Fulfilling our innate human need for social belonging while navigating a student body of over 20,000 unique backgrounds poses unique challenges. Besides sheer population size, our fast-paced quarter system periodically puts a stop to classmate relationships that would otherwise deepen with time. For UC Santa Barbara students struggling to make and maintain meaningful connections, a recent study examining the link between social networks and psychological well-being may provide some much-needed comfort.
The published study, titled “Relational diversity in social portfolios predicts well-being,” utilizes the foundational social psychology principle that social networks are held up by social ties of varying strengths. In other words, the classmate you only reach out to when you need to be filled in on a missed lecture is a weak tie, while the childhood friend you’ve long considered family is a strong one. From weak to strong, your many social ties combine to form what is called a “social portfolio.”
Seeking to identify what combinations of social tie strength are most predictive of psychological well-being, researchers at Harvard University analyzed self-reported data from over 50,000 participants. Ultimately, their analyses concluded that diverse social portfolios — ones that have a range of tie strengths — are most predictive of subjective psychological well-being. Meaning, our weak social ties are equally important to individual psychological well-being as our strong ones.
Delancey Wu, a doctoral student with the Department of Psychological & Brain Sciences at UCSB who studies how close relationships are maintained, shared her insight into the study and spoke on her own research findings.
“Whether it’s on a broad social group scale or just a one-on-one person, we need to belong,” Wu said. “We want to feel connected with others, and weak ties are a sign that we are integrated into some sort of social group.”
While strong social ties show your belonging through their overt intimacy, weak ones provide a form of hidden support. So spotting that one person every week after your evening lab at DLG may be more than an amusing occurrence; it’s a weak social connection that signals belonging.
Filling your day with weak social ties — from interacting with the barista who serves your coffee every Tuesday morning, to saying hi to someone passing you on your lagoon walk — helps to meaningfully improve your psychological well-being.
“For people who study how relationships start, weak ties are a really useful starting point. They can serve as bridges between potential other close relationships,” Wu said.
Weak social ties are only half of the picture when it comes to psychological well-being, though, so how do we go about developing strong ones?
Using the example of attending a club social for the first time, Wu illustrates the value of starting somewhere, further emphasized by a phenomenon called affective forecasting, which describes how people tend to think of the worst possible outcome before attending a social event, even though it tends to play out better.
“The worst thing that could happen is that you don’t get along right away, [but] you [still] have a nice little chat … But what if you actually find someone who’s really cool, and they really jive with you? That’s the start of a friendship,” Wu said.
Since the possibility of a blossoming meaningful connection is always there, the payoff to pushing beyond the level of weak social ties is significantly larger than the cost of social discomfort that may come with it. And, in any case, by upholding a weak social tie, a little social discomfort may go a long way.
Intimacy forms the basis of social tie strength. Wu’s research into the ways that people of individualistic and collectivistic cultures express emotion in relationships, as well as how they share intimacy, is valuable to understanding where people are coming from as we choose how to show our support in relationships.
“With individualistic cultures, they’re very much about expressing how you’re feeling,” Wu said. “So, in terms of showing how you’re available, it may mean validating who the person is and their identity.”
Simply holding the space for emotional expression can be meaningful for someone whose cultural background is individualistic. When it comes to more collectivistic cultures, group harmony often grounds decisions, so there’s a greater emphasis on the impact that the self has on others.
“Emotional expression is not as common because it may disrupt what’s going on in the room … Someone who’s more collectivistic may not be as outwardly expressive in their emotions because it’s not as normalized,” Wu said.
So when it comes to providing support to someone who comes from a collectivist background, urging them to talk about how they feel when they’re visibly upset may not be the most tactful course of action.
“Implicit [social] support is really common in collectivist cultures,” Wu said. “It’s where you’re demonstrating companionship — you’re there with someone but not actually talking about what’s stressing them out. That may be one way to show support.”
As students who are constantly meeting people whose backgrounds differ from our own, being culturally competent is indispensable to nurturing relationships.
What’s more interesting is the consideration of the intersectionality of different identities.
Wu said, “If you’re from an individualistic culture and you’re a woman, how does that differ from someone who is collectivistic and a woman or collectivistic and a man?”
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