at work are seven times more engaged and produce higher quality work—whereas each lonely employee costs their employer an average of over $4,000 per year in missed days and lost productivity.

A prescription for community

Soon, you’ll be able to turn to your doctor for help, too.

The practice of social prescribing is when a doctor or other healthcare professional refers a patient to resources for essential needs that fall outside the scope of typical medical care, like housing, food, and—increasingly—connection. Volunteering, community gardening, and ballroom dancing are examples of social activities that might be “prescribed.”

In the UK, where 76% of family doctors report that multiple patients visit them because of loneliness each day, social prescribing is a “key component” of the national healthcare strategy. People living in the US, Canada, and countries around the world will increasingly have access to this kind of support too. Studies have shown that patients who received social prescriptions felt less lonely and more connected—and as a result decreased their use of primary care services.

As with social fitness gyms and connection coaches, expect your doctor to ask you about your social health in future visits. I predict this will become the norm in the next ten years.

Following the rise of the mental health industry, social health is the next frontier for entrepreneurs and innovators.

Adapted from The Art and Science of Connection by Kasley Killam. Reprinted with permission from HarperOne, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Copyright 2024.

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