The company we keep has an ability to influence depressive symptoms, but just how much depends on where you live, found a new study published in the journal Social Science & Medicine.

The socioeconomic status of the members of your social group or network have previously been pegged as important, in that these statuses can influence social interaction (especially if there’s alcohol), social exchange, and status attainment. But less research has been done on the health consequences of these statuses. Lijun Song, an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tenn., sought out to see if knowing high-status people helped or harmed mental health, using “depressive symptoms as a proxy.”

Song analyzed nationally representative surveys of the United States and urban China, as well as scores collected from the Standard International Socioeconomic Index; survey respondents were adults aged 21 to 64. With this data, Song could study the relationships between individuals’ depression symptoms and the status of the jobs of the people around them — from lawyer to babysitter. Song compared two competing theories for how the status of people we know affects our mental health: social capital and comparative reference group. These two theories, according to Song, have never been “explicitly analyzed jointly.”

Social capital refers to the “resources embedded in social networks and specifies members’ hierarchical positions.” In the U.S., Song found that accessed educational and occupational status is positively associated with seeking health information and quitting smoking, but negatively associated with self-reported health and depression.

On the other hand, the comparative reference group theory suggests individuals tend to evaluate themselves in comparison to others, also known as social comparison. This theory argues that “higher-status groups can damage health through triggering upward or negative social comparison, while lower-status reference groups can protect health through eliciting downward or positive social comparison.”

So when you look at places like the U.S. and China, Song said she would’ve thought that in a culture that promotes interdependence (China), access to high-status people would improve mental health, whereas a more independent culture (U.S.) would accomplish the opposite. And yet, Song found that in China, knowing high-status people was detrimental to mental health. She explained that this was true whether people knew mostly high-status people, any high-status people, or many people of comparatively high-status than themselves.

Back in the U.S., Song found that high-status people or comparatively higher-status people were also detrimental to mental health, which is consistent with comparative reference group theory. “We tend to feel worse except when most of a person’s network was clustered at one end of the status range,” she said in a press release.

As for depression, when members of an individual’s network had high-status jobs, depression rates were lower — and when members had lower-status jobs depression was higher, which is consistent with social capital theory.

Put it another way: Social capital theory is more predictive of depressive scores in the U.S. than urban China, while comparative reference group theory is more predictive in China than the U.S., Song said.

She concludes that both theories can coexist within a single society, and that socioeconomic status within a personal social network can have a mixed effect on mental health.

Source: Song L. Does who you know in the positional hierarchy protect or hurt? Social capital, comparative reference group, and depression in two societies. Social Science & Medicine. 2015.