The time people spent with family over the festive period could have improved their health, according to new research which examined how social bonds with close social circles and extended groups relate to health and psychological wellbeing.
The study, led by researchers at the University of Kent, Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and Coventry University, used self-reported data from more than 13,000 people across 122 countries, gathered during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.
Surveys assessed people’s strength of bonding with close social circles, such as family and friends, as well as with extended groups, such as country, government and humanity. People’s pandemic-related health behaviours and mental health and wellbeing were also measured.
Results show that only bonding with family, rather than other groups, is linked to engaging positively with behaviour which can improve health; in this case, examples included washing hands, wearing a mask and social distancing.
For example, 46% of people who had strong family bonds washed hands at least “a lot”, compared to 32% who were not strongly bonded with their family. Moreover, 54% of people not bonded with their family reported they never wore a mask. Bonded people were vastly over-represented among those who engaged in health behaviours. Despite people with strong family bonds constituting only 27% of the entire sample, they constituted 73% of those who engaged in social distancing, 35% of those who washed hands, and 36% of those who wore a mask “a lot” or more.
The study also found that having strong bonds with both close social circles and extended groups is associated with better mental health and wellbeing. Importantly, the greater number of groups people had strong bonds with, the higher their engagement in health behaviours and the better their reported psychological wellbeing was, with less anxiety and depression.
The research recommends that public health messaging focus on smaller networks as well as multiple groups, particularly in times of crisis when individuals should be encouraged to share their positive health behaviours with their close social circles.
It is also suggested that healthcare systems can reduce the reliance on pharmaceutical treatments by using social prescribing to support individuals who do not have these bonds in their life.
The results of the study, which included a broad range of countries such as Bangladesh, Brazil and Peru, have implications for tackling negative physical and mental health effects from a global perspective. The study goes beyond the remit of traditional approaches in psychology by reaching so much of the global population.
Anthropologist at the University of Kent, Dr Martha Newson, 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.’
Senior Lecturer in Psychology at NTU’s School of Social Sciences, Dr Bahar Tunçgenç, added: ‘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.’
Assistant Professor at the Centre for Trust, Peace, and Social Relations at Coventry University, Dr Valerie van Mulukom, 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.”
The paper is published in the journal Science Advances.
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About the University of Kent
The University of Kent is a leading UK university producing world-class research, rated internationally excellent and leading the way in many fields of study. Our 20,000 students are based at campuses and centres in Canterbury, Medway, Brussels and Paris.
We are renowned for our inspirational teaching and our graduates are equipped for a successful future allowing them to compete effectively in the global job market.
We are committed to supporting outstanding research and innovation across the arts and humanities, sciences and social sciences. Our discoveries and research will emphasise existing and new signature areas, where we match the best in the world.
The University is a truly international community with over 40% of our academics coming from outside the UK and our students representing over 150 nationalities.
We are a major economic force in southeast England, supporting innovation and enterprise and through collaboration with partners, work to ensure our global ambitions have a positive impact on the region’s academic, cultural, social and economic landscape.
About Nottingham Trent University
Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queen’s Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.
The Research Excellence Framework (2021) classed 83% of NTU’s research activity as either world-leading or internationally excellent. 86% of NTU’s research impact was assessed to be either world-leading or internationally excellent.
NTU was awarded The Times and The Sunday Times Modern University of the Year 2023 and ranked second best university in the UK in the Uni Compare Top 100 rankings (2021/2022). It was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards), University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).
NTU is the 5th largest UK institution by student numbers, with nearly 39,000 students and more than 4,400 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 7,000 and an NTU community representing over 160 countries.
Since 2000, NTU has invested £570 million in tools, technology, buildings and facilities.
NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2021 UCAS UG acceptance data). It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and was the first UK university to sign the Social Mobility Pledge.
NTU is ranked 2nd most sustainable university in the world in the 2022 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).
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