People who have strong social bonds with both close social circles and extended groups tend to have better mental health and wellbeing, according to a new global study by social scientists from the University of Kent, Nottingham Trent University (NTU), and Coventry University.
The researchers noted that human connections had been "made prominent" during the pandemic, and that at times of turmoil, which include natural disasters and other social crises as well as pandemics, people's social bonds "can be key to receiving support".
"The pandemic initially created feelings of community," they said – for example clapping for the NHS in the UK, or communal singing on balconies in Italy – as well as "opportunities" to unite more strongly with close social circles of family and friends. However, over the first year, repeated, lengthy lockdowns led to increased social isolation and distress for many people, with reports of growing prejudice, hostility toward outside groups, and socio-political polarisation. In addition, apprehensions around physical and mental health were simultaneously heightened.
To assess to what extent family and social bonds affected mental health (ie, anxiety and depression), and overall psycho-social wellbeing, as well as health-related behaviours, they conducted a combined analysis of two global-scale datasets gathered at the start of the pandemic. These included self-reported data from 13,264 people across 122 countries, deliberately chosen to spread the sample wider than what the researchers described as the usual 'WEIRD' (Western, Educated, Industrialised, Rich, and Democratic) psychology participants. The sample included people in Bangladesh, Brazil, and Peru.
More Intense Social Bonding Equals Less Anxiety and Depression
Results, published in Science Advances, revealed that intense social bonding with both family and with wider groups predicted less anxiety and depression, and better wellbeing, particularly for those who were bonded with more groups. However, for pandemic-related health behaviours such as physical distancing, hand washing and masking, only family bonding was associated with self-reported engagement. For example, 46% of people who claimed strong family bonds washed their hands at least 'a lot', compared with 32% who were not strongly bonded with their family. Although people with strong family bonds comprised only 27% of the entire sample, they constituted 73% of those who engaged in social distancing, 35% of those who washed their hands 'a lot', and 36% of those who wore a mask 'a lot'.
Humans are an innately social species, the researchers said, we evolved with a need for deep social bonds. "Even in sprawling cities comprising millions of individuals, people tend to seek out social circles of a handful of individuals whom they come to rely on."
In addition, humans are able to bond with extended groups, including non-kin and people with whom they share symbols and markers of group identity, such as patriotism or sports fandom, enabling individuals to recognise shared allegiances when they could not possibly maintain relationships with every individual in an extended group.
Intense social bonds can lead to a strong form of social cohesion whereby group membership becomes a central part of an individual’s identity, and this has important consequences for many behaviours.
'Universal Need to Belong'
Co-author Dr Martha Newson, an anthropologist and Future Leaders Fellow with UK Research and Innovation in the School of Anthropology and Conservation at the University of Kent, said: "This research speaks to the universal need to belong – this is one of the reasons we felt it was so important to include a truly diverse sample from across the globe. Wherever you are in the world, other people matter to you.
"We found that having lots of groups was important to encourage better health behaviours, including bonding to abstract groups like your country or government, but most important of all are our closest friends and family — groups that we have likely recognised as being important since the beginning of human history."
Fellow co-author Dr Bahar Tunçgenç, senior lecturer in psychology at NTU's School of Social Sciences, said: "At times of turmoil, such as during disasters, social crises, or pandemics, our social bonds can be key to receiving support. We look out to people we trust and identify with as we decide what course of action to take. That’s why our close bonds with family – the people many of us share significant life events with and learn from – can promote healthy behaviours.
"At the same time, having strong social connections – no matter how abstract or distant these might be – is crucial for promoting mental health. Our research shows that close and extended social bonds offer different sources of support and direction."
Co-author Dr Valerie van Mulukom, assistant professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace, and Social Relations at Coventry University, said: "In the West, we tend to think of ourselves as individuals who have to survive and conquer the world on our own. Our research demonstrates that, in fact, humans are very much social animals who benefit from and rely on their communities in more ways than one. In challenging times, this is even more pronounced. It is advisable for government policies to consider these psychological needs and mechanisms, and involve local authorities and grassroots organisations for maximum efficiency and wellbeing in times of disaster."
Social Support a Buffer for Stress
Asked to comment on the study by Medscape News UK, chartered psychologist Dr Audrey Tang said: "Social support has long been cited as a buffer for stress - being around others produces oxytocin, which is the 'bonding hormone', which in turn makes us feel happier.
"Social prescribing is commonly used by GPs to encourage people to re-connect, as well as joining a club or a hobby, which brings other benefits; eg, gardening gets us out in nature and improves dexterity."
In addition, "Positive psychology has always cited 'healthy relationship' as one of the key pillars of happiness. Martin Seligman said: 'While good relationships do not guarantee happiness, happiness is rarely found without the'".
She added: "It is incredibly important to address feelings of loneliness, because the research in this area is not positive. Reported feelings of loneliness increase the likelihood of mortality by 26%, and it has also been associated with other physical illnesses such as heart attacks and strokes. It may also contribute to a decline in mental health, with links to dementia as well as depression, and one study found that loneliness and low social interaction are predictive of suicide in older age."
The study was funded by UK Research and Innovation. The authors declared no competing interests.