By Sarah Zutrauen, Department of Health Sciences, Carleton University
Most of us think that we understand what it means to be “healthy”: eat the right foods, get enough exercise, lose weight. What is less obvious is how belonging to social groups can protect and enhance health and well-being both physically and mentally. For example, identifying with groups can be beneficial to mental health as group membership provides people with social resources to confront and overcome adversity. It also buffers against unhealthy mental states such as depression and anxiety, as strong group identification tends to reduce stress and promote the perceived ability to cope. Being a part of a group also affects physical health—strong group identity has been demonstrated to provide physical benefits such as fewer doctor’s visits and faster heart-rate recovery. According to social identity theory, groups can shape individual psychology due to their ability to be internalized into an individual’s sense of self – “I am who I hang out with”. This has come to be known as the “social cure”, whereby individual well-being and health are significantly shaped by a person’s social connections and group memberships.
How does being involved in groups work to promote health? Although researchers do not yet have a complete understanding of the exact mechanisms through which group identification affects well-being, important pathways have been identified. For example, the experience of social support promotes constructive helping between individuals, including both providing and receiving support. This has crucial implications for well-being as it reminds people that they are capable of coping, and thus buffers against negative effects of stressors. Another potential pathway is self-esteem, in that group identification can enhance one’s self-concept as both an individual and group member because there is a sense of belonging, shared values, and common goals.
Recent research done by Greenaway, Haslam, Cruwys, Branscombe, Ysseldyk, & Heldreth (2015) focused on how group identification can make people feel healthier by increasing feelings of being personally in control. Contrary to the common belief that groups may drain personal control as group members sacrifice their personal needs for the needs of the group, this research demonstrates that groups can actually nurture feelings of personal control in each group member. Perceived personal control is an important resource for mental health, as it predicts positive outcomes such as life satisfaction, motivation, and resilience, while also buffering against unhealthy mental states such as learned helplessness and depression. What this new research demonstrates is that identifying with a group not only directly enhances health and well-being, but also does so by increasing perceptions of personal control over one’s life outcomes.
Simply put, being involved with social groups creates a shared sense of identity, which can increase feelings of personal control and motivation. In other words, groups can help people help themselves. Interestingly, a positive cycle may be set in motion, whereby the more that well-being is improved through social identification, the more motivated people are to pursue further social opportunities, which in turn enhance their well-being. Similarly, as feelings of personal control increase through identifying with groups, it may create an upward spiral of well-being, enabling individuals to increase the quantity and quality of their social connections.
Greenaway and colleagues proposed that individuals can derive feelings of control from group memberships and incorporate them into their self-concept. Through five studies, these researchers examined whether perceived personal control could be derived from group identification, and whether this enhanced control subsequently protected health and well-being.
Consistent results across their studies supported two hypotheses, namely that: (1) identification with a variety of groups was associated with greater perceived personal control, and (2) it was because group identification increased perceived personal control, that it promoted health and well-being . Using a wide range of methods, their results showed that identification with groups (including the academic community, political parties, the nation, and even the human race) was associated with greater perceived personal control. Furthermore, perceived personal control accounted for the positive relationship between group identification and well-being. For example, one study demonstrated that during the most stressful time of the year for undergraduate students (submitting their thesis), strongly identifying as being a part of the “academic student group” was associated with greater perceived personal control, lower depression, and greater well-being. Likewise, experimentally increasing how much an individual identified with a certain group led to an increase in perceived personal control and increased well-being, as well as buffering against the detrimental effects of feeling a loss of control.
In general, this research provides support for the counter-intuitive notion that feelings of personal control may be derived from group sources. This leaves the door open for further research to determine whether identifying with important groups also enhances more specific forms of perceived control, such as control over one’s individual health outcomes.
How might we achieve such feelings of control and ultimately enhance our own health and well-being? Such outcomes are more likely when we engage with our social environment, ensure that we have strong social connections, and that we can identify with meaningful social groups. Most importantly, people can proactively grow and reinforce their social group ties over time. Many “social cures” are at our fingertips, such as sports teams, therapy groups, or even just friends. Most social interactions with others are absolutely free, and are at the same time, a highly effective preventative medicine. So want to take control over your health? All the evidence points to eating right, exercising more, and joining a social group.
Greenaway, K. H., Haslam, S. A., Cruwys, T., Branscombe, N. R., Ysseldyk, R., & Heldreth, C. (2015). From “We” to “Me”: Group Identification Enhances Perceived Personal Control with Consequences for Health and Well-Being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. Advance online publication. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/pspi0000019
The original research was supported by the Canadian Institutes for Advanced Research. http://knowledgecircle.cifar.ca/being-part-of-a-group-improves-perceived-personal-control-and-health/
Kid’s Club Image courtesy of Stuart Miles at FreeDigitalPhotos.net
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