Does belonging to more groups make us happier?

Does belonging to more groups make us happier?

Clem Bastow | Fairfax Media | Originally published in The Age July 3 2015

For many years, when I looked back on the tail end of high school, I considered the entire experience to be an absolute bust. My marks were fine and I managed to eventually conquer my crippling fear of both exams and parties, but there was one area in which I perceived my 16th and 17th years to have been wasted: I didn't have a "crew".

That's not to say I didn't have friends, but rather that I didn't have a core group I belonged to; I was one of those satellite people who drifted between the art students, debating kids, stoners, freaks and geeks with relative impunity. This, in a peer group dotted with gangs of friends so thick they still hang out together some 15 years later, apparently marked my immense social failing.

As it turns out, the opposite was true - well, at least if you believe a recent University of Queensland study, which found that people who belong to a number of groups tended to have higher self-esteem.

The study by Jolanda Jetten, Having a Lot of a Good Thing: Multiple Important Group Memberships as a Source of Self-Esteem, found it wasn't necessarily the opportunity to make extra friends that multiple groups offered that increased the interviewees' sense of self-esteem (in other words, the idea that people who have lots of friends would see themselves as worthy of friendship), but rather the group memberships themselves that boosted self-worth.

As the paper's discussion runs, "Our findings show that self-esteem is not solely a 'personal' aspect of self. Instead, it is not only part of, but also determined by our social identities. Once we recognize that self-esteem is partly conditional on group memberships that determine our sense of identity, this opens up a whole new way of thinking about self-esteem—in particular, by pointing to the interconnectedness of different levels of self-understanding."

It's easy to identify with the study's results. Despite my self-perceived social failure at school, as I've grown, I've enthusiastically joined many groups, both literally (in playing Dungeons & Dragons, going to the same yoga class and attending loosely organised but regular 'Tightarse Tuesday' movie sessions) and in a more ephemeral way (being part of the global cosplay community simply by regularly kitting up and attending conventions; making competitive preserves for the Royal Show).

Having spent a good portion of my adult life as an outsider of sorts, a mostly self-imposed state, it's the social identity these group activities present that has seen my self-worth and confidence skyrocket. (Incredibly, "Who wants to belong to a group?! I'm fine by myself!" wasn't a hugely healthful personal mantra.) It turns out, this is the key to the study's results.

Reflecting on the study in Science of Us, Melissa Dahl writes "The researchers only saw the link between group membership and higher self-esteem when people said their groups were important to their sense of self. In my case, that means my multiple group memberships will only improve my self-esteem if I start to fold them into the way I think about my own identity: I'm a reader, a vegetarian, a (sometimes) runner."

In other words, it's the groups that have contributed to my sense of identity - to follow Dahl's lead, "I'm a gamer", "I'm a cosplayer", "I'm a competitive jam-maker" - that have provided the biggest boost to my self-worth. The others are enjoyable but don't really make a difference either way; if I'm having a low self-esteem day, attending a movie with a group or going to yoga will be a nice distraction, but won't necessarily retrieve my self-worth from the toilet of existential agony.

The takeaway from the study results isn't "rush right out and join a group": like so many psychological studies, this is just the beginning of a new way of exploring the concept of self-esteem. But I can tell you, with some authority, that after years of lonerdom, there's nothing quite like having a group to call your own. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to write up my new D&D character before our new campaign begins. - Clem Bastow.

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