The Social Cure (why groups can be good for your health)

I read a great article yesterday by DJ/author Annie Mac about loneliness. She described how, in the ebb and flow of (post-pandemic) life, some friendship groups had splintered and a switch to homeworking had created an unfamiliar sense of loneliness.

Her story resonated with a book I have been reading recently. In the New Psychology of Health Catherine Haslam and colleagues explain the important psychological resources and sense of identity we draw from social groups. The book draws on research showing that being socially connected is associated with good physical and mental health. It is not social connectedness generally, but identifying positively with these groups that is associated with positive outcomes across a wide range of chronic health conditions (including stroke and heart disease) by providing people with more resources to cope with challenging life circumstances.

The benefits of group membership were previously thought by to be transactional in psychological terms: allowing for division of labour and providing safety in numbers. During the 1950-60s psychologists Milgram and Asch highlighted the negative social influence of groups on individual behaviour. In the 1970s Henri Tajfel (a holocaust survivor) began to show some of the positive influences of group membership on individual behaviour and identity. His research showed the minimal group conditions where people begin to identify with a group and show positive behaviour towards other group members.

Building on Tajfel’s social identity theory the book by Haslam and colleagues explains why people who are more socially connected have better physical and mental health. For example, a study of local football clubs in Australia showed that group membership (for players, supporters and volunteers) was associated with positive physical and mental health status, highlighting that it is psychological benefits of membership rather than the physical benefits alone.

Social identity theory helps to explain variations in how people experience stress. When we are socially connected, we appraise stressors differently. The question ‘can I cope with this?’ becomes ‘can we cope with this?’ and, at a physiological level, group belonging helps to regulate our nervous system, lower cortisol and reduce inflammation. The more groups a person belongs to the lower the risk of depression, whereas lack of social connections reduces our physical and mental resilience. A study of ‘frequent attenders’ of GP services showed that loneliness was a factor. These research findings are having an impact on health policy and there has been a rise in ‘social prescribing’. Nowadays GPs might prescribe joining a choir or a gardening allotment community as a way of managing health conditions such as chronic pain.

In her article, Annie Mac describes how she confronted her own sense of loneliness by gathering a group of friends for an in-person catch-up once a fortnight. In my therapy work clients often identify changes that have happened gradually (due to new working patterns or family commitments) that have eroded their social connections. The sessions help them identify ways to create new social connections and to benefit from the physical and mental wellbeing.