If you were asked to list the things people should do to lengthen their lives, what would you say? Most of us would mention things like stopping smoking, exercising regularly or maintaining a healthy weight. While these are undoubtedly important, past research has revealed something quite surprising: our social connections play a larger role in lengthening our lives than all of these.
Analysing data from over 300,000 participants, the authors of a wide-ranging study found that social integration (belonging to different social groups and participating in group activities) and social support (receiving advice, resources and emotional support from those around us when we need it) decrease our odds of death to a greater extent than drinking low amounts of alcohol, not smoking, not being obese and being physically active.
It’s therefore possible to improve people’s health by improving their social connections. This is known as the Social Cure Approach, and it has relevance in all sorts of situations. In our recent research, my colleagues and I wanted to see if it could be used to improve people’s health during the pandemic – specifically, by increasing the likelihood that people would protect their health by taking a COVID-19 vaccine. But how would this work?
The impact of group belonging
Being a member of a group can improve both mental and physical wellbeing, but only to the extent that we identify with and feel we belong to the group in question. When you feel you identify with a group, there are a range of benefits.
Groups offer social support, and feeling as though you’re a member of a group can also lead to greater self-esteem, a greater sense of meaning in life and an increased sense of personal control over life’s events. Studies show that these can all improve mental health.
Identifying with a group can also make us behave more healthily. This may be because the group has healthy expected behaviours, or “norms”, which people who identify highly with the group are then especially likely to follow. For example, in a study of Australian students, those who identified more with their student identity were more likely to exercise regularly and protect themselves from the sun – as these were normative behaviours among students there.
Group members may also behave healthily because, if a group is psychologically important to them, they feel a sense of obligation towards it. When members strongly identify with a group, they desire to stay healthy to help it achieve its goals. Research has found that the more groups people identify with, the less likely they are to smoke and drink excessively, for example.
Group membership in COVID-19
Local community membership has come to particular prominence during the pandemic. There have been lots acts of collective solidarity, such as helping neighbours and adhering to lockdown rules, as well as expressions of collective hope and gratitude, such as the Clap for Carers and rainbow windows.
Previous research has shown that seeing others helping during a crisis can help this sort of “pro-social” behaviour – where people look out for one another – become a group norm. So it’s possible that people now feel a greater connection with their local community and a greater desire to help and protect one another.
Past research has also shown that when group identification involves a sense of duty to others, then this can directly influence vaccine uptake. A study of nurses found that those who identified strongly with their nurse identity were particularly likely to receive a flu vaccination. This was because having a high sense of duty to their patients (and so wanting to protect them from the flu) was a key norm of their nursing identity.
We therefore predicted that identifying with one’s community would positively influence a person’s desire to protect their health and that of those around them by being vaccinated for COVID-19. At the beginning of the UK’s vaccine rollout, we recruited 130 participants to test this theory, and our findings supported our predictions.
Specifically, we found that how strongly a person identified with their community was predicted the sense of duty they felt – to the community – to get vaccinated. In turn, the strength of their feeling of duty to get vaccinated predicted their actual willingness to get vaccinated. We found this was the case even after controlling for age and socioeconomic status, two variables known to predict vaccination willingness.
So, how might we encourage deeper community identification among people in order to reap these benefits? One promising strategy is volunteering. In a separate piece of research, my colleagues and I found that there’s a positive relationship between the number of hours someone volunteers and how strongly they identify with their community.
We also found that if someone took part in coordinated efforts to help their local community during the pandemic, then this correctly predicted that their sense of community identification would be stronger.
This highlights that communities are a powerful resource, and that if the government wants to stop COVID-19 vaccine uptake from stalling, it could do more to get people involved in volunteering – to strengthen their connection with their local community.