New study explores how social relationships protect against the harmful effects of stress

Findings suggest that cultural background may factor prominently in how we characterize the quality of our social relationships

By Benjamin Kaveladze and Alan R. Teo, M.D., M.S.

Stress is an unavoidable part of our lives: early-morning alarm clocks, looming work deadlines, and the uncertainty of life during the ongoing pandemic are all sources of stress. While not all stress is bad (some skiers crave the stress of tackling double black diamond slopes), too much unwanted stress over long periods can wear us out, causing major health problems like depression to develop. Navigating stress effectively is essential to thriving in a challenging world.

If you’re stressed out, having strong relationships with friends and family to lean on can protect against the harmful health effects of that stress. Research has shown that people with strong social relationships can experience a lot of stress without that stress hurting them.

However, social relationships are not the same for everyone. Our cultures may dictate some of the ways that we define and experience stress, relationships, and depression. For instance, research has found that Americans—perhaps coming from an individualistic cultural upbringing—prioritize different kinds of relationships than Japanese, whose cultural upbringings tend to be more focused on group harmony.

As researchers interested in how mental health varies across cultures, we wondered if social relationships protect against the psychological consequences of stress in different ways in the United States and Japan.

To investigate this question, we analyzed questionnaires from 1,327 adults ages 31 to 86 from both countries about their social relationships with friends and family, stress levels, and depressive symptoms. Based on prior research done in the United States, we defined high-quality social relationships as those relationships that participants rated as providing support when they needed it and also didn’t act as a source of conflict and strain on them. Our full study is published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry here:

We found that in the United States, the better one felt one’s social relationships were, the less being stressed predicted depressive symptoms. This protective pattern was much less clear in Japan.

We should note that social relationships, stress, and depressive symptoms are all deeply interconnected in ways that are more complex than we can capture in a single study. However, our interpretation of our results is supported by a good deal of evidence from other studies.

Although it might seem obvious that having “high-quality” social relationships is always a good thing, differing cultural understandings of social relationships and well-being complicate this notion. Our study shows that we shouldn’t assume that everyone will benefit from having what Americans think of as high-quality social relationships, because the roles and meanings of social relationships differ across cultures.

Dr. Teo is an Associate Professor of Psychiatry at Oregon Health & Science University. Mr. Kaveladze is a former mentee of Dr. Teo and is currently a PhD student in Psychological Science at University of California, Irvine.