Social connection and agency are known to be positively correlated with emotional well-being, but does one lead to another or are they independent but related? A study published in The Journal of Positive Psychology explores these three variables over a 13-year time period to better explore their relationship.
Well-being has become a popular topic for research as psychology has begun to focus on how to live a good and happy life. Well-being has been linked to other positive life variables, but relationships are not well understood.
Social connection, especially having meaningful and supportive relationships, has been linked to positive mental health outcomes in previous research, including higher levels of well-being. Agency, or taking control of one’s own life and experiences, is another factor that has been linked to well-being.
Despite this, there is a lack of understanding about if these relationships are unidirectional or bidirectional. This study seeks to gain a deeper understanding of the relationship between these three variables by utilizing longitudinal data.
“Several well-known theoretical perspectives offer valuable guidance about the essential components of the good life and two that are central to the field are social connection (perceived level of social interaction and support from others) and agency (perceived capacity to influence one’s life circumstances),” explained Dianne Vella-Brodrick and her colleagues in their study.
“Yet, evidence remains undecided about whether these are best conceptualized as antecedents or outcomes of well-being. In the case of social connection, evidence suggests that causality may run in both directions. In the case of agency, most research suggests it serves as an antecedent to well-being, yet these claims are typically made based on cross-sectional data or statistical models that fail to properly test directional relationships. In the present study, we seek to address these limitations.”
Vella-Brodrick and her colleagues utilized data from a large, nationally representative longitudinal Australian sample. Data was used from 22,980 participants. Data was collected annually, but this study utilized information from 4 years spanning a 13-year period; 2003, 2007, 2011, and 2015. Participants completed measures on emotional well-being, agency, and social connection. Researchers controlled for between-person differences.
Results showed that higher levels of emotional well-being predicted higher levels of agency and social connection later in life. Additionally, higher levels of agency early in life predicted both well-being and social connection at later time points. In contrast, earlier instances of increased social connection were not linked to future agency or emotional well-being for participants.
This suggests that well-being and agency are very influential factors have a reciprocal relationship that can lead to more positive aspects of life and mental health later down the line. Social connection emerged as a less important predictive factor in this study, although it has been an important variable for well-being in other studies.
“Collectively these findings suggest that having a sense of control over one’s life and having high levels of emotional well-being are important for building social connections and can indeed predict levels of social connection up to 13 years later,” the researchers explained. “In the current study, emotional wellbeing was measured using a combination of four positive affect items which focused on feeling: energetic, full of life, calm and peaceful and happy, and five negative affect items tapping into feeling: down, tired, worn out and nervous.”
“Consistent with Broaden and Build Theory (Fredrickson, 2001), it might be necessary to feel a certain level of happiness and energy before one has the confidence and capability to form social connections, which includes having lots of friends and spending time with people of personal importance. Once this is established, it may well be the case that social connection may then contribute to feelings of wellbeing and wellbeing and social connection are mutually reinforcing to create an upward spiral.”
This study took important steps into better understanding the factors that can affect and be affected by well-being. Despite this, there are limitations to note. One limitation of this research is that the amount of data available to analyze was lessened by the fact that the longitudinal study only asked about agency at four waves. Another limitation is that the measures were constrained by the limits of the data available; future research could include additional measures of well-being that extend beyond just emotional well-being.
The study, “Longitudinal Relationships Between Social Connection, Agency, and Emotional Well-Being: A 13-Year Study“, was authored by Dianne Vella-Brodrick, Mohsen Joshanloo, and Gavin R. Slemp.