Posted in Life

Human Society: Greater than the sum of parts

Society and relationships are important

Initiated in 1938, a Harvard study of Adult Development tracked the lives of 724 men for over 75 years. Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study, summarized the conclusions as follows:

“The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”

He explains three big lessons about relationships.

  1. Social connections are really good for us, and that loneliness kills.

  2. It’s not just the number of friends you have, and it’s not whether or not you’re in a committed relationship, but it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters. 

  3. Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains.


This message has been reiterated enough by various stories and folk tales across media. And yet we continue to ignore it enough that we needed a 75-year long study to bring our attention back to the absolute importance of healthy relationships in our lives. Why do we ignore it? Or do we not believe in it?

One answer we get from Dr. Waldinger in his insightful talk on the study.

Relationships are hard work.”

Perhaps we are not able to make that effort because we don’t see an immediate gratification. Our sense of time and life can be one-dimensional and myopic. There is always something else more important. The struggle to fulfill the basic needs for survival takes up most of our mindspace. We usually don’t realize when those needs turn into greed. There is always a desire for more. We manage to use this justification to step back from hard work required for close relationships.

However, research in the field of neuroscience and social behavior prove otherwise. Social needs are perhaps more important than physical needs unlike what most of us believe.

Latest research in neuroscience throws light on the social part of the human brain. In this talk on the subject, Matthew Lieberman, suggests that the biggest weakness of humans is to ignore the importance of being social.

“Getting social is the secret to making us smarter, happier and more productive.”

He makes some very interesting observations on social part of the brain. Social pain is more than just a metaphor.

The same brain regions that register the distress of physical pain are also more active when they experience social pain like rejection.

The possible evolutionary reason for social pain is to forge a strong connection between infant and caregiver since we are born incapable of taking care of ourselves. We feel real pain when separated. Our ability to think socially allows us to connect with other humans, read their minds and is responsible for large-scale collaboration.

Scientists and scholars have pointed out that large-scale collaboration is the key to our survival. Historian Yuval Noah Harari elaborates on large-scale collaboration in his talk.

The real difference between humans and all other animals is not on the individual level; it’s on the collective level. Humans control the planet because they are the only animals that can cooperate both flexibly and in very large numbers.

And we are able to do so because we have imagination. We can create and believe fictions.

As long as everybody believes in the same fiction, everybody obeys and follows the same rules, the same norms, the same values.

Research points us towards the existence of mirror neurons, which are responsible for the growth of our civilization. It is suggested that mirror neurons are involved in things like imitation and emulation. We are able to imitate complex actions and able to transfer knowledge across community and generations. We learn, share and collaborate. Mirror neurons even enable us to feel the other’s pain.

We are an empathetic civilization.”

Studies across fields interested in investigating human behaviour like psychology, neurology and social science have all pointed out the importance of community and relationships in our lives. The social skills are inherent to our cultural evolution and growth of civilization. Relationships have been proved crucial to our wellbeing and happiness.

But are we living this reality today?

Why is it even a matter of debate today? While we have managed to accept the importance of relationships, do we believe it? Does it reflect in our behavior? At some point, we started giving more importance to self and personal achievement. How and where did we part ways from this reality? What did modern world do to us?

Before we investigate the trend, it’s important to take a step back and enquire how our society or various communities were formed and how they transformed over the years.

In ancient civilization, the hunting and gathering groups formed community based on geographical proximity. Over the years, religion came into existence. People following the same religious beliefs felt belonged to each other. As the civilizations progressed, we created nations. A new form of community was born with the concept of country. The industrial revolution brought in the community based on economic wellbeing and wealth. Now the world is much more connected than ever with faster communication and transportation. The new communities can be based on ideologies or interest; or any common fiction created and believed by a set of people.

But in modern society, are we as strongly connected as earlier?

Sebastian Junger reported from the war zone for many years. In his heart-warming talk, he suggests that our lonely society makes it harder for soldiers to fit back in.

Maybe they had an experience of sort of tribal closeness in their unit when they were overseas. They were eating together, sleeping together, doing tasks and missions together. They were trusting each other with their lives. And then they come home and they have to give all that up and they’re coming back to a society, a modern society, which is hard on people who weren’t even in the military. It’s just hard on everybody.

But our default mode of functioning is still cooperation. In crisis, we always come together.

If you traumatize an entire society, we don’t fall apart and turn on one another. We come together. We unify.”

So are we now a lonely society? 

It’s an extremely difficult question to answer, to research or even to ponder upon. While we believe in a common story of mankind, we layer it with our own personal stories. Our reality is defined by what we see and experience in our immediate environment. Our experience is further colored by our own personality traits. Therefore, we all have different views of our society as a whole.

Keeping aside personal stories for a moment, there are two evident observations reflecting on the macro social trends of the current world.

Personal ambition and sense of achievement: We are now more driven by the new rules of the capitalist economy and individualistic society. There is an increasing need amongst increasing number of people to give importance to self and personal needs. It might have come from growing population rates and skewed population density in some geographical pockets resulting in more fight for limited resources. Could it be possible that personal ambitions have taken us away from community and amplified certain emotional responses like ego, pride, arrogance etc? The irony is that most of us don’t realize or accept that the single most important thing we can do for our wellbeing is to build and maintain healthy relationships.

Rise of digital and social media: The digital age allows us to escape in the virtual world and reduce quality physical time spent with family. Technology, along with its many gifts, makes it easier for us to physically disconnect with family and friends. Digital promotes instant gratification, faster feedback without the benefit of non-verbal cues and overall promotion of a fake social identity that is perennially under scrutiny and subject to negative pressures. Aren’t we more distant in a digital world with access to more information, faster communication and more opportunities to build communities but limited physical connection?

Human species survived because of large-scale social collaboration. We look out for each other. We are designed to feel each other’s pain and love each other. How did we manage to reach here?

Where and why the gap in our reality and behavior?

On an intellectual level, it’s easy to appreciate the trends and the science; it’s much more difficult to live it and step beyond the emotional blocks. Given that we are designed to be social, why should it be a struggle for us at all? In a strange twist of life, what if it’s the society and social norms that somehow keeps us from being social? On a personal emotional level, why are some people more or less social than many others?

I don’t have scientific answers to the questions, but I have a hypothesis based on general observation of the social environment.

What if we learnt social fears while growing up along with all other things needed for survival in today’s society? And what if they inhibit our social expression and ability to connect, belong and stay in a community?

Need for approval or fear of rejection: Could it be a need for constant approval from parents, family, friends, colleagues and peers that makes one self-conscious of one’s behaviour in society?

Fear of being vulnerable: Could it be possible that the fear of being ridiculed or appear weak keeps one away from an attempt to participate in society or a community? Do we want to appear as someone who is considered ‘worthy’ of respect by the community and live with an assumed personality that makes it harder to connect with others?

Social awkwardness: Cultures worldwide and sometimes within the same geographical regions are different and can make one conscious of one’s behavior or opening up to strangers.

Along with society and community, came the social anxiety and the emotional pains. Over the years, human had to learn to deal with love, attachment, heartache and other emotions. As societies evolved, we learnt the concepts of greed, ambition, aspiration, envy, arrogance, pride and ego. We invented the concept of money and currency exchange. We started to accumulate wealth. We started struggling and fighting for limited resources.

We also learnt the way to deal with it. We started searching for happiness. There are various thought streams for the right path. Some roads lead to wealth accumulation, some to social service, some in practice of art, some in religion and some in philosophy. In the modern world, we saw rise of organized religion; various schools of philosophy; and scientific investigation in the attempt to understand happiness.

What if this new organized thought process and investigation is a potential reason resulting in a lonely society?

There is a vast spectrum of teachings spread by thought leaders across the civilized world leaving behind a range of confusing emotions and morals for modern human to make sense of.

Where do we go now? Can we build communities again?

Relationships are important for our wellbeing and our happiness. Social thinking is wired with the key functioning of our brains. However, we are now probably a lonelier society. Uncannily, social anxiety might have been the reason and result of our somewhat fragmented new society.

The real question for us now is how to regain the lost connection. This is a personal enquiry. This needs to be pondered upon by each of us individually. There are two critical aspects to explore here. First, on an individual level, are we ready to accept with absolute certainty that relationships are important for us? And are we ready to do the hard work to get over personal inhibitions or challenges and maintain relationships? Secondly, do we have the willingness and desire to build close-knit communities?

I hope that the answers are yes to the above questions for everyone. If each of us works on building positive and healthy relationships, the world will be more connected and happier.

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