Meaningful Connections

Community Matters by Nicky Morgan

Whenever I come to write a blog there’s always a funny circumstance that occurs which helps to get my story started. Today it’s been WIFI, or as it turns out, a lack of WIFI.

Today I’ve been working from home – something I tend to do a couple of times a week – I’ve been immersed in proposal writing and ticking off the to do list. I live alone and pet free so often my (blooming) loyal house plant is all the company that I have for the best part of a day. Unless, as it so happened today, my WIFI comes crashing down. Today I’ve been forced out of the human-free enclosure of my working home environment and thrust into my local coffee shop – (shout out to Georgia’s Kitchen on Hampton Hill High Street).

Whilst my house plant is indulging in some quiet time, I’ve had my mind pleasantly opened to the benefits of planting myself into a community that’s filled with eye contact, smiles, voices and the general comforting hum of human energy around me.

And if the studies are anything to go by, I’d be wise to start thinking about hanging out in Georgia’s Kitchen more often…

Community, the studies tell us, really does matter. According to research by Vivek H. Murthy, former Surgeon General of the United States, isolation and loneliness pose a greater threat to our health than obesity, and their life shortening effects are comparable to smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness is now being cited as one of the most urgent health issues of our time with the World Health Organisation listing “social support networks” as a determinant of health.

Sobering statistics show us the extent of the loneliness issue – with over 9 million people in the UK saying they are always or often lonely, (with two thirds feeling uncomfortable admitting it), according to a 2016 study by the British Red Cross and Co-op. Perhaps it’s little wonder why, then, in 2018 the UK government appointed a Minister of Loneliness.

When you consider how we have evolved as a species it is easy to understand how our basic needs are not being met in our ever-disconnected world. Our ancestors were really good at evolving into a tribe. If you were cut off from that tribe your body would go into the “fight or flight” state – getting ready to protect it against attack. On a physiological level, disconnection, “loneliness”, put the body into a state of anxiety – the right state to protect it and push it back towards the pack.

So for our ancestors, “loneliness” was a way of getting the body ready to return to the tribe. If you found yourself feeling “lonely” you’d make every effort to find your way back to your community – a bit like if you found yourself feeling “hungry” you’d make every effort to find yourself food. These days, if we find ourselves feeling lonely or isolated our body might still go into that fight or flight state… and remain chronically there if we don’t make every effort to find our way back to our “tribe”.

Physician and author Dr Gabor Mate talks of modern society being like plucking an animal out of the wild and putting it into a zoo. We were designed to be hunter gatherers, part of communities that knew each other and worked together. The world we now find ourselves in means we’ve often moved completely away from our blood relatives, away from our natural habitats and into artificial environments surrounded by strangers (real and/or virtual).  

Our society and lifestyles have evolved in a way that now sets us up for independent living and disconnection. Technology – for all of its benefits – is also isolating us from each other. We email the colleague sat opposite us, we “talk” to our “friends” through apps and screens, we order online instead of visiting our local shop keepers. We write blogs and share our opinions on the www. instead of having meaningful conversations with real humans in our local community spaces (the irony is not lost on me!!).

For me personally, this has been a very hard topic to explore. Whilst I feel blessed to be surrounded by wonderful and close-by family, friends and colleagues – I do live, and frequently work, alone. I’m no stranger to the feeling of loneliness nor to its partners in crime including anxiety and low moods. But knowing I’m not alone – both literally and metaphorically – has been a great starting point for my following tips on how to keep truly connected in spite of the fractured world we increasingly find ourselves within.

  1. Remember – even though there are times when you feel like you might be – you are not alone. There are 7.5 billion people on the planet – be curious about the ones you come into contact with.
  2. Try smiling at one of the 7.5 billion. Smiling at someone has been shown to release Oxytocin the “love” hormone in both yours and the other person’s brain. And much more than that, science has proven that social exchanges change the neurotransmitter and circuit activity in your brain which decreases stress, anxiety and depressive symptoms and ups calm and happy feelings.
  3. So, if you possibly can – give yourself a daily dose of human contact and know that along with oxytocin, the pharmacist in your brain will be rewarding you with other “happy hormones” including dopamine, serotonin and endorphins.
  4. Embrace random acts of kindness. It’s well known that doing something nice for someone else will in turn have a positive impact on your own wellbeing. A RAOK can release neurochemicals resulting in the “helper’s high”, strengthen bonds, enhance physical and mental health and even reduce pain. Being nice is good for your health and that of others!
  5. The workplace can be a great place to build connections and a community. Lunch clubs, run clubs, social clubs, simply making a cup of tea for a colleague. Businesses – you can play a key role in helping to keep modern day tribes alive and thriving – please make this a priority. Happy people and a strong working community is going to be nothing but good for the bottom line.
  6. Be-mail. Do you really need to send that email or can you instead have a conversation in person? Try replacing one email per day that you were going to send with a face to face conversation (or phone call).
  7. Find your tribe. What is it that makes your eyes shine and your belly fill with fire? Do more of the stuff – be it art or singing or running or building model aeroplanes – whatever it is that you feel passionate about, do more of it – and you will automatically find your tribe.

Once upon a time it was a necessity of our species to be part of a community in order to survive. The world around us is changing at an exponential rate – but that shouldn’t come at the expense of our basic human instincts.

Community matters. From this day forwards Georgia’s Kitchen in Hampton Hill can expect to see a lot more of me. Let me know if you’re close-by and fancy a coffee some time 😊.