Peg Ensminger with a bowling alley in the background

The Consequences of Bowling Alone

By Melissa Hendricks

In Bowling Alone, author Robert Putnam argues that Americans are withdrawing from all forms of communal activities—they're even bowling alone—and that this trend hurts democracy.

Margaret Ensminger would add that this change is also bad for public health. A growing body of research—including Ensminger's own studies—shows that people who have social ties to family, friends or organizations are physically and mentally healthier than those who lead more isolated lives.

Ensminger's research is based on data from a long-term study of first-graders called the Woodlawn Project. Begun 40 years ago, the study involved 1,242 first-graders and their mothers who lived in an impoverished neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. As a doctoral student in the 1970s, Ensminger studied the mothers enrolled in the study, some of whom were on welfare. Overall, the women on welfare were in worse mental and physical health than the women not receiving welfare. However, Ensminger discovered, a subgroup of the welfare moms was just as healthy as their non-welfare counterparts. They were women who had more social ties—who had friends or family members they could count on if they needed help, who were active in a church or other organization, or had other types of social connections.

Since then, Ensminger's research with the Woodlawn Project has continued to underscore the importance of social connections. For instance, she's found that children who were more involved in school and whose families were involved in church activities were less likely to become drug users later in life. "If you have people you're involved with, then you develop a sense of obligation," suggests Ensminger, PhD, professor of Health, Behavior and Society. "You're responsible to more people, and that makes you monitor your own behavior."

Given that social connections are so important to health, what might we do to foster their development?

Ensminger has some ideas, based on her Woodlawn Project research. One of her most interesting findings pertains to poverty. In general, people who are poor have fewer social connections, she concludes. However, her data also show an interesting exception to that rule. "Living in a middle class area enhances the likelihood that you'll have social connections, even if you're poor," she says. Such neighborhoods afford more resources that make it easier for people to participate in civic life, join organizations or simply walk down the street to visit with a friend, she says.

These findings, says Ensminger, suggest that a prescription for urban health should include housing policies that promote mixed-income neighborhoods, "so you don't have these pockets of overwhelming poverty." In addition, she'd also like to see efforts to improve safety in city neighborhoods. Any intervention that encourages people to interact with one another in a constructive way appears to be good medicine for mind and body.