According to a new study that looked at how social links between intimate social circles and larger groups relate to physical and psychological well-being, spending time with family over the Christmas season may enhance people’s health. The study was led by researchers from the University of Kent, Nottingham Trent University (NTU), and Coventry University. It used self-reported data from over 13,000 people in 122 countries obtained during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Family ties cleaned hands “a lot,” compared to 32% who were not closely attached with their family. Furthermore, 54% of persons who were not attached with their family said they never donned a mask.\
Bonded persons were far more likely to engage in health-related behaviours. Despite making up just 27% of the total sample, persons with strong family relationships made up 73% of those who participated in social distance, 35% of those who cleaned their hands, and 36% of those who wore a mask “a lot” or more. The study also discovered that having strong ties with both tight and broader social circles is connected with improved mental health and wellbeing. Importantly, the bigger the number of organisations with which people had strong relationships, the greater their involvement in health behaviours and the higher their reported psychological well-being, with less worry and sadness.
The study suggests that public health messages target smaller networks as well as multiple groups, especially during times of crisis when people should be encouraged to communicate their beneficial health behaviours with their intimate social circles. It is also proposed that healthcare systems can lessen their reliance on pharmacological treatments by utilising social prescribing to assist persons who lack these relationships in their lives.
The study’s findings, which included participants from Bangladesh, Brazil, and Peru, have implications for addressing harmful physical and mental health consequences on a worldwide scale. By addressing such a large portion of the worldwide population, the study goes beyond the scope of typical methodologies in psychology.
Dr Martha Newson, an anthropologist at the University of Kent, stated, ‘This research speaks to the human yearning to belong – this is one of the reasons we believed it was so vital to have a really varied sample from across the globe. Other people important to you no matter where you are in the globe. We discovered that having many groups was important for encouraging better health behaviours, including bonding to abstract groups such as your country or government, but most importantly, our closest friends and family – groups that we have most likely recognised as important since the beginning of human history.’
Senior Lecturer in Psychology at NTU’s School of Social Sciences, Dr Bahar Tuncgenc, 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.’
Dr Valerie van Mulukom, Assistant Professor at Coventry University’s Centre for Trust, Peace, and Social Relations, stated: “We tend to conceive of ourselves in the West as individuals who must survive and conquer the world on our own. Our findings show that humans are very much social animals that benefit and rely on their communities in a variety of ways. This is especially noticeable during difficult times. For optimum efficiency and wellbeing in times of disaster, government programmes should include these psychological demands and procedures, as well as engage local authorities and grassroots organisations.”