Life transitions such as changing jobs, moving house or retiring are inherently stressful and have the potential to have an adverse effect on well-being. This holds even if those life transitions are positive and sought out such as when entering university or becoming a parent. This is not surprising because regardless of whether the change leads to desired or undesired outcomes, change itself require adjustment on the part of individuals. Take the case of entering university. Even though this is a positive and exciting life change, many students report elevated anxiety and depression in the first months after entering university.

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In those context, we often say that the individual still has to find their bearings. What we really mean to say is that the individual has to come to terms with social identity change: they have to get to grips with the fact that they no longer belong to their “old” group (e.g., high school students, physically able bodied people, or employees), but to a “new” group (e.g., university students, disabled people, or retirees). In such cases, identity continuity is disrupted and this, at least temporarily, has negative consequences for well-being.

“Old” or current groups as psychological resources in times of change

If we accept that life transitions often involve social identity change, how can people then prepare themselves better for these changes? One straightforward way to do well despite change involves drawing effective support from network of past and existing social groups. The “old’ groups that these individuals belong to then serve as the foundation on which new identities are built. Members of “old” groups can offer concrete emotional and instrumental support to help individuals cope with the difficulties of taking on a new identity. “Old” groups and networks also serve as a material and psychological resource that members can draw upon during difficult times. While support is always beneficial, it is particularly important when people experience an important change in their life.

Having all eggs in one basket

Moreover, if social groups are a resource during change, it follows that the more of that resource a person has, the better the individual is protected from the potentially harmful effects of life transitions.

To just understand how important old or current group memberships are, it is instructive to consider what happens to people during periods of change when such social networks and groups are lacking. Imagine the marathon runner confronted with an injury that prevents them from ever running again. Even though everyone would be devastated by such an injury, the negative impact is likely to be greater for the person who did not define themselves as anything other in life than as a runner. Or, think of the workaholic —who never has time for his or her family or friends— on the day that they are forced to go with retirement. In line with conventional wisdom, it is best not to have all eggs in one basket just in case misfortune befalls that one basket.

One of the studies that we conducted in 2008 (with Catherine Haslam, Abigail Holme, S. Alexander Haslam, Aarti Iyer, and Huw Williams, reported in Neuropsychological Rehabilitation) examined this hypothesis among patients who had recently suffered from a stroke. We found that life-satisfaction after the stroke was higher for those who belonged to more social groups before their stroke. Further analyses of the data suggested that this was because the more groups stroke sufferers belonged to before their stroke, the more groups there were left for them to fall back on after their stroke and this protected their life-satisfaction.

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Moreover, belonging to diverse groups is not only a predictor of life satisfaction when changes are negative but also when they are positive. This point emerged from a study that we (with Aarti Iyer, Dimitrios Tsivrikos, Tom Postmes and S. Alexander Haslam) published in the British Journal of Social Psychology in 2009. This research monitored first-year university students over a period of months — two months prior to going to university and two months after commencing their study. While there was certainly excitement associated with going to university, we found that levels of depression were higher after students had lived away from home for a couple of months. Clearly, the first months at university are challenging. Nevertheless, participants proved more resilient over time and were found to have higher levels of well-being to the extent that they reported taking on a new social identity as students.

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A key question for us was whether we could predict which of these people were most likely to embrace their new identity as a university student. As with our stroke study, we found that one of the best predictors was the number of groups that students had belonged to before they came to university. Thus students who had belonged to more groups in the past were more likely to take on board the new student identity and this was associated with their having lower levels of depression. These effects also held up after accounting for other factors that influence this transition — including uncertainty about entering university, the availability of social support on campus, and the experience of academic obstacles.

In line with social cure reasoning, this work suggests that social groups and the identity that is derived from group membership plays an important role in buffering people from the potentially negative consequences of major life transitions.  Membership in multiple social “old” or current groups is important because it helps us to maintain a sense of social identity continuity in the face of change. It appears then that precisely because we have ‘old’ groups we can fall back on, change is less disruptive, and this helps us to respond more effectively to challenges associated with new social identities.

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