Social Wellbeing Challenge, Round 1: Belonging

Social interaction is not only good for us, it’s a biological necessity—that much is clear from the research. Now I wonder, as an introvert married to an extrovert (two people who seem to have different social needs and responses to social interactions) how much interaction is necessary to get those benefits, and is it the same for everyone? Of course, we’re ultimately after quality, not quantity. Achieving quality interactions requires reflection and perseverance as we battle the social disconnectedness and isolation so prevalent in modern society. That means that while we are attending to our own social needs, we might also think about how we might help others who face social exclusion, both structurally and culturally. These 10 interaction-related actions are a good place to start.

1. Socialize every day

Gallup, a world leader in wellbeing research, studied subgroups of people with different personality types (ranging from extroverted to introverted) to answer the question of how much social interaction we actually need. Their international surveys showed that each additional hour of social interaction is beneficial across the board in reducing stress and worry. The optimal amount of social time for thriving wellbeing? Six hours a day. Now, my gut says that can’t be a magic number for everyone (it seems too much for me). But the point is well made: a little more quality social interaction wouldn’t hurt anyone.

According to Gallup, it doesn’t matter if the interaction is face-to-face or online, so they count time on social media and email toward the total. There are certainly benefits to virtual communication—we can stay in touch with far away friends and get to know nearby acquaintances (social media supplies great conversation starters!). But some things just don’t translate digitally. Touch is vital for developing trust—hence the handshake. Emotions are also difficult to convey via text. Emoticons help, but they don’t come close what facial expressions can communicate. We simply can’t fulfill all our social needs online, so balancing our digital lives with real human contact is a must.

Doing so might be as simple as going on “Hola Patrol.” I started this practice while at a language school in Antiqua, Guatamala, when I noticed that people passing on the street didn’t make eye contact or say hello. Coming from overly friendly southern California, this made me uncomfortable, so I just started saying “Hola!” to strangers as I passed. Nine times out of ten, they looked up, smiled, and returned the greeting. Italian neuroscientist Giacomo Rizzolatti attributes this to “mirror neurons”—when you see someone perform an action, your brain fires neurons associated with that action. Smiling is a particularly good action to mirror! So now I do the same (though in English) every day when I walk the dog, and these human connections keep me smiling long afterward.

2. Understand introverts

As an introvert, I know that some types of social interaction fill me up and others drain me. In college, I was the one who always left crowded parties by midnight.  But then I’d stay up to the wee hours of the morning with a couple of close friends, listening to music and philosophizing in my cozy dorm room. As a middle-aged adult, not much has changed (except that I go to bed earlier): I still prefer intimate interactions to large gatherings, and when we do go to parties, I need a quiet day of recuperation afterward. Luckily, my extrovert husband understands me well. 

As it turns out, not all introverts feel that they can truly embrace their natural proclivities. This is a society that favors extroverts. But thanks to Susan Cain, author of Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can’t Stop Talking, introverts may now be more appreciated for their strengths than pitied for their “character flaws.” Cain describes introverts in a way that rings true: 

Introverts, in contrast [to extroverts], may have strong social skills and enjoy parties and business meetings, but after a while wish they were home in their pajamas. They prefer to devote their social energies to close friends, colleagues, and family. They listen more than they talk, think before they speak, and often feel as if they express themselves better in writing than in conversation. They tend to dislike conflict. Many have a horror of small talk, but enjoy deep discussions.

Cain then offers introverts this advice: 

Spend your free time the way you like, not the way you think you’re supposed to. Stay home on New Year’s Eve if that’s what makes you happy. Skip the committee meeting. Cross the street to avoid making aimless chitchat with random acquaintances. Read. Cook. Run. Write a story. Make a deal with yourself that you’ll attend a set number of social events in exchange for not feeling guilty when you beg off.

My sense is that it’s up to the individual to figure out how much and what type of social interaction is just right, with the understanding that this may change on any given day. We just need to listen more attentively to what our minds and bodies are telling us about our social energy and then adjust accordingly.

3. Have some hygge

Though I’ve just suggested that introverts are the ones who most appreciate intimate gatherings with close friends, the Danes might argue that this is the true secret to happiness. Denmark consistently ranks as one of the happiest countries in the world and has thus received much attention to discover why this is so.  According to Meik Wiking (CEO of the Happiness Research Institute in Copenhagen), the high happiness rating may be attributed to hygge (pronounced hoo-ga). Hygge is a Danish concept that translates as a sense of comfort, togetherness, and wellbeing. 

Hygge aficionados make much of mood lighting, cozy clothing, and the ultimate bliss of curling up with a good book. However, Wiking maintains that there can be no hygge without other people to share it with. In The Little Book of Hygge, Wiking proclaims:

In all the work I have done in the field of happiness research, this is the point I am surest about: the best predictor of whether we are happy or not is our social relationships…. Time spent with others creates an atmosphere that is warm, relaxed, friendly, down-to-earth, close, comfortable, snug, and welcoming. In many ways, it is like a good hug without the physical contact. It is in this situation that you can be completely relaxed and yourself. The art of hygge is therefore also the art of expanding your comfort zone to include other people.  

The beauty of hygge is that it is relatively easy to pull off. The premier hygge gathering is a potluck: because everyone shares the responsibility for food and drink (and sometimes place settings and chairs), the host feels less burden and everyone feels at home pitching in and relaxing in the informal environment. This is literally expanding one’s ultimate comfort zone (the home) to others in a way that’s true to its spirit. 

4. Cultivate your inner circle

Friendships are typically formed through proximity: in school we are more likely to become friends with those whose desks or lockers are closest to us, and as adults, we interact most with co-workers in shared space and neighbors within shouting distance. Convenient friendships can certainly be positive ones—I look forward to chatting with my neighbors as I take out the trash. But these relationships may not be the ones that will help us to be our best possible selves. 

 If we want relationships that influence us positively, then we need to cultivate our inner circle—those individuals we interact with most frequently. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn made popular the idea that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Rohn made this statement based on his entrepreneurial instinct, so it’s perhaps more common sense than science. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of research now demonstrating the power of peer influence (such as a 2013 study at Duke Universitythat shows strong-willed friends help us to resist temptation). So it would behoove us to choose those peers wisely when we can. 

 This might mean putting ourselves out there to meet people who can provide us with fresh inspiration. It can be more challenging to make friends as adults, but putting ourselves into new situations will provide new relationship possibilities. Attend a conference (plenty of new people interested in similar topics!), check out a new group activity (like retired folks who gather weekly to play ukulele at the local community center), or pick up a regular volunteer gig (strong connections can form while working together on a shared concern).  And for those introverts out there who cringe at the thought of talking to new people (I share your pain), you can adapt business networking advice or seek out other relationship-building tips to ease the awkward initial phase.

5. Promote digital minimalism

Here’s a disturbing trend: rates of teen depression and suicide have sky rocketed since 2011. Even more disturbing: according to Jean Twenge, a psychologist who researches generational differences, this mental health crisis can be traced to smartphones. The post-millennial generation, which Twenge dubs iGen, entered the world at a critical time—not the 2008 recession but the year that the proportion of Americans who own a smartphone passed 50 percent (2012). States Twenge, “The arrival of the smartphone has radically changed every aspect of teenagers’ lives,” and this holds true for all demographics: wealthy and poor, every ethnicity, in cities and suburbs—anywhere there’s a cell phone tower. 

In 2012, Twenge started noticing abrupt shifts in teen behaviors and emotional states. Essentially, teens have more free time than the generation before, but they are going out with friends far less (over 40 percent less from 2000 to 2015). They’ve become homebodies who live their social lives on their phones. Increased screen time not only affects attention span; teens spending three or more hours a day on a device are also 35 percent more likely to have a suicide risk factor. What’s the connection? Twenge suggests that social media increases the typical teen fear of missing out (FOMO), plus there’s no break from the drama of the day—it continues non-stop through texts and chats as teens sit alone in their rooms, making them feel progressively worse. Twenge’s compelling Atlantic article details more, but suffice to say here that we all need to put down our devices and interact face-to-face.

Enter the digital minimalism movement, which prompts people to question what digital communication activities really add value to our lives. According to the American Psychological Association, 65% of Americans think “unplugging” or taking a “digital detox” is vital for mental health, but only 28% actually do so. Clearly we need some help. So businesses like Digital Detox Companyoffer consulting to balance work-life tech habits, and coffee shops like Hot Black Coffeein Toronto no longer provide wifi to encourage folks to talk to each other. Following their lead, we can improve our own wellbeing while setting a good example for the next generation.

6. Join a pro-social group

When Alexis de Tocqueville came to the US in the 1830s, he was most impressed by Americans’ proclivity for civic association: “Americans of all ages, all stations in life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations. There are not only commercial and industrial associations in which all take part, but others of a thousand different types—religious, moral, serious, futile. . . . Nothing, in my view, deserves more attention than the intellectual and moral associations in America.” Unfortunately, group membership has declined steadily since 1975—Robert Putnam documented a 48% decrease from 1975 to 2000, and organizations like Rotary report further shrinking memberships in the last two decades. De Toqueville would say that the reduction of civic associations is bad for democracy, given the power of collective action to influence social progress. At a more fundamental level, it’s bad for humanity, which survives and thrives by interacting and working together in groups.

It pays to be choosey about which group to join—time is scarce and we want to make the most of it. So opt for a group that will give the most bang for your buck: one that provides positive interactions and influences, gives a sense of belonging to a community that engages your values, plus promotes wellbeing for other people and the planet. Opportunities abound: neighborhood civic associations, local organizations with a structured volunteer system (like environmental nonprofits that do trail maintenance and lead hikes), or national organizations with local chapters (like Rotary Club or Dining for Women, which holds monthly potluck dinners and raises grant money for development projects that empower women). Even if you’re not “a joiner,” you’ll be glad you did.

7. End social exclusion

When Frances McDormand ended her 2018 Oscar speech by leaving the audience with “two words: inclusion rider,” I had to Google it. Turns out, an inclusion rider is a clause actors add to their contracts to ensure diversity in casting and production staff. Such explicit clauses are necessary to ensure non-discrimination in diverse social sectors. As much as we’d like to think that our society as progressed beyond Jim Crow-type discrimination, the reality is that minorities are still excluded from many areas of social life. Take the military for instance: LGBT individuals scored a huge civil rights victory when the Obama administration announced a new policy allowing them to serve openly in the armed forces…only to have that right revoked by the next administration. This social exclusion does double damage—to the excluded individual, who misses out on the benefit of belonging to a meaningful community, and the society as a whole, which loses the benefit of that individual’s meaningful contribution.

 Anyone who rejects social exclusion on the basis of identity (gender, sexual orientation, ethnicity, ability, age, and so on) can take action to make his or her own communities more inclusive. My own mother is a prime example: When I was in college, she once asked me if I was afraid that a lesbian co-worker of mine would try to convert me. Despite this fear (or perhaps because of it) she went on to spearhead the Open and Affirming Task Force at her church, which aimed to welcome previously excluded LGBT people into the congregation. The process was difficult and contentious, but the church eventually passed a non-discriminatory membership policy that resulted in not only more LGBT members, but also more African American ones, including a black pastor (definitely a positive change for a previously all-white congregation in Detroit). So while my mom was already benefiting from belonging to this community, she was able to enhance everyone’s experience by becoming aware of social exclusion and taking steps to end it. 

8. Humanize homelessness

Some of the most socially excluded folks are right under our noses, yet we often don’t even see them. I’m talking about people living on the streets and in shelters. In my town of Laguna Beach, what to do about the “homeless problem” comes up frequently in city council meetings—especially around election time. The problem, as defined by downtown business owners, restaurateurs, and hoteliers, is that homelessness is bad for business. Their solution is to push individuals without housing to the outskirts of town, where they’ll be out of sight and out of mind.

 The tendency to talk about the problem and not the person underscores what a stigma individuals without housing face. In fact, being ignored or pushed out of town is not the worst of it. Just recently, a young man described as black, gay, and homelesswas shot in the back by a security guard in a Hollywood Walgreens when he was suspected of shoplifting. Though eyewitnesses saw an altercation prior to the shooting, they confirmed that the young man was neither armed nor intending to steal. At the vigil a week later, friends and family members decried the dehumanizing discrimination that resulted in this senseless death.

 To restore human dignity to individuals experiencing homelessness, the National Alliance to End Homelessnesscalls for a community-wide, coordinated approach to delivering services, housing, and programs. The solution, they say, is simple: rapid re-housing. For the most vulnerable, permanent supportive housing can provide vital stability.  But we also need long-term strategies to help low-income earners to develop financial stability to keep them in their homes. This multi-pronged approach shifts attention to the problems faced by individuals without housing, rather than the problems they create (real or imagined) for society.

 Even if it’s not feasible to make campaigning to end homelessness a top priority, there’s still an easy action that will bring the focus back to human dignity. The next time you pass an individual who is experiencing homelessness, just look him or her in the eye and say hello. “Hola Patrol” in this situation lets the person know that you see him or her—sometimes all any of us need is a simple acknowledgement that we exist. 

9. Resettle refugees

Another population that suffers from social exclusion is refugees. According to the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR),  “68.5 million individuals have been forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of persecution, conflict, violence or human rights violations. We are now witnessing the highest levels of displacement on record.” And within this vulnerable population, there are none more vulnerable than youth.

The refugee experience is by definition one of exclusion: on the one hand, being forced to migrate from their homes; and on the other hand, struggling to create new homes in uncertain settings.  Belonging—to a community or a country—can be elusive, adding to the psychological stress of (often traumatic) forced migration, which can result in a range of mental health issues like substance abuse. Thus, establishing a sense of belonging early on in the resettlement period is especially critical to the wellbeing of youth with refugee backgrounds.            

In 2017, the Trump administration halved the number of refugees permitted to enter the US and made it more difficult for refugee resettlement agencies to function. The easiest way to help is to donate money to an umbrella organization like Refugee Council USA, which redistributes funds to over 300 local and regional resettlement agencies based on need. But it might be more gratifying to work directly with a local organization—to find one in your area, check out the public spreadsheetcreated by Sloan Davidson, a grad student and part-timer at the Refugee Council USA. The organization nearest me, World Relief Southern California, offers three engagement possibilities: 1) setting up refugee families in their new homes with “welcome kits;” 2) participating in the Little Brushstrokes program, which allows kids to express themselves and have fun with art; and 3) volunteering as a liaison to facilitate integration in the new community.  Any action that helps individuals with refugee backgrounds to form social bonds will increase their sense of belonging and thus their overall wellbeing.  

10. Campaign for co-housing

While vulnerable populations like those experiencing homelessness and forced migration can suffer greatly from social isolation, we are all susceptible to it. Part of the problem is that the design of our modern neighborhoods keeps us separated—large houses on large properties laid out in grids rather than around a town square and situated far enough from shops and services that we need cars to reach them. In such a set up, we have little chance of bumping into neighbors, much less of participating in activities that would bring us together. For an alternative that would foster social wellbeing, consider a cohousing community. Cohousing communities are intentional neighborhoods that bring together the value of private homes with the benefits of more sustainable, collaborative living. That means residents actively contribute to the design and operation of their neighborhoods and share common facilities and good relationships with neighbors. 

Those good relationships don’t just happen, however. Residents have to be intentional about them, too. One cohousing resident, Karen Gimnig, explains how cohousing allows the skill building necessary for satisfying social relationships:

The time we spend together gives us opportunities to practice relationship skills and we learn a good bit through trial and error. Our shared investment keeps us engaged far past the point where we might otherwise retreat, and we learn from those challenging engagements….Living among others who do this work gives us models for our own growth. Living among people who hold intention for relationship and connection makes it safer for us to do the same.

Gimnig’s sentiments sound a lot like what I heard from the residents of Srisa Asoke.  I can say from experience that living in an intentional community and making it succeed takes work, but for those who choose this way of life, it’s worth the effort.

Wrap up…

Many of us probably do not give our social lives much thought, especially given the pressures of work and other obligations, but hopefully that will start to change. Our ability to thrive depends on healthy social interactions—ones that produce good feelings and positive influence and contribute to our basic human need to belong. Yet unlike so many other things we do because they are good for us, this one is actually fun 🙂

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