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Soulful Sundays: The Social Ape

"One finger cannot lift a pebble." -Hopi Proverb

What do you think is the most important determiner of a healthy, fulfilling, and long life? Is it superior genetics, a balanced diet, adequate exercise, or restful sleep? Or is it something else? Again and again, psychological and anthropological studies are pointing to a supportive community as the single most influential factor in the quality of one's life. Even if food, exercise, and sleep are inadequate, good human relationships can miraculously level the balance.

A large portion of the modern research involving longevity is summarized in Dan Buettner's book, The Blue Zones, which looks at why certain populations around the world tend to have members that live consistently into their 100s. Buettner found several key similarities among these groups, but he emphasizes their close community interdependence as significantly more impactful and causative than any of the others. This is corroborated by other longitudinal studies looking at immigrant communities in the United States. Despite having poor quality food and oppressively hard working conditions, these communities avoided any deleterious health outcomes so long as the family structures stayed intact. As soon as the 3rd and 4th generations began moving away from the home towns, their citizens' health dropped precipitously.

Humans are the most social of the great apes. Just how social are we? Evolutionarily, our brain has been set up to prioritize the collection and interpretation of interpersonal dynamics. This is one of its most important functions and is the reason why humans rose to the level of dominance that we enjoy today--our ability to cooperate. We are constantly processing how the inputs from our environment and our own outputs are going to affect the greater social hierarchy. Most of this computing is happening at an unconscious level, which comes to the surface in our various feelings or intuitions around events and people. If something feels fair or safe, then typically it is reinforcing the group dynamics, and conversely, if something feels unbalanced or unsafe, then it is destabilizing to the group. This makes sense. We move towards the emotional states and relationships that make us feel good, and we move away from the ones that don't.

But what happens when we lose connection to other human adults? (I use adults here because children must form their picture of the social landscape by observing and integrating with the existing adult structures. In fact, they require said structure for their own mental health.) What happens is that we drift towards mental illness. When we are not held accountable by a group of our peers, we either become tyrannical or we become impotent. It's one or the other. The human psyche was not meant to live in isolation. It is too fragile and prone to extremism. In an attempt to reestablish the lost hierarchy that happens naturally in community, people in isolation supplant their own ideology for the absolute truth. After all, there is no rational being to contradict them.

Historically, such isolation would extinguish itself. People who live alone typically don't reproduce very successfully. But, in today's environment of pseudo-isolation, bastions of dysfunction are able to survive. The internet (and other modern media) has created the illusion of community without its positive benefits of accountability and substance. You can literally find a support group for any belief, no matter how appalling it is, and convince yourself that you are in the right. And when you change your mind you can just switch your support group. What's lacking is a face-to-face structure of shared work and interdependence. But there is hope.

Healing lies in understanding the benefits and limits of a community. A community should (ironically) help us the be the best individuals possible. It should foster in us a desire to uphold our responsibilities and our humility, and give us a solid foundation to reach for our potential. What the community can't do is guarantee that we will always be agreed with. Compromise is one of the hallmarks of a healthy community. There should be a dynamic of both give and take if a group is to survive. If you are part of a community that doesn't push back on some of your idiosyncrasies, I would seriously think twice about your situation. Support and challenge are both necessary for long-term health and growth. Seek them out.

This journey towards building stronger human bonds does not need to be complex. If you haven't talked to your nuclear family in over two weeks, simply pick up a phone. Write an email or text message to your once-close friends who you have lost track of. They will most likely be thrilled that you reached out, and you all can pick up right where you left off. Look into joining a local charity organization, going to a local market and buying from local vendors, having your neighbors over for dinner once a month, or going to the park and playing ball with strangers. Most people are social when allowed the opportunity, some are just more shy than others. Often times if we make the first move, then the rest flows naturally and beautifully.

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