It’s always been true, but it’s probably more evident nowadays: we have differences. It may be race, gender, generation, ideologies, politics, or religion, but the things that divide us are even more pronounced these days, which makes seeing our commonalities and the things that connect us even more difficult. But despite all the many differences that divide us, one thing that we all have in common is the need to connect.
Our longing to make social connections is an innate need crucial to the survival of our species. Despite the growing emphasis on individualism, independence, self-reliance, the pursuit of personal passions, and destiny, we have a need for interdependence and interconnectedness. Despite the emphasis on the “i” of our phones, pods, and pads, the main thing we want to do with them is connect with others. The survival of our species depends on our ability to connect with one another. If our ancestors did not connect, cooperate, and collaborate, there might not be a single human being walking the planet today.
We are simply wired to connect, to cooperate, and build communities. Being a part of a community is not a luxury or a nice thing to do; it is a necessity for survival. Not only does it move our happiness indicator in the positive direction but not having that sense of belonging move our physical health indicator in the negative direction.
“Loneliness Could be Deadlier than Obesity”
So said a 2017 Huffpost headline. And sadly, there is a growing number of studies suggesting that loneliness is an epidemic that poses a bigger public health hazard than obesity and smoking. According to one research study, those who lacked social and community ties were more likely to die than those with extensive social connections.
Making social connections is not just an emotional or a happy social experience. It may not be obvious to us but having friendships has positive physiological effects. Something happens in our bodies when we form a bond with others. Oxytocin, the hormones associated with empathy, trust, and relationship-building—and an important component of our neurochemical system—is released in the bloodstream enabling our bodies to adapt to highly emotive situations. Research studies have shown that oxytocin helps reduce stress levels and helps increase resilience and adaptive social behaviors.
The Japanese, for example, have maintained their status of having the highest life expectancy in the world for the last 70 years. The reason for their long healthy lives has often been attributed to their diet and nutrition, but an underrated contributing factor is their strong social cohesion. Their culture’s group orientation fosters the individual member’s ability to have a deep sense of belongingness, keeping them from feeling alienated, depressed, and lonely even in their old age.
Trending in the Wrong Direction
Social scientists are observing that the time Americans spend with one another socializing and building bonds has plummeted particularly in the last three decades (see the 2000 Bestselling Book, Bowling Alone). Our social interactions are weakening. The frequency, as well as the quality, of our social interactions are not the same as in generations past. The number of our friends on social media might show that we have plenty of friends, but a good percentage of them are probably just acquaintances. Through social media and electronic communications, our social reach is getting wider but our connectedness is not getting any deeper. Having connections on social media doesn’t always equate with the sense of belongingness (see Alone Together by Sherry Turkle). With social media being so ubiquitous among the younger generation, you would think that they are more “social” and more connected. The BBC Loneliness Experiment, however, found that the levels of loneliness were highest among those in the 16-24-year-old age group.
In today’s society, our personal interactions with others are limited and are often planned and scheduled. Our living arrangements, our work schedules, and the other non-social distractions that we tend to prioritize such as checking email, playing video games, or watching TV limit the chances for these serendipitous meet-ups. Some of the best and most meaningful social interactions are those that are unplanned.
When I was growing up in the Philippines, it was perfectly normal for neighbors and friends to randomly show up at your doorstep unannounced, check in on you, and just chat away. And a lot of times, if you are the only household in the neighborhood with a TV, chances are you’ll have about five to ten people hanging around your house every night keeping you company. Today, however, in my American neighborhood, we might know our neighbors; we smile and wave at them every morning but it just wouldn’t feel normal to have them spontaneously show up at my doorstep and end up chatting for hours, let alone watch TV together. People today are too busy living their very private lives and we’re always on the go. Our lives are not set up for those serendipitous and spontaneous social meetings. We have so-called “happy hour” but even that is also scheduled and lasts only a short hour.
Many companies like those in Silicon Valley realize the value of socialization, particularly serendipitous ones. Many of them are setting up their office environments to facilitate these serendipitous meet-ups. Some of the most creative and innovative ideas are sparked through these casual collisions and unplanned collaborations in the hallway, around the water cooler, or around the pool table. They realize that you can’t always schedule idea generations among socially connected colleagues.
You can’t also schedule the facilitation of deep and meaningful social relationships. Friendships and social connectedness are realized when we encounter that person regularly (see Alex Pentland’s book, Social Physics). Bonds are formed when we spend time with that person, with the phone down, and actually looking at that person eye-to-eye. Our lives are not set-up to easily facilitate those deep and meaningful social connections.
We have a natural need for that sense of connectedness and belongingness. None of us can do without the other. In today’s divisiveness, it is hard to see but other people are actually a gift.
The Greek word for “community”, which appears in the New Testament several times, is “koinonia”. However, our modern conceptualization of its meaning, especially when we use it in today’s secular vernacular, doesn’t seem to capture the original essence of what Saint Paul was referring to in his letters. Some elements get lost in translation because there seems to be a deeper sense of bond and oneness in the way Saint Paul used the word koinonia. We are called to a very profound sense of community, modeled on the “community” of the Trinity.
“The Trinity—three Persons in one God—is a community—a family. God is love and that love extends Itself in the Christian and in turn, must extend Itself to the world—the Family in the Trinity and the Trinity in the Family.” – Mother Angelica
There is a strong emphasis on the interdependent relationship. A father is a father in relation to the son, and the son is a son in relation to the father. And the Father and the Son are one. Jesus prayed that we, too, may be one, just like He and the Father are one (John 17:22). And though there are many different parts, they all form one body. So it is with Christ. For in one Spirit we were all baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free, and we were all given one Spirit to drink (1 Corinthians 12:12-13). There should be no division in the body, but that its members should have mutual concern for one another. If one part suffer, all the parts suffer with it. If one part is honored, all the parts share its joy (1 Corinthians 12:25-26).
Community is a gift. The word “community” contains a root word, as well as a prefix and suffix, that may denote its special meanings. Within “community” are the words “common unity.” There’s also the Latin word cum which means with or together and the Latin word munus which means gift. We may not always see it that way and we often take it for granted but our shared togetherness is a gift. Community gives us that sense of belonging, that sense of oneness. Cherish that gift, and do all you can to foster it in your own life.