Decades of psychology research have shown something that pretty much makes sense: people who belong to more social groups tend to be happier. People who belong to multiple social groups have more access to social support, so it didn’t really come as a surprise when study after study confirmed that these people score higher on measures of psychological wellbeing.
But wait! There’s a problem.
Like a lot of psychological research, most of these studies were done on WEIRD people – that is, Western, educated people from industrialized, rich, democratic countries.
This limitation of previous research led a group of psychologists from University of Queensland to suggest that the link between multiple social group membership and happiness might be culture-specific.
What clued them onto this idea was that access to social support is one of the main benefits of multiple group membership, but different cultures have different norms around seeking social support. Asians and Asian Americans, for example, seem to be less likely to seek out social support, possibly because they’re more attentive to possible downsides of doing so like burdening others.
Based on this, the researchers from University of Queensland conjectured that Westerners would benefit more than Asians from belonging to multiple social groups.
To test their hypothesis, they performed a series of studies looking at participants’ social group membership and psychological wellbeing. As expected, the studies showed that Westerners who belonged to more social groups – including through friends, family, recreational activities, etc. – reported being happier and less depressed.
When the researchers looked at Asian participants, however, they didn’t find the same effect. In fact, belonging to more social groups generally just wasn’t associated with being happier for these participants. The one exception was for Asians who were the least reluctant to seek out social support from others – among this small subgroup, multiple group membership was related to happiness.
These findings indicate that belonging to many social groups may be more important in some cultures than others because cultural norms can determine what people get out of multiple group membership.
More generally, this research is also a reminder that things we think we know about how people work can turn out only to be true of how people work in certain environments.
All told, you’re still doing yourself a favor by actively participating in more social groups rather than fewer. But just belonging to many social groups may not be enough – whether multiple group membership affects your happiness seems to depend on whether you’re proactive about seeking out the advantages associated with the groups you belong to.
What d’you think? Are you surprised that the link between multiple social group membership and happiness is culture-specific? Please share in the comments!