Individuals who fail to derive value from their interactions with family, friends, colleagues, and other groups are much more likely to be depressed, drink heavily, eat unhealthily, smoke, and fail to exercise, according to a new study from the University of Dundee.

Professor Fabio Sani, from the University’s School of Psychology, led a team looking at the interplay between group identification, the extent to which one has a sense of belonging to a social group, coupled with a sense of commonality with in-group members, and lifestyle choices and mental health.

The sample of almost 2000 Scottish people demonstrated that the greater the number of social groups with which one identifies, the healthier one’s behaviour on any of the four health dimensions considered and also the lower their chances of them becoming depressed.

Reliable Indicator

The findings suggest that group identifications are a far more reliable indicator of healthy behaviours and positive mental health than education, age, and other demographic variables.

Professor Sani said,

“We believe our results show that group identification will generally enhance one’s sense of meaning in life, thereby leading one to take more care of oneself. Group identification also increases one’s sense of responsibility toward other in-group members, thereby enhancing one’s motivation to be healthy in order to fulfil those responsibilities, and increases compliance with healthy group behavioural norms.

We found that people who did not identify with any social group were almost thirty times more likely to be above the cut-off point for clinical depression than people who strongly identified with three groups. The number of group identifications was also associated with one’s use of anti-depressants, with people with no identifications being three times more likely to be on anti-depressants than those with three identifications.

When we say group identification we mean something very specific – one’s subjective sense of belonging to a social group coupled with a sense of commonality with other group members, a sense of sharing something that matters, whether that is a goal, habits, or rules.

Group identification is not equivalent to mere interaction with other group members, and our argument is that it is group identification, rather than interaction per se, that impacts upon health behaviour. In other words, what matters is not so much the amount of time spent with group members, but the extent to which you identify with them, the degree to which you invest psychologically in the group."

The researchers listed three types of social group - family, community and a group of the participant’s choice (such as hobby, professional, personal, workplace, sport, music, etc) – and assessed whether research participants (1824 in total) identified with each.

The More The Merrier

The study indicates a positive relationship between number of group identifications and healthy behaviour, specifically that the more groups someone identifies with, the less likely they are to smoke and to drink heavily, and the more likely they are to exercise and to have a healthy diet – ie, eating at least three portions of fruit and vegetables per day.

cell-phone For instance, 24 per cent of those with no group identifications were smokers, against 13 per cent, 9 per cent and 7 per cent respectively for those with one, two, and three identifications.

Similarly, 82 per cent of those with three identifications had a healthy diet, against 77 per cent, 71 per cent, and 55 per cent of those with two, one, and no group identifications respectively.

Other important predictors of health behaviour were also controlled for, and although age, relationship status, gender, and education all impacted to greater or lesser degrees, number of group identifications remained a significant predictor of all four health behaviours.

Depression Ratings

The team also asked the same sample group questions about their lifestyle and whether they regarded themselves as depressed. Their answers were matched to their responses concerning identification with groups and researchers checked medical record to see whether or not the participants had been recently prescribed anti-depressants.

The impact of the number of group identifications on both depression indicators remained strong even after controlling for the effects of gender, age, level of education, whether or not one is either married or cohabiting with a partner, and frequency of interaction with the members of the groups under consideration.

“Even when you factor these other important variables out, number of group identifications is always the most important predictor of healthy behaviour and depression,” said Professor Sani. “The sample group included people with different levels of education, and featured both men and women who ranged in age from 18-95. The impact of number of group identifications remained consistent across all categories.

This shows that no matter people’s level of education, their age or gender, it is your subjective sense of connectedness with fellow in-group members that matters most. Too often health psychologists emphasise interpersonal interactions but ignore that these interactions tend to take place within group contexts (the family, the workplace, the hobby group), and that it is the feelings one has toward the group that determine the quality and meaningfulness of interactions."

Sani F, Madhok V, Norbury M, Dugard P, Wakefield JR Greater number of group identifications is associated with healthier behaviour: Evidence from a Scottish community sample Br J Health Psychol. 2015 Sep;20(3):466-81. doi: 10.1111/bjhp.12119

Fabio Sani, Vishnu Madhok, Michael Norbury, Pat Dugard, Juliet R. H. Wakefield Greater number of group identifications is associated with lower odds of being depressed: evidence from a Scottish community sample Social Psychiatry and Psychiatric Epidemiology September 2015, Volume 50, Issue 9, pp 1389-1397

For future updates, subscribe via Newsletter here or Twitter