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Aligning with others in uncertain situations can improve wellbeing, according to study which examined impact of social distancing

Actions thought to be isolating and potentially detrimental for mental health, such as social distancing, can have a positive impact on wellbeing for many people when done together as part of a community, according to a global study led by Nottingham Trent University.

People standing in a queue two metres apart wearing masks
The study showed that following the guidelines exactly as directed was best for wellbeing

The research examined data from fortnightly surveys which questioned more than 6,500 people across 115 countries in the first three months of the pandemic.

Participants reported their wellbeing, perceptions of how vulnerable they were to Covid-19 and how much they, and others in their social circle and country, were adhering to the distancing measures. The study also identified certain demographic risk factors for wellbeing, such as being a woman, being a young adult or living alone.

Social alignment was marked by people behaving more similarly to others around them, sharing experiences and responsibility.

In contrast to widespread views that physical distancing measures negatively affected wellbeing, results showed that when others around us also comply, following the social distancing guidelines was linked to better overall wellbeing, even for people in high-risk groups. Data also revealed that, over time, following the guidelines exactly as given – not doing more or less than required – was best for wellbeing.

Analysis indicated that it was the social alignment, and not protection from the disease, that was the driving force behind the increased wellbeing.

Bahar Tuncgenc
Dr Bahar Tuncgenc

Dr Bahar Tuncgenc, senior lecturer in Psychology at NTU’s School of Social Sciences and research lead, said: “When the pandemic first hit, many people were unsure about what the right thing to do was. Distancing ourselves from loved ones felt unnatural and very hard to do. Yet, even such challenging actions can have a positive impact if they help us behave more similarly to others around us. In a global sample, we tested whether this idea held true within the first year of the pandemic.

“Among our findings we saw that reduced stress was associated with relinquishing individual responsibility about decisions in threatening and uncertain situations. Hence, following the guidelines may have boosted wellbeing by reducing the burden of individual responsibility during the pandemic.

“Importantly, our findings do not invalidate concerns over Covid-19 measures potentially increasing the likelihood of specific mental illnesses, such as anxiety or depressive disorders. Although mental health and wellbeing are closely related, people with a mental illness can have good wellbeing, and people without a mental illness can have poor wellbeing.

“Our results provide an important counterpart to the idea that pandemic containment measures such as physical distancing were bad for wellbeing. Despite the overall burden of the pandemic, social alignment with others can still contribute to positive wellbeing.”

Dr Marwa El Zein, co-author from the Crowd Cognition Group of University College London, added: “There are lessons here for other global challenges requiring change in our everyday behaviours – it’s not how unusual the behaviours are that matters, but rather how much social alignment and cohesion exists. Social alignment can help us share experiences and decrease the burden of individual responsibility, which is especially helpful during threatening and uncertain situations such as the pandemic. These findings suggest that creating a cohesive community can foster wellbeing even in the most challenging of times.”

The full paper Following pandemic guidelines is associated with better wellbeing: Findings from a cross-national sample has been published by BMC Public Health.

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    About Nottingham Trent University

    Nottingham Trent University (NTU) received the Queens Anniversary Prize for Higher and Further Education in 2021 for cultural heritage science research. It is the second time that NTU has been bestowed the honour of receiving a Queen’s Anniversary Prize for its research, the first being in 2015 for leading-edge research on the safety and security of global citizens.

    NTU was awarded Outstanding Support for Students 2020 (Times Higher Education Awards). It was the University of the Year 2019 (Guardian University Awards, UK Social Mobility Awards), Modern University of the Year 2018 (Times and Sunday Times Good University Guide) and University of the Year 2017 (Times Higher Education Awards).

    NTU is the 5th largest UK institution by student numbers, with over 33,000 students and more than 4,000 staff located across five campuses. It has an international student population of 4,000 and an NTU community representing around 160 countries.

    In the past 15 years, NTU has invested £450 million in tools, technology and facilities.

    NTU is in the UK’s top 10 for number of applications and ranked first for accepted offers (2019 UCAS UG acceptance data) It is also among the UK’s top five recruiters of students from disadvantaged backgrounds.

    75% of NTU students go on to graduate-level employment or graduate-entry education / training within fifteen months of graduating (Guardian University Guide 2021).

    NTU is 4th globally (and 3rd in the UK) for sustainability in the 2021 UI Green Metric University World Rankings (out of more than 900 participating universities).

Published on 29 April 2022
  • Category: Press office; Research; School of Social Sciences