Distress in Context

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The Relationship Between 'Who You Know' and 'How You Feel'

The Influence of Social Networks on Psychological Well-Being

Our social networks are made up of ties to family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and other people with whom we exchange ideas and experiences. The meaning and depth of these connections can vary quite a bit-ranging from casual friends and acquaintances to close family members. Studies have found that social relationships have a powerful influence on health and well-being—comparable to the effects of exercise and smoking. Recently, researchers have focused in on how the characteristics of people within a social network influences psychological well-being. This post explores research on two aspects of social networks: social capital and the balance of positivity and negativity in relationships.

Social Capital and Subjective Social Status

Social capital refers to the resources that are available to us through our social networks. Having a social network that is made up of people in positions of power, such as a well-connected physician or lawyer, allows a person to draw on these relationships to accomplish specific tasks, such as finding a job or dealing with a legal problem. A recent study of adults in the United States found that those who have social networks made up of people with high levels of education and professional training tended to report fewer symptoms of depression and anxiety than individuals who had social networks that did not include such people.

Having connected and powerful people in your social network aids in finding resources and attaining crucial information, which can reduce feelings of psychological distress when dealing with stressors and other problems that arise over time. A network of people with higher income and education fosters a sense of greater subjective social status, which refers to the social class that someone feels they belong to (as opposed to an objective level of social class based on their own income and education). A sense of higher subjective social status, feeling that you belong to the upper or upper-middle class, is linked with fewer symptoms of psychological distress.

Positivity and Negativity in Social Relationships

When you think about someone in your social network, does that person bring to mind positive or negative experiences? Social psychologists have studied the balance of positive and negative relationships with people in our social networks, and the impact it has on our psychological well-being. A close friend who is helpful and understanding brings mostly positive experiences. In contrast, a relationship with a co-worker who is critical and demanding is likely to lead to negative experiences. We can have ambivalent feelings (i.e. a combination of positivity and negativity) towards people in our social networks, too. Positive and ambivalent relationships tend to be much more common than negative relationships. However, even a small number of negative relationships can lead to significant increases in psychological distress. This is because negative relationships have a greater impact on mental health than positive relationships.

Decreasing conflict and negative interactions in our social networks is probably the clearest path towards improved psychological well-being. Researchers at the University of Utah found that positive, supportive relationships decreased cardiovascular reactivity (i.e. increases in blood pressure) during periods of stress experienced by a group of college students.

This suggests that we should alter our social networks to reduce negativity and increase positivity, yet changing the composition of social networks is difficult. Changing your social network involves increasing the strength of weaker social ties that already exist (e.g. people with whom you rarely speak or meet) and starting completely new relationships (e.g. joining a social or recreational group).

Suggested Readings

Birmingham, W., Uchino, B.N., Smith, T.W., Light, K.C., & Sanbonmatsu, D.M. (2009). Social ties and cardiovascular function: An examination of relationship positivity and negativity during stress. International Journal of Psychophysiology, 74, 114-119.

Campo, R.A., Uchino, B.N., Vaughn, A., Reblin, M., & Simon, T.W. (2009). The assessment of positivity and negativity in social networks: The reliability and validity of the social relationships index. Journal of Community Psychology, 37, 471-486.

Song, L. (2011). Social capital and psychological distress. Journal of Health and Social Behavior, 52, 478-492.

David Russell, Ph.D., is an Evaluation Scientist at the Center for Home Care Policy & Research, Visiting Nurse Service of New York.

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