There are six women at my Y who kind of rule the roost. They’re all enviably toned, have children who get together for regular play dates, and sit together at the Y’s pool, endlessly chatting and laughing about who knows what. Meanwhile, I’m sitting on the other side of the pool deck, usually by myself, wondering just what has them cracking up.

And I desperately, desperately want to join them.

Building Your Social Capital

We invest in our 401(k)s, in our children’s 529 plans, even in our own education or job training programs. But rarely do we allow ourselves to invest in our social capital. Not familiar with that term? Economists and sociologists define social capital slightly differently, but at its heart, it’s a theory that you’ve probably applied when applying for a job: “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know.” That’s the idea behind social capital; as you build your social networks (I’m not just talking about Facebook and Twitter, folks), you’re building your connections. Those people can then help you do any number of things, such as:

  • Give you a lead on a new job
  • Recommend something to you, like a new restaurant or a great park
  • Provide you with a referral, whether it’s to a doctor, a country club, or even just an invite to join Pinterest
  • Teach you something new
  • Force you to think outside the box; reframe your opinions

Evaluating Your Social Network

When my husband and I first moved to this area, we spent a lot of time actively expanding our social capital. We went out of our way to talk to our new neighbors; we joined civic clubs and church groups; we rarely turned down dinner or party invitations. In other words, we ran ourselves ragged. But, the tactic worked; by the time we welcomed our first child a few years later, we’d surrounded ourselves with a strong social network that helped to provide both emotional and tactical support as we navigated the cloudy waters of first-time parenthood.

In the years since, we’ve seen our social network shrink. I quit my job. Friends moved. We changed gyms. Time constraints – and parenthood – forced us to pare down our extracurriculars. I’m a very social person by nature, so it bothered me, this devestment of my personal capital. But it wasn’t until I came across the half-dozen head hens at the Y that I decided to do something about it.

Investing In Yourself

I’ve never had a problem spending $80 a month for my family’s Y membership; after all, it gives us access to discounted swim lessons, free child care, and – the obvious – fitness facilities. To me, the Y membership is the epitome of investing in yourself, specifically your physical health.

But I realized that I’d been overlooking the Y’s potential to bolster my emotional health, by helping me expand my social capital. The impact of having a strong network of friends – in other words, having solid social capital – can have on your health. A decade-long Australian study showed that older people with a large social circle were nearly 22 percent less likely to die during that 10-year period than those without such a large network.

I quickly learned that the ladies in question all participated in the same Tuesday/Thursday small group workout session. The session cost an additional $15/month on top of my existing Y membership. Would it be worth paying the price to build my social capital?

I had a history – a rather negative one – of using this approach to make new friends. In college, I joined a sorority in hopes of expanding my social network on campus. Over the course of four years, I spent well over $3000 in sorority dues and other fees in order to wear those three Greek letters. Today, eight years after graduation, I keep in touch with exactly one of my sorority sisters. I can’t help but admit that it feels like a failed investment. I also must admit that the failed sorority experiment makes me question whether paying an extra $15 a month to break into a new social circle is basically the same thing – and whether it’s a viable way of investing in yourself.

Meet New Friends, But Keep The Old

In the end, I decided not to take the leap and join the small group session. I couldn’t justify the money, but beyond that, it felt too much like paying for friends. Instead, I decided on a two-pronged approach to expand my social capital in other ways.

First, I worked to reconnect with old friends with whom I’d lost touch. I emailed a few, phoned some others, and even took a short walk down the street to knock on the door of a neighbor friend whom I hadn’t seen in a while.

Second, I decided to simply be more outgoing. I’m an extrovert by nature, but wrangling two small children around town had more or less shut me off from making new acquaintances. I made an effort to introduce myself to the coveted group at the Y, and was thrilled when they asked me to move my stuff over to join them. Turns out, I didn’t need the $15 bill to become their friend.

Reader, in what ways have you invested in your social capital? Do you think investing in yourself in this way pays off?

Libby Balke

Libby Balke