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Strong social bonds promote healthy behaviors

According to a new survey study of over 13,000 people across 122 countries, bonding with family members is linked to behaviors that can improve health during crises such as the pandemic. During the first wave of the pandemic, strong social bonds were associated with healthy behaviors like hand washing, mask wearing, and social distancing.

The researchers found that 46 percent of people who had strong family bonds washed hands consistently at the onset of the pandemic, compared to 32 percent who did not have strong connections with their families. In addition, 54 percent of people who lacked close family bonds reported they never wore a mask. 

Despite the fact that people with strong family ties constituted only 27 percent of the entire sample, they represented 73 percent of those who engaged in social distancing, 35 percent of those who washed their hands regularly, and 36 percent of those who consistently wore masks.

The analysis also revealed that having strong bonds with both close social circles and more extended groups led to better mental health and wellbeing. Moreover, the larger the number of groups people had stronger bonds with, the higher their engagement in health behaviors and the better their self-reported mental wellbeing. These findings suggest that public health communication should hocus on smaller networks as well as on multiple groups, particularly in times of crisis such as the Covid pandemic.

“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,” said study corresponding author Martha Newson, an anthropologist at the University of Kent.

“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.”  

“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,” added study lead author Bahar Tunçgenç, a senior lecturer in Psychology at Nottingham Trent University.

“At the same time, having strong social connections – no matter how abstract or distant these might be – is crucial for promoting mental health. Our research shows that close and extended social bonds offer different sources of support and direction,” she concluded.

The study is published in the journal Science Advances.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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