The evidence relating to the positive effects of such memberships is now so widespread that it is now dubbed a “social cure”
Want to help promote health and well-being for others? Why not create or join a group?
"Ubuntu" is a word from the Bantu languages of southern Africa. It's widely translated as: "I am because we are". The same word is also used to refer to humanity, beautifully emphasising a worldview where human interconnectedness is both essential and central to a sense of personal identity.
As many of our societies become increasingly fractured and individualistic, there is a growing appreciation of how ideas of social connectedness play a considerable role in our health and well-being.
The evidence underpinning this awareness comes primarily from the work of psychologists. Social psychologists, in particular, have been busy exploring the dynamics of group influence and identity formation for decades. One of the most influential ideas to emerge from this work is known as social identity theory.
Social identity theory suggests that humans have a compelling need to identify themselves with social groups (for example, Emirati, Muslim, FC Barcelona supporter) and that these group memberships contribute to our sense of who we are. Furthermore, the sense of meaning, purpose and belonging that such group memberships can give us, tends to have positive consequences for health and wellbeing. This is a virtuous cycle, where wellness makes us more likely to participate in the life of the group, but engaging in the life of the group also promotes wellness.
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The evidence for the relationship between social connectedness and health began to emerge in the late 1980s with the publication of a landmark study in the journal Science. The study was simply titled, Social relationships and health, and it found that a lack of social connection was more detrimental to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressure. Much subsequent research has also found that strong social connections are associated with longevity, stronger immune systems and faster recovery from illness. This gives, “I am because we are” an almost life and death literalness.
The positive impact of social connection is observed in mental health too. A study, published in Social Science and Medicine in 2013, followed up on depressed individuals across a four-year period. Remarkably the study found that joining a group (increasing social connections) reduced the risk of depressive relapse. Joining one group reduced the risk by 24 per cent, while joining three groups cut the risk by 63 per cent. Overall, the evidence from this study suggests that initiating social group memberships was both curative of existing depression and protective against future relapse.
Even the way we think about stressful life events is being reinterpreted in light of social identity theory. There is growing evidence that the stressful life transitions, the type of events which typically precede depression, also frequently interfere with valued social identities (group memberships). For example, getting divorced means you are no longer a member of family X. Similarly, the loss of a job may mean you are no longer a member of team Etihad or team Google. The basic idea is that events which threaten our social identity are particularly hard to take, and they may leave us particularly vulnerable to mental health problems, especially if we don’t have a lot of social capital to begin with.
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The evidence relating to the health-promoting effects of valued group memberships is now so widespread that those involved with public mental health are beginning to talk about a “social cure”. The idea here is that well-being and mental functioning might be enhanced through interventions aimed at maintaining and enhancing an individual’s social connectedness and shared sense of social identity.
These health-promoting effects appear to hold true for even fairly simple groups, such as a bowling team, or groups that simply gather to play chess, read poems or paint pictures together. A study among elderly residents of care home assigned participants to group reminiscence (a group gathering to chat about the old days), individual reminiscence or nothing at all. After six weeks, the participants in the group reminiscence demonstrated higher cognitive functioning (better memory) and greater wellbeing compared to the other two groups.
If you want to help promote health and well-being for others, then create or join a group. It is also important to nurture and appreciate the group memberships you already have. You are because they are.