The power of social connections and the rise of social prescribing
One way of dealing with stress is to draw on the positive social identities in our lives. A growing body of research suggests that the social connections we have can buffer us from the effects of traumatic events, improve mental health and also let us bounce back from physical ailments more quickly. In the guise of ‘social prescribing’, this idea is also increasingly being used to find ways to replace or compliment medicine.
How do social connections help us?
A growing body of research suggests that having strong social ties with various groups is beneficial for our mental and physical health. Social connections can nurture and feed our desire for companionship, give us certainty about the world and meet our spiritual needs. They can also shape the way we understand and appraise stressful situations, help us with difficult life transitions and provide practical help and support.
Social connections help us understand stress and provide support
The groups we are in help us understand what events mean, an important part of stress appraisal. For instance, people who identify highly with occupational groups in stressful occupations often see their jobs as less difficult and stressful1. Identities can also help us during difficult periods of our lives. Learning new skills also seems to be easier if we have multiple social connections 2. Similarly, maintaining social connections can be buffer us from the effects of injury, illness and hard life transition. They have also been linked to better outcomes (in terms of recovery and relapse avoidance) amongst people battling against issues such as depression and addiction 34. Maintaining or generating social connections in old age has also be shown to be linked to better life satisfaction and decreased decline in cognitive performance 5. Social support also changes how we physically respond physiologically to threats.
How does it work?
The mechanisms which underpin these effects vary, but include changing the way we understand the causes of negative events, and our assessment ofthe likelihood of them recurring. They also help us feel supported and highlight the positive attributes we see within ourselves and our social groups (a form of self-affirmation). Research is still on-going to flesh these systems out, but the general message is that maintaining multiple social connections can be highly beneficial. However, as always, it is not that simple and it is important to look at both sides of the story – when can social connections be problematic?
Not all social connections are helpful
It worth keeping in mind that not all social relationships are beneficial. Some groups and identities may be compatible or incompatible with each other. This (in)compatibility can be driven by the practical demands our social groups make on us, and on the basis of the values and social behaviours they promote. For instance, being a member of a spiritual group which promotes compassion may be compatible with being active in the Volunteer Services Overseas, but is unlikely to be compatible with being part of a violent street gang. Having incompatible identities is generally linked to less positive psychological outcomes. Similarly, being involved with groups or people which promote poor life choices can also be incredibly detrimental. Contact with former ‘friends’ is perhaps the biggest predictor of relapse for people recovering from addition, and puts former convicts at the highest risk of re-offending. More generally, social connections that re-enforce negative behaviours (or thought patterns) make it more difficult for you to make personal progress. Thinking about the ‘map’ of your social connections can be helpful in understanding how you social connections relate, and if there are connections you need to develop or move away from6.
Social prescribing is a term which we are likely to be hearing more of in the next few years. The idea behind social prescribing is that health services can ‘prescribe’ local community activities as a form of treatment. As there is more and more evidence that being embedded in these groups has positive impacts for many, health services are thinking about how they can achieve this. The range of possible activities is almost endless, and many exist already- for instance, arts classes, walking groups and volunteering activities are all things which brings us into contact with others, and can help our mental and physical health. Social prescribing can also involve developing new activities. A great example of this in action can be found in ‘Men’s Sheds’ programs. Here, a charity develops a workshop space (a shed!) where men can come together and undertake practical activities. More importantly, they also create a space for men to ‘connect, converse and create’. In doing so, the participant gets to benefit from the social connections that arise. You can visit the UK website here.
How can you use this information?
- Think about the social connections you have – do they meet your needs?
Are there social connections in your life which are problematic? Is there anything realistic you can do to change these (or the way you respond to them)?
If you have any unmet needs, is there any social connections you could generate to help meet them?
Engage in some social prescribing for yourself!
What to read to find out more
I think it’s fair to say that, amongst the vast array of literature on the subject, two books jump out which give (or should give) a thorough overview of the idea of the ‘social cure’. The first is, perhaps, the one that brought the idea to popular attention – the aptly named ‘The Social Cure’, edited by Jolanda Jetten, Catherine Haslam and Alex Haslam. Looking ahead, the ‘The New Psychology of Health: Unlocking the Social Cure’ promises to build upon these ideas, and how they can be translated into practice. I can’t wait for it to come out! It is written by Catherine Haslam, Jolanda Jetten, Tegan Crwys, Genevieve Dingle and Alex Haslam (both books are published by Routledge).
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- Haslam, S. A., O’brien, A., Jetten, J., Vormedal, K., & Penna, S. (2005). Taking the strain: Social identity, social support, and the experience of stress. British Journal of Social Psychology, 44, 355-370. ↩
- Jones, J. M., & Jetten, J. (2011). Recovering from strain and enduring pain: Multiple group memberships promote resilience in the face of physical challenges. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 239-244. ↩
- Cruwys, T., South, E. I., Greenaway, K. H., & Haslam, S. A. (2015). Social identity reduces depression by fostering positive attributions. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 6, 65-74. ↩
- Frings, D., & Albery, I. P. (2015). The social identity model of cessation maintenance: Formulation and initial evidence. Addictive Behaviors, 44, 35-42. ↩
- Gleibs, I. H., Haslam, C., Jones, J. M., Alexander Haslam, S., McNeill, J., & Connolly, H. (2011). No country for old men? The role of a ‘Gentlemen’s Club’in promoting social engagement and psychological well-being in residential care. Ageing & Mental Health, 15, 456-466. ↩
- Haslam, C., Cruwys, T., Haslam, S. A., Dingle, G., & Chang, M. X. L. (2016). Groups 4 health: evidence that a social-identity intervention that builds and strengthens social group membership improves mental health. Journal of Affective Disorders, 194, 188-195. ↩