Networked, Part 1: Feel Belonging with Good Groups

It’s a sad irony that modern technology has provided us with greater capabilities than ever before to connect with each other, yet we have never been so socially disconnected.  This decline social life has been well documented by Robert Putnam, Professor of Public Policy at Harvard, in Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of the American Community. Putnam drew on nearly 500,000 interviews over the last quarter of the 20thcentury to show that Americans belong to fewer organizations that meet, know our neighbors less, meet with friends less frequently, and socialize with our families less often. Americans are even bowling alone rather than on leagues as was once the norm. Putnam argues that this decline in social participation has created a U.S. population that is increasingly isolated and less empathetic toward its fellow citizens, that is often angrier and less willing to unite in communities or as a nation.             

Psychologist Stephen Ilardi calls social isolation a modern plague, underscoring the point that this disconnection is detrimental for inherently social beings. “[W]e’re truly not designed to live like this. For the great majority of human history, people resided in small, intimate hunter-gatherer communities. And anthropologists who spend time with modern-day hunter-gatherer bands report that social isolation and loneliness are largely unknown among them.” Social disconnectedness is so detrimental, in fact, that a recent review of studies in the UK marks it as the next biggest public health issue on par with obesity and substance abuse: loneliness increases mortality risk by 26%.

The good news is that boosting our social wellbeing will be relatively easy for most of us (relative to, say, switching from the standard American diet to a whole-food, plant-based one). At baseline, we can measure the frequency of social contacts and the number of people individuals can count on for support—quantity counts particularly when addressing the physical and mental health issues impacted by social interaction. A wellbeing perspective looks even more closely at the quality of our social life: 1) social interactions should enable us to feel good and be better, together, instilling a sense of belongingand 2) social support should make life easier and our social bonds, stronger. Ultimately, we aim for mutuality—that sense of shared respect and responsibility on which vibrant communities are built. 

I have never participated in a stronger community than Srisa Asoke. Every day in so many ways, the residents engaged in positive interactions both silly and serious and shared tangible and intangible support. They certainly had the advantage of close physical proximity and explicitly shared values, activities, and goals, but that doesn’t mean we have to join an intentional community to get the same social benefits. We just have to create our own.

I. Belonging

When I was a Peace Corps Volunteer in Thailand, I spent a good deal of time by myself. I lived alone in town for the second year of my service, and I would often go solo to the night market and eat in the company of a good book. Plus there was my bike riding, a typically solitary activity. Besides the Thais who thought I was crazy, those who knew me (my neighbors and co-workers) just couldn’t understand why I spent so much time alone. How could I sleep by myself? Wasn’t I afraid of ghosts? Wasn’t I lonely? To the inherently group-oriented Thais, it was inconceivable that someone would actually like to be alone. It’s just not fun.

Thais love to have fun above all else—it surpasses sleeping in odd places as the national pastime. In Thai math, multiplying one by any other number than itself equals fun. A trip to the market becomes an adventure with three friends piled on a motorcycle. Office work is made tolerable with frequent shared snack breaks. In fact, any work is more enjoyable with company: women pull their weaving looms under one house and harvest soybeans side-by-side so they can chat and sing together. This way it’s possible to squeeze some fun out of any potentially tedious chore. 

The residents of Srisa Asoke are no different. A typical day with Jantima shows how life at Srisa Asoke was inherently social, and if not rollicking fun, then at least pleasant. Jantima and I had been working at the recycling center as usual, when the 8:40 a.m. the gong sounded for the daily dharma talk. Jantima gave me a wobbly ride on the back of her bike over to the kitchen to wash our hands, and when we arrived, Reun (Jantima’s friend from home) greeted us cheerfully and asked for our help. An aluminum tub heaped with green onions needed to be stripped down to two or three shoots so the greens could be used for cooking and the bulbs replanted. We agreed without hesitation and settled on the cement-slab floor to work. While we peeled, we had an English lesson at Jantima’s request. Reun tried the basics for a few minutes before leaving us with a laughing “Oiy! I can’t!” The laughing continued as Jantima attempted to pronounce unfamiliar English sounds.

Around 10:15 a.m., Reun and her student assistants brought bowls of food to the middle of the kitchen floor near us and sat around them. Since Reun and the students are all from the Northeast, the food they prepared was typical Isan fare—spicy nam prikwith raw vegetables, curried eggplant, and sticky rice. We joined them, and Jantima easily switched to her native Isan (Lao) dialect. When Reun asked if I could speak their language, I smiled innocently and replied—in Lao, “No, I can’t speak Lao.” Thais always find this enormously funny. When the burst of laughter subsided, the group quizzed me on my knowledge of Lao words for different food items and common phrases. More laughter ensued….

We finished planting the onions around noon, and Jantima invited me to relax at her place while she washed clothes. I feel guilty sitting idly while others are not, so I decided to sweep. While we worked, we chatted about how difficult it was being away from our husbands. Just as Jantima hung the last item to dry, Din Pieu (the assistant chair of the new farming committee) dropped by to enlist Jantima’s aid in scouting out new plots to plant vegetables. I borrowed another bike, and we all pedaled leisurely through the community searching for suitable spots. 

Roughly an hour and a half later, we passed by Daeng’s place, where she and Tangbun were bent over a table in the shady space under the house. We stopped to investigate and discovered that they were making posters to instruct the students how to make herbal medicine. Jantima, who has considerable knowledge of natural medicine, offered her input. As we chatted, they penciled directions on notebook paper and Tangbun—who has the neatest writing—copied everything onto the posterboard. I couldn’t help but notice the easy collaboration and was duly impressed. And so the day continued…

As you might have guessed, Srisa Asoke residents didn’t spend too much time alone, and it’s hopefully clear from the description of this one day that the interactions resulted in good feelings all around. 

The Asoke folks value good social interaction for the same reason other Thais do (it’s more enjoyable than being alone), but they also have another social need: the positive influence of others who share their values and goals. Srisa Asoke is, after all, an intentional community. The residents emphasized how much easier it was to follow an Asoke lifestyle when surrounded by yatithaam, “friends and relatives in dharma,” or those who are on the same life path. The Buddha actually emphasized the value of good (spiritual) friends (kalyana mitta) as a precursor to the Eightfold Path, embodying both exemplary practice and encouragement. While ordinary Thais might question or even ridicule Asoke practices such as abstaining from meat or going shoeless, members of the Asoke community backed each other in word and deed. 

I’d like to share this touching story told to me by Tangbun (the serious mother of three who chastised Jantima for taking the “intensive human development” weekend too lightly) to emphasize how powerful a positive circle of friends can be: 

Before I came—actually, I’ll explain from when I was born. I had a heart that said, “I do not like action that is violent, I don’t like killing animals, I don’t like oppressing, I don’t like exploiting.” So I thought, eh, what should I do? I felt, if I’m the only one that thinks like this, I am crazy. . . . It made me not dare to talk to anyone. My heart looked deep, but there was no answer. There is no society that would have people with such morality. . . .  

So it ended there and I just lived on. . . . My mother wanted me to marry, so I married and I . . . started to live according to what I had valued. But deep in my heart, it still wasn’t right. . . . I didn’t have friends—every way I looked, they did not think the same as me. 

Just then, in the year 1993, I passed the way here, to Srisa Asoke. . . . So we came to see, and oh! . . . Oh, this society, this is the society I dreamed about! Here it is, truly. I quickly returned home and told my husband about it. “I’m going to live there—what are you going to do? Will you go?” 

Tangbun’s husband was not ready for such a drastic lifestyle change, so Tangbun took the children to Srisa Asoke on her own. What Tangbun found there was not just the positive influence of others leading the life she valued, but a community where she finally felt like she belonged. 

Lesson: Maintain a social network that helps all feel good and be better, together.

Social interaction is so important to our wellbeing that Dr. Martin Seligman, founder of positive psychology, recently revamped the field’s foundational theory to include it as one of five necessary elements for human flourishing (what Seligman calls the ultimate state of wellbeing). In fact, in Flourish, Seligman quotes a fellow founder to underscore the significance of positive relationships: “When asked what, in two words or fewer, positive psychology is about, Christopher Peterson…replied, ‘Other people.’” (p. 20) While we may pursue relationships as a means to many ends, such as career advancement, Seligman stresses that we also seek out social interaction for its own sake—its intrinsic value, which establishes positive social relationships as an element of wellbeing distinct from others. 

Back in 2002, Seligman and another prominent positive psychologist, Ed Diener conducted a study to demonstrate just how important social relationships are. Specifically, they found that the most salient characteristics of university students who showed the fewest signs of depression were their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them. What’s more, Dierner and his father Robert Biswas-Diener note that happiness and social interaction feed each other. Their research shows that while positive social interactions make people happier, happiness makes people more social, creating an upward spiral of good feeling.

That’s not to say that all social interactions are good. The people we interact with (by choice or circumstance) can affect us in myriad ways. According to Tom Rath and Jim Harter, authors of Gallup’s comprehensive international wellbeing report, emotions spread quickly from one person to another—we tend to “synchronize our moods with the people around us.” So it pays to pay attention to how others’ moods will likely influence us and try to steer clear of energy vampires.

While the way we feel is certainly important, what’s perhaps even more significant for our wellbeing is the way our social relationships can influence the way we live. The lead researcher of a Harvard happiness study, Nicholas Christakis, also explored how our social connections influence our habits and behaviors. Take smoking, for instance: a person is 61% more likely to smoke if s/he has a direct connection with a smoker, and if a friend of a friend smokes, the likelihood is 29%. Conversely, as smoking becomes less acceptable in one social circle, the bias against smoking quickly spreads to others. 

Extensive research has also indicated peer influence on adolescents’ behaviors, particularly when it comes to risky ones. This seems like common sense—anyone who has been a teenager knows there are some friends who dare us to jump off a roof and others who say that’s a bad idea; some who encourage us to cheat on a test because “everyone does it” and others who invite us over to study. Teens with good judgment (or their parents) will always choose the latter. The same principle applies to positive behaviors and habits that relate most closely to the core values by which we’d like to live our lives. Which friends will encourage us in the right direction?

This choice of who to interact with is a conscious one, but our drive to associate in groups operates at a more instinctual level. Evolutionary biologist Edward O. Wilson, premier expert on ants and author of Social Conquest of the Earth, argues that humans are the dominant species on Earth now precisely because we are inherently social. He compares humans to eusocial species that dominated the Earth prior to the emergence of humans, such as ants and bees, to show that group work is what makes social species successful. In fact, Wilson professes that being social is the highest form of adaptation—our “helper” genes override self-serving instincts to preserve the survival of species; thus, the group is the primary unit of natural selection rather than the individual.  Even Charles Darwin wrote about how “social instincts” figured into the survival of the fittest, meaning not the strongest, but the most adaptive.

To Wilson, group formation is a fundamental human trait, yet his theory is limited in its explanatory power. In his structural-functional or instrumental interpretation, he doesn’t speak to the emotional component of human connection (Wilson is an expert in ants, after all). As an anthropologist—someone who studies what it means to be human in diverse contexts—I know that the drive to identify with or belong to a group is elemental. For our early ancestors, “tribe” was the primary unit of organization. In contemporary times, common group-identity associations include family, nationality/ethnicity, profession, sports/hobbies, and lifestyle choices, among others. An urgent caveat: drawing lines between what sociologists call “in-group” and “out-group” has resulted in the darkest chapters of human history: the Holocaust, apartheid, the Rwandan genocide. But the opposite is also true. Identifying with a group that exhibits pro-social behavior (actions meant to help others) can have the net positive effect we’re looking for:  a wellbeing boost for ourselves, other people, and the planet. 

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