Christmas is often a time for catching up with family and friends. Indeed the benefits associated with most organised religion is the sense of community and meaning. In my last blog post I touched on some research indicating the importance of connecting with nature and its part in maintaining optimal health. In this post I want to focus on connecting with community and why this has an important effect on your wellbeing.
By our very nature we are social creatures. Throughout the ages our survival has depended on our ability to live and work with others. As Dr Craig Hassed states in his book ‘The Essence of Health,’ “connectedness is … deeply etched into our natures genetically, psychologically, socially and behaviourly.”
Human beings first evolved in the savannahs of Africa where we survived in small hunter- gatherer tribes of a few hundred people or less. We owe our existence to the very fact that these first communities learned how to co-operate. They shared food, looked after the sick and managed threats together. Against all odds humanity survived, mainly due to the dense web of social contacts and the vast number of reciprocal commitments they maintain.
Being lost or isolated from the group for a protracted period meant you would be in terrible danger. You would be vulnerable to predators, if you got sick nobody would nurse you, and the rest of the tribe was also vulnerable without you. Every human instinct is honed not for life on your own, but for life in a tribe. It’s no wonder we feel anxious and distressed when faced with social solation. It’s an urgent signal from our body and brain to get back to the group. Ultimately we have strong impulses in favour of connection. Loneliness is an adverse state that motivates us to reconnect. Indeed, evolution has shaped us not only to feel bad in isolation but also to feel insecure.
Social isolation is painful and is represented in the top 10 stressors, according to the scale of life stressors- death of a loved one, marital breakdown and conflict at work to name but a few. The pain of feeling disconnected is expressed in many ways including physical illness, anxiety and depression.
Connectedness comes from the Greek word ‘harmos’ (harmony), which means ‘to join.’ While the positive effects of harmony can be seen in an orchestra or sporting team the negative effects of disharmony can manifest as disease and imbalance within the human body. Indeed studies consistently show that when it comes to staying healthy, both physically and mentally, strong relationships are at least as important as avoiding smoking and obesity!
According to neuroscience researcher John Cacioppe, loneliness in today’s society isn’t the physical absence of other people; it’s also the sense that you are not sharing anything that matters with anyone else. To end loneliness you need to have a sense of “mutual aid and protection.” This is an interesting concept, one worth considering in the society we are faced with today.
Research by Harvard professor Robert Putman has documented over the last few decades how our families and communities are unraveling- “We do things together less than any humans who came before us.” Even eating a meal or watching TV (and screen time) are no longer done together! An interesting American study wanted to know: ‘How many people you could turn to in a crisis or when something really good happens to you?’ When they started collecting data several decades ago, the average number of close friends was three. By 2004, the most common answer was none. This when the Internet was becoming mainstream, promising connection when other forces of disconnection were reaching a crescendo.
If you are a typical westerner in the twenty-first century, you check your phone every 6.5 minutes. If you are a teenager, you send an average 100 texts a day. And 42 percent of us never turn our phones off! For many, we escape anxiety through distraction. According to Dr Hillary Cash an American psychologist specialising in Internet addiction, “our impulsive internet use is a dysfunctional attempt to try and solve the pain that we are already in, caused by feeling alone in the world.” Our obsessive use of social media is an attempt to fill a hole, that took place before anyone had a smart phone. “We are living in a culture where people are not getting the connection that they need in order to be healthy humans…. Which is face to face, where we are able to see, and touch, and smell and hear each other… We’re social creatures. We’re meant to be in connection with one another in a safe, caring way, and when it is mediated by a screen, that’s absolutely not there!”
There are many ways we can experience the benefits (physical, mental and emotional) of social connectedness and being part of a community. For many of us our workplaces and immediate family and social circle provide our main source of interaction. While these relationships are crucial it can also be beneficial to look beyond these and to develop new habits and activities. Examples may include connecting with others who share a hobby, joining a sports team or a group such as a book club, enrolling in a class learning something you’ve always wanted to do or engaging in voluntary work or religious/ spiritual practice with others.
So this festive season my intention is to forgo the commercial pressure to buy and give gifts, but to focus on connecting with others, face to face and sharing something that matters. J
In the New Year I will continue my exploration of connection as a pillar of health and vitality... The importance of connecting to meaning and purpose for optimum wellbeing.
The Essence Of Health.
Dr Craig Hassed
Lost Connections. Uncovering the real causes of depression - and the unexpected solutions .
Go Wild: Eat fat, run free, be social, and follow evolutions other rules for total Health and wellbeing.
John J Ratey MD & Richard Manning
Write something about yourself. No need to be fancy, just an overview.