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Visions Journal

A reminder that this article from our magazine Visions was published more than 1 year ago. It is here for reference only. Some information in it may no longer be current. It also represents the point of the view of the author only. See the author box at the bottom of the article for more about the contributor.

Social Cures Have Good Side Effects

John F. Helliwell

Reprinted from the "Social Support" issue of Visions Journal, 2011, 6 (4), p. 5

Each of the articles this issue of Visions illustrates, in its own way, the magic of the social cure. Humans are social beings, hard-wired to gain pleasure and meaning though social relations—and especially through opportunities to do things together. For example, in recent experiments at Oxford, rowers showed remarkable increases in endorphin release (as monitored by higher pain thresholds) by doing the same workout together rather than alone.1

Best of all are social relations in circumstances aimed at improving life for others. In this issue, Rosemary Browne states: “The benefits of doing origami are somehow multiplied for me through sharing the art form.” That “somehow” is always there, as witnessed by the following quotes from Sophia Kelly’s article on the buddy system:

  • “It is families helping families in a non-medical forum. I believe it helps both the buddy and the match.”

  • “It gives me great satisfaction and pleasure to be a volunteer for the Buddy Program. Being able to help in some small way is even better.”

  • “I have provided an ear to listen and my experience with the mental health system. I have given encouragement and gained a friend.”

It’s been known for decades that people, whether patients or not, live happier and healthier lives when they have, and can maintain, meaningful social connections. Modern experiments in clinical and care settings are showing that even quite modest changes in the social environment can produce significant improvements.2 Indeed, experiments and survey evidence alike show that the psychological benefits from reaching out to others are apparent all over the world.3 

One of the best therapies for those with physical or mental illness is provided by the chance to reach out and help others. The quotes above, and the cited research, provide examples. However, while the benefits of providing and maintaining social supports directly to patients are increasingly well documented, less attention is being paid to the benefits received by those who reach out to others.

There are two difficulties in achieving these gains. One is that individuals tend to underestimate the satisfaction and sense of well-being they’ll obtain from reaching out to help others. The second difficulty, which is particularly applicable in the case of those with depression, is that the illness itself limits both the ability and the will to reach out to others. As Nichole Fairbrother notes in her article:
“Many of us will pull back from other people when we are experiencing mental health or substance use problems. In this way, mental health or substance use problems can lead to problems with social support and aggravate our feelings of loneliness. For these reasons, reconnecting with others in healthy, supportive ways is often an important component of managing most mental health or substance use problems.”

This poses a puzzle—that the most valuable part of the social cure may be the most difficult to deliver. It is often simpler to give direct aid—whether in the form of drugs, therapy or social supports—to those with depression. That is a natural place to start. But it’s often not enough, and in any event may not be the best way to respond. And the systems that develop to support these direct services, once they are in place, might not easily be changed.

For a solution that will be of the most help to all, it’s necessary to think beyond direct aid. We need to find ways to enable people who are depressed and excluded to become engaged with others in that most rewarding of ways—by working together for the benefit of others.

Perhaps the best way of making this happen more often would be to emphasize group-based approaches over individual approaches. Groups can naturally transform themselves into self-organizing mutual aid teams. From there it’s only one more short and natural step for the group itself to reach out to connect with and assist others. And, group managers should see what can be done to have fun in the process; people will remember and will want to repeat golden moments.

The social cure’s positive side effects are doubly valuable: they increase the well-being of the original patients, and at the same time, they enlarge the circle of people who benefit. An ‘epidemic’ to be cherished.

About the author
John is based at the University of British Columbia and is co-director of the Social Interactions, Identity and Well-Being program of the Canadian Institute for Advanced Research
  1. Cohen, E.E.A., Ejsmond-Frey, R., Knight, N. et al. (2010). Rowers’ high: Behavioural synchrony is correlated with elevated pain thresholds. Biology Letters, 6(1), 106-108.

  2. Jetten, J., Haslam, C. & Haslam, S.A. (Eds.). (2011). The social cure: Identity, health and well-being. London, UK: Psychology Press.

  3. Aknin, L.B., Barrington-Leigh, C.P., Dunn, E.W. et al. (2010, September). Prosocial spending and well-being: Cross-cultural evidence for a psychological universal (NBER Working Paper No. 16415). Cambridge, MA: National Bureau of Economic Research.


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