Embracing Social Support that Boost Resiliency

By Melvin Hayden 

Positive social relationships are key to resilience

Having good social relationships is clearly a winning strategy in life, tied to greater psychological and physical well-being. Thus, it is not surprising that social relationships also matter when it comes to resiliency, in part because they help us feel less stress when we are suffering. The reason may be that good social relationships seem to help us tamp down stress reactions, even when we just recall those relationships. In one study, wives who felt strongly in synch with their spouses felt less anticipatory reactivity toward a mild electric shock. And caring touch from a health care worker reduced pain in accident victims up to six months later, supporting the importance of empathic behaviors in patient care.

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As the American Psychological Association wrote in its resilience report: “Many studies show that the primary factor in resilience is having caring and supportive relationships within and outside the family. Relationships that create love and trust provide role models and offer encouragement and reassurance, which help bolster a person’s resilience.”

To some extent, resiliency depends on culture

What is important for resiliency in one culture may be less important in another culture. For example, research has shown that in more collectivist cultures—where the well-being of one’s group is valued more than the individual’s—social support and being flexible may be more protective in overcoming setbacks than self-efficacy. Individualistic Americans, on the other hand, seem to need that combination of independence and effectiveness, according to Friedman.

In addition, some personal attributes supporting resiliency in one culture may do harm in another. In one study, researchers found that having high levels of positive emotion—if coupled with low social support—resulted in worse health for Japanese participants. Also, while positive emotion may be tied to resilience in the U.S., it’s not necessarily so in other cultures. In fact, a balance of positive and negative emotion can be more conducive to getting through hardship. These and other studies suggest that, when considering resiliency, cultural factors are important. Not only may personal attributes be less important in certain contexts, they may actually backfire—perhaps making people believe getting back on their feet is all up to them.

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Social safety nets increase the resiliency of citizens

Imagine how this might play out: Suppose you have to leave work to care for an ill parent, and you happen to live in a place where paid family leave is a given. You may still be challenged emotionally, but it won’t be compounded by financial stress or the fear of being fired for taking time off. This is especially true for new parents. Not only does paid leave result in better health for mothers and children, it helps mothers return to work sooner.

As a report from the World Bank suggests, social support networks are critical to resiliency, especially for the poor and vulnerable. In areas where there is great wealth inequality, people suffer more ill health effects to begin with.

Social safety nets can also provide the proverbial ounce of prevention. One study found that resiliency is tied to fewer adverse events in one’s life, suggesting that prevention of adversity — perhaps through social programs like parent coaching or universal health care — may be key to increasing resiliency. Research has shown that states embracing policies aimed at improving the social welfare — for example, through tax credits and better health care — had smaller percentages of their citizens reporting disabilities than states who did not embrace these policies.

Resilience is associated with stronger social connections

We see evidence from other research that altruism is tied to social relationships, which aids in resilience. Practicing gratitude also strengthens relationships and social support networks, which aids in reducing stress and depression. Even finding purpose, which one could imagine does not necessarily involve building social networks, is often fostered in research, studies through in-depth conversations with a caring adult.


“We’re finding that a good route to feelings of purpose and meaning — which we tend to think of as good sources of resilience —comes from being out in the world - being engaged with meaningful activities that are doing good for other people and that are contributing,” says Friedman. “Engaging in meaningful activities definitely has a large social component at a very high level.”

In addition, individuals suffering a setback are frequently encouraged to go to a therapist, join a support group or get involved in volunteering. All of these activities have at their root the opportunity for deeper or wider social and emotional connection. Interestingly, research suggests that the relationship between a patient and a therapist may be the most critical ingredient in therapeutic success — more important than therapeutic techniques, for example.

Even religious belief — sometimes seen as helpful for resiliency — may be, for many, an opportunity to deepen social connections, which could explain its potency. One need only think of church members gathering to help someone in need within their congregation to see how this might play out.

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If we do not understand the relevance of social context in resiliency, we may end up setting ourselves up for failure. If resiliency does not simply mean focusing on our personal strengths and overcoming the odds, we will create more ways for people to strengthen their support systems. In other words, when you are going through a hard time, turn to the people around you. It takes a village to help each of its members to bounce back from disaster.