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Strong social connections can improve physical and mental health

The study used data from more than 13,000 people in 122 countries.

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Strong social connections with friends and family were found to improve physical and mental health. (Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

 By Stephen Beech via SWNS

Researchers found that having strong social connections can improve both your physical and mental health.

The study examined how social bonds with close social circles and extended groups relate to physical and mental well-being.

The global study, led by researchers at the University of Kent, Nottingham Trent University (NTU) and Coventry University, in the UK, used self-reported data from more than 13,000 people in 122 countries, gathered during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Surveys assessed the participants' strength of bonding with close social circles - such as family and friends - as well as with extended groups, such as country, government and humanity.

Their pandemic-related health and mental well-being were also measured.

The findings, published in the journal Science Advances, show that only bonding with family, rather than other groups, is linked to engaging positively with behavior which can improve health; in this case, examples included washing hands, wearing a mask and social distancing.

tourism, travel, people, leisure and teenage concept - group of happy friends in sunglasses hugging and laughing on city street
(Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

For example, 46 percent of people who had strong family bonds washed hands at least “a lot” compared to 32 percent who were not strongly bonded with their family.

More than half of the participants not bonded with their family (54 percent) said they never wore a mask.

Bonded people were "vastly over-represented" among those who engaged in healthy behaviors.

Despite people with strong family bonds constituting only 27 percent of the entire sample, they constituted 73 percent of those who engaged in social distancing, 35 percent of those who washed hands, and 36 percent of those who wore a mask “a lot” or more.

The study also found that having strong bonds with both close social circles and extended groups was associated with better mental health and well-being.

The larger number of groups people had strong bonds with, the higher their engagement in healthy behaviors and the better their reported mental well-being was, with less anxiety and depression.

The research team recommends that public health messaging focus on smaller networks as well as multiple groups, particularly in times of crisis when individuals should be encouraged to share their positive health behaviors with their close social circles.

They also suggested that healthcare systems can reduce the reliance on drug treatments by using social prescribing to support people who do not have those bonds in their life.

University of Kent anthropologist Dr. Martha Newson said: ‘This research speaks to the universal need to belong - this is one of the reasons we felt it was so important to include a truly diverse sample from across the globe.

"Wherever you are in the world, other people matter to you."

"We found that having lots of groups was important to encourage better health behaviors, including bonding to abstract groups like your country or government, but most important of all are our closest friends and family - groups that we have likely recognized as being important since the beginning of human history."

Dr. Bahar Tunçgenç, senior lecturer in psychology at NTU, said: "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 behaviors.

"At the same time, having strong social connections - no matter how abstract or distant these might be - is crucial for promoting mental health.

Happy meeting of two friends hugging in the street. Smiling girls friends laughing and hugging in the city centre. Multiethnic young women embrace each others after long time they have been distant.
(Ground Picture via Shutterstock)

"Our research shows that close and extended social bonds offer different sources of support and direction."

Dr. Valerie van Mulukom, of Coventry University, added: “In the West, we tend to think of ourselves as individuals who have to survive and conquer the world on our own.

"Our research demonstrates that in fact, humans are very much social animals, who benefit from and rely on, their communities in more ways than one.

"In challenging times this is even more pronounced. It is advisable for government policies to consider these psychological needs and mechanisms and involve local authorities and grassroots organizations for maximum efficiency and well-being in times of disaster.”

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