Human beings have an infinite capacity to be kind, generous and supportive of one another. When that happens, I call it the huddle effect. It often occurs when people need support during a crisis. Suddenly, we realize how much we need each other.
Recently, my neighborhood experienced a massive blackout—our public utility shut off all electricity for a week to lessen the potential for fire outbreaks during California’s drought season. When that happened, my next-door neighbors turned on the only generator in the neighborhood and hosted a big dinner party. Everyone came together to break bread and enjoy each other’s company. We laughed and caught up on our lives, forgetting about the blackout, joking about the minor inconveniences of no electricity, and feeling the support of our little village. We set aside political and other differences; we found comfort and support in each other’s company.
Human beings need each other. We’re pack animals who thrive in close contact with others. If you exist only for yourself, you risk losing out on one of the most meaningful aspects of the human experience—belonging. Being part of something larger than yourself is meaningful, fulfilling, and rewarding. It’s a primary reason that people have children, impactful careers and/or an abiding faith in a higher power.
The extended village provides the familial and societal context for your core belief systems. A loving, healthy village fosters life-affirming values. Kindness, consideration, and a healthy respect for others (both inside and outside the group) are common hallmarks of a healthy ecosystem within a group. Conversely, a village where the members have suffered prolonged deprivation, separation or mistreatment can become a breeding ground for fear and mistrust.
When we find ourselves struggling with the effects of collective trauma—whether it’s hardship that we’ve experienced firsthand, or something that’s been passed through the generations—a healthy support system is one of our front-line defenses. Creating and sustaining a healthy system allows us to build the psychological bridge from fear to love.
Not only do human beings need each other for mental and emotional sustenance, but also our nervous systems depend on each other for safety and connection. When you’re separated from your village, when you’re lonely or isolated, there’s a dramatic impact on your physical and emotional health. This isolation severely compromises your well-being. That’s why people seek companionship and support from others.
The benefits of social engagement are astounding. It simply makes people healthier. Being an integral part of a social, support system reduces the effect of chronic stress on your body dramatically, because being in community reduces the production of the hormone cortisol— the stress hormone. Belonging reduces your risk of heart disease and cancer, while increasing your immune system’s resilience. Your brain works better because you’re not stuck in survival mode. When you’re part of a healthy community, you can feel safe again. Functioning from the higher-order, adult brain increases the capacity to engage in meaningful conversations with others, to listen without judgment, to seek understanding and solidarity in service to the greater good.
It becomes much easier to learn from others when you can abandon defensiveness and negative social conditioning. Proceeding in any interaction with curiosity and an open heart will create the space to learn from other people’s experiences without feeling overwhelmed or threatened. Social support contributes to your growth and evolution and better enables you to thrive in your relationships.
In her book, The Village Effect, Susan Pinker refers to a 2010 study that examined close to 150 longitudinal studies about relationships and mortality. The researchers re-examined the journals of more than 300,000 study participants over the course of more than seven years. They reviewed this material and concluded that people who were fully integrated and connected to their communities had half the risk of dying compared to those who lived solitary lives, during that seven-year study. Proximity—meaning regular, face-to-face contact with others—is what helps people thrive and keeps them from feeling lonely.
Longevity is largely determined by your interactions with people who are in closest proximity to you. Your next-door neighbor, the people in your office, the barista you order coffee from in the mornings—the people you’re in communication with on a regular basis—may be more necessary than even your relatives. You have a higher chance of longevity if you’re in daily contact with people in your extended circle. Pinker argues convincingly that, “face-to-face contact is crucial for learning, happiness, resilience and longevity.” Moreover, she states that, “Social isolation is the public health risk of our time.”
According to the US National Library of Medicine, loneliness is a very common condition affecting up to 80% of people under eighteen years old and 40% of people over sixty-five. People can feel lonely or isolated following bereavement or after relocating to a new city. Researchers call that reactive loneliness. However, as high as 15-30% of the population experience chronic loneliness, which can have serious consequences for our mental, emotional, and physical health.
Don’t wait for a crisis—find time to get support from your neighbors, support your village and increase your longevity!
Excerpted from The Paper Tiger Syndrome: How to Liberate Yourself from the Illusion of Fear by Rebecca Ward. © 2022 by Rebecca Ward.
Rebecca A. Ward is the author of The Paper Tiger Syndrome: How to Liberate Yourself from the Illusion of Fear. A Licensed Marriage & Family Therapist, she specializes in shock and developmental trauma, stress reduction, and the psychological symptoms associated with chronic illness. Her work is informed by somatic-based practices, including as a Somatic Experiencing® Practitioner (SEP). For more information, please visit https://irisinstitute