Thoughts / Mental Health Month 2017

Did you hear about ...?

Us humans talk an awful lot. We are the only species on the planet that exchanges information predominantly through speech. Some of our friends, like the dolphins or the primates, have their own languages, but they don’t rely on verbal communication like we do. Almost to the exclusion of other channels like us humans do.

And what is it we’re talking about. According to the research, most of us are just mostly talking about other people. In fact, a whopping two-thirds of our conversation consists of gossip. Of course, we discuss other incredibly important things like the meaning of life, world events, the performance of the Wallabies on the weekend and how funny Gogglebox was last week, but overwhelmingly it appears we talk about the affairs of others.

Before some of you take the moral high ground and plead that you are way too intelligent, sensible and way too compassionate for gossip, it might be worthwhile thinking a bit further on the topic.

The term “gossip” tends to have a negative connotation. It can be defined as ‘casual or unconstrained conversation or reports about other people, typically involving details which are not confirmed as true’.

Unsurprisingly, we do not like when they find that they are being gossiped about, and as such there is a moral stigma attached to the people who are gossiping too much. However, more often than not, the gossips are not entirely negative — they tend to be a mixture of both positive and negative things. We provide other people with our assessment of another person’s reputation as we see it, typically involving both the person’s strengths and weaknesses, and with only limited evidence to substantiate either. These assessments might still be viewed unfavourably by the subjects of gossips, even when the assessment is predominantly positive. Nonetheless, we accept positive assessments with pleasure, but tend to be annoyed by criticism.

And how many of us can actually walk away from a juicy story about one of our acquaintances and keep it to ourselves? It’s so very tough! Surely, each of us has had firsthand experience with the difficulty of keeping spectacular news about someone else a secret.

When we disparage gossip as a character flaw of those shallower than ourselves, we overlook the fact that it’s an essential part of what makes the social world tick. Unfortunately, the nasty side of gossip overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions.

In fact, gossip can actually be thought of not as a character flaw, but as a highly evolved social skill. Those who can’t do it well often have difficulty maintaining relationships, and can find themselves on the outside looking in.

As social creatures, we’re made to gossip

Like it or not, we are the descendants of busybodies. Evolutionary psychologists believe that our preoccupation with the lives of others is a by-product of a prehistoric brain.

According to scientists, because our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups, they knew one another intimately. In order to ward off enemies and survive in their harsh natural environment, our ancestors needed to cooperate with in-group members. But they also recognized that these same in-group members were their main competitors for mates and limited resources.

Living under such conditions, our ancestors faced a number of adaptive social problems: who’s reliable and trustworthy? Who’s a cheater? Who would make the best mate? How can friendships, alliances and family obligations be balanced?

In this sort of environment, an intense interest in the private dealings of other people would have certainly been handy – and strongly favoured by natural selection. People who were the best at harnessing their social intelligence to interpret, predict – and influence – the behaviour of others became more successful than those who were not.

And then these genes of those individuals were passed along from one generation to the next.

Avoiding gossip: a one-way ticket to no friends

Anthropologists believe that throughout human history, gossip has been a way for us to bond with others—and sometimes a tool to isolate those who aren’t supporting the group.

Some argue that, at least in the workplace, gossip serves a useful purpose. In the workplace, studies have shown that harmless gossiping with one’s colleagues can build group cohesiveness and boost morale.

Gossip also helps to socialize newcomers into groups by resolving ambiguity about group norms and values. In other words, listening to the judgments that people make about the behaviour of others helps the newbie figure out what’s acceptable and what isn’t. Northeastern University professor Dr. Jack Levin, says that gossip can be good for our emotional health. (He makes an exception for the weapons-grade rumour-mongering that destroys reputations.) In general, he believes, gossip is a force that ties together social and business networks. Others identify it as a way to see behind the curtain of employer pronouncements.

Today, good gossipers are influential and popular members of their social groups.

Sharing secrets is one way people bond, and sharing gossip with another person is a sign of deep trust: you’re signalling that you believe that the person will not use this sensitive information against you.

Therefore, someone skilful at gossip will have a good rapport with a large network of people. At the same time, they’ll be discreetly knowledgeable about what’s going on throughout the group.

On the other hand, someone who is not part of, say, the office gossip network is an outsider – someone neither trusted nor accepted by the group. Presenting yourself as a self-righteous soul who refuses to participate in gossip will ultimately end up being nothing more than a ticket to social isolation.

Fear of whispers keeps us in check

On the flip side, the awareness that others are likely talking about us can keep us in line.

Among a group of friends or colleagues, the threat of becoming the target of gossip can actually be a positive force: it can deter “free-riders” and cheaters who might be tempted to slack off or take advantage of others.

Biologist Robert Trivers has discussed the evolutionary importance of detecting gross cheaters (those who fail to reciprocate altruistic acts) and subtle cheaters (those who reciprocate but give much less than they get). Gossip can actually shame these ‘free riders’, reining them in.

Studies of California cattle ranchers, Maine lobster fishers and college rowing teams confirm that gossip is used in a variety of settings to hold individuals accountable. In each of these groups, individuals who violated expectations about sharing resources or meeting responsibilities became targets of gossip and ostracism. This, in turn, pressured them to become better members of the group.

For example, lobstermen who didn’t respect well-established group norms about when and how lobsters could be harvested were quickly exposed by their colleagues. Their fellow lobstermen temporarily shunned them and, for a while, refused to work with them.

Celebrity gossip actually helps us in myriad ways!

Firstly, it appears our brain can't help not getting excited by the headlines on the covers on the trashy magazines.

The part of the brain responsible for our social behavior is the prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is involved in social cognition and executive control. Social cognition refers to our ability to regulate our behavior and actions based on the real or assumed presence of other people. This is a trait that makes some want to conform to the norms and rules of society in which we live. Executive control channels our actual behavior and thoughts in the desirable direction. Studies with the use of functional MRI brain scans revealed the patterns of activation in the prefrontal cortex in response to positive and negative gossip about themselves, their best friends, and celebrities. A very interesting and revealing picture has emerged from these studies.

Two separate areas of the prefrontal cortex get activated in response to positive and negative gossip: positive gossip activates the orbital prefrontal cortex region, while negative gossip activates the superior medial prefrontal cortex. The intensity of responses was, however, very different depending on whether the gossip was about the subject of study or other people. Substantial activation of the superior medial prefrontal cortex was observed in both cases, regardless of the subject of the negative gossip. The orbital prefrontal cortex region was highly activated by positive gossip about the subjects themselves. However, this response was rather muted when the subjects listened to positive gossip about their friends or celebrities.

This study revealed volumes about the internal processes in our brain. It is quite clear that our ego makes us very attentive to any kind of information about ourselves passed around by other people. However, when it comes to information about others, we are biased to notice and register negative information preferentially. No wonder that the stories of scandals involving celebrities attract more attention than anything good these people do! Our own neuroanatomy makes celebrity magazines filled with the stories of scandals, cheating, and divorces, much more popular that magazines about happy family life.

There also could be a difference between strategy learning gossip and reputation gossip. A distinction noted by Belgian psychologist, Charlotte de Backer.

When gossip is about a particular individual, we’re usually interested in it only if we know that person. However, some gossip is interesting no matter whom it’s about. This sort of gossip can involve stories about life-or-death situations or remarkable feats. We pay attention to them because we may be able to learn strategies that we can apply to our own lives.

Indeed, de Backer discovered that our interest in celebrities may feed off of this thirst for learning life strategies. For better or for worse, we look to celebrities in the same way that our ancestors looked to role models within their tribes for guidance.

The bottom line is that we may need to rethink the role of gossip in everyday life; there’s no need to shy away from it or to be ashamed of it. Gossiping might just be a reflection of the curiosity that all of us humans possess.

If we gossip successfully and without intending harm on another, gossiping can assist in us being a good team player and sharing key information with others in ways that won’t be perceived as self-serving. It’s about knowing when it’s appropriate to talk, and when it’s probably best to keep your mouth shut.

It’s a fact of life: Where there are groups, there will be gossip. It’s how we’re wired. But like all things – there’s some skill to it.  

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What does our narcissism mean for connection?

It has been argued that the modern world we are living in, makes social connection difficult, just by the nature of the way it is. And it doesn't help that we might all be turning into narcissists. Cue, horror and shock!

Over the past few decades we may have witnessed a societal shift from a commitment to the collective to a focus on the individual or the self. We witnessed the self-esteem movement – which had much value – but determined that self-esteem was the key to success in life. Educators and parents started telling their children how special and unique they are to make them feel more confident. Parents and educators tried to “confer” self-esteem upon their children, rather than letting them achieve it through hard work.

The rise of individualism (with its focus on the self and inner feelings) and decline in social norms that accompanied the modernisation of society also meant that the community and the family were no longer able to provide the same support for individuals as they once did. And as I’ve repeatedly pointed out (like here and here and here), research has shown that being embedded in social networks – for example, being actively engaged in your community and connected with friends and family – has major health benefits.

As we have watched our social fabric reduce, it's possible that it's just harder now for each of us to meet the basic need for meaningful connection. The question has shifted from what is best for other people and the family to what is best for me. The modernisation of society can be seen to prize fame, wealth, celebrity above all else. All this, combined with the breakdown in social ties has created an individual self, empty of social meaning. 

And then to complicate things further, we have had the rise of technology and the development of social networking, changing the way in which we spend our free time and communicate. Today, there are nearly 936 million active Facebook users each day worldwide. More than 80 million photographs uploaded to Instagram every day, more than 3.5 billion ‘likes’ every day, and some 1.4 billion people - 20% of the world’s population - publishing details of their lives on Facebook. Is social media turning a relatively modest species into a pack of publicity-hungry narcissists? Or were we already inherently self-absorbed? Internet addiction is a new area of study in mental health and recent cross-sectional research shows that addiction to Facebook is strongly linked to narcissistic behaviour and low self-esteem.

So, what exactly is narcissism?

For those of us, who are not totes up with our Greek mythology, let’s go back to where the word descends. Narcissus was a hunter from central Greece, the son of the river god Cephissus and the nymph Liriope. He had long flowing locks, deep blue eyes, unblemished skin and full enchanting lips. One day, as he walked past a quiet pool of water, he caught sight of his own reflection, failed to recognise himself and was entranced with the image. He had never seen anyone quite so enchanting – and could not stop falling profoundly in love with himself, the most admirable and bewitching being he had ever spotted.

Apparently this behaviour was so incredibly bizarre that it’s become both one f the great and tempting insults of our age and a diagnosable personality disorder in the DSM (the psychiatric bible).

Narcissism lies on a continuum from healthy to pathological. Healthy narcissism is part of normal human functioning. It can represent healthy self-love, self-compassion and confidence that is based on real achievement, the ability to overcome setbacks and derive the support needed from social ties.

But narcissism becomes a problem when the individual becomes preoccupied with the self, needing excessive admiration and approval from others, while showing disregard for other people’s sensitivities. If the a person with unhealthy narcissism does not receive the attention desired, then really big problems can develop.

People with unhealthy levels of narcissism often portray an image of grandiosity or overconfidence to the world, but this is only to cover up deep feelings of insecurity and a fragile self-esteem that is easily bruised by the slightest criticism. Because of these traits, they might find themselves in shallow relationships that only serve to satisfy their constant need for attention. When narcissism is unhealthy it means that we can struggle to relate because it inhabits our ability to empathise with others. Uh oh. 

When narcissistic traits become so pronounced that they lead to impairment this can indicate the presence of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD).

According to the DSM-5, individuals with NPD have most or all of the following symptoms, typically without commensurate qualities or accomplishments:

  • Grandiosity with expectations of superior treatment from others
  • Fixated on fantasies of power, success, intelligence, attractiveness, etc.
  • Self-perception of being unique, superior and associated with high-status people and institutions
  • Needing constant admiration from others
  • Sense of entitlement to special treatment and to obedience from others
  • Exploitative of others to achieve personal gain
  • Unwilling to empathize with others' feelings, wishes, or needs
  • Intensely envious of others and the belief that others are equally envious of them
  • Pompous and arrogant demeanor

Like all the personality disorders, it would not be that difficult for most of us to meet some of these criteria at some points in our lives. That’s part of being human. It is however, difficult, to meet criteria for this personality disorder over a long period of time. True Narcissistic Personality Disorder symptoms are pervasive, apparent in various situations, and rigid, remaining consistent over time. The symptoms must be severe enough that they significantly impair the individual's ability to develop meaningful relationships with others. Symptoms also generally impair an individual's ability to function at work, school, or in other important settings.

In the clinical setting, about 2% to 16% of people suffer from this disorder, while in the general population, less than 1% of people are affected. And whilst the disorder is much more common in men than women, we don’t know much else about it. Jose Romero-Urcelay, a forensic psychiatrist and the director of therapies at the Dangerous and Severe Personality Disorders unit at Broadmoor, West London Mental Health Trust, says:

“No one knows where it comes from, but it tends to present in the patient’s early twenties. There is no genetic predisposition to the disorder, nor are specific types of people more susceptible than others. It isn’t triggered by illness, injury or substance abuse. Some suspect it may be caused by an excess of love in infancy; others by childhood abuse or emotional trauma. Some point to a breakdown in the infant’s relationship with his or her mother.” 

It is certainly possible that NPD - or traits of narcissism - has the potential to thrive in our modern western societies. Increased materialism, the decline of community life and a fascination with image afford perfect conditions for its growth.

So what can we do about all this and how can we lead a happy and purposeful life? One of the largest studies on happiness was conducted by a group of Harvard researchers who followed a large cohort of people over a period of 75 years. What they discovered – unsurprisingly – was that fame and money were not the secrets to happiness. Rather, the most important thing in life and the greatest predictor of satisfaction was having strong and supportive relationships – that “the journey from immaturity to maturity is a sort of movement from narcissism to connection”.

So maybe it’s time to take a break from that smartphone, shut off your computer and meet up with a friend or two. Maybe, just maybe, you might feel a bit of collective joy, love and excitement. Sometimes it can be nice to experience these things with others. 

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Connecting to our phone

I’m pretty certain this will not be the first time you have heard or thought this, but quite possibly our biggest barrier to good social connection right now is our reliance on our phone.

The majority of us really, myself included, really love our phones.

It’s not a difficult stretch to say that most of us are dependent or ‘addicted’ to our smart device. We might not be injecting illegal substances or drowning ourselves in alcohol, but we are almost all dependent on this object in one way or another. ‘Addiction’ is (in essence) dependence on something that keeps our emotions at bay: it is (more broadly) any and every routine we deploy to avoid a fair and frank encounter with our own minds.

We use our phone a lot, yes. And we use them for a lot of things. Often we may find ourselves incapable of sitting alone in a room with our own thoughts floating freely in our own heads, daring to wander into the past and the future, allowing ourselves to feel pain, desire, regret and excitement. The phone offers us reprieve. Games, online shopping, social media. Distraction that fits neatly in the palm of our hand.

We are dependent on our phones not because we rely on them, but to the extent that we might use them as a coping mechanism for self-avoidance. They do not intent to hurt us. And they may not. But they probably will. They are so incredibly good at taking us away from ourselves. If there’s anywhere a lot of us don’t want to be, it’s with ourselves. And unless we can connect with ourselves and our own emotions for what they are, we’re really going to struggle truly connecting with others.

Secondly, the mere presence of a device can affect how we are relating to others. We don’t even need to be paying it any attention.

Przybylski and Weinstein asked pairs of strangers to discuss a moderately intimate topic (an interesting event that had occurred to them within the last month) for 10 minutes.  The strangers left their own belongings in a waiting area and proceeded to a private booth.  Within the booth, they found two chairs facing each other and, a few feet away, out of their direct line of vision, there was a desk that held a book and one other item.  Unbeknownst to the pair, the key difference in their interactions would be the second item on the desk.  Some pairs engaged in their discussion with a nondescript cell phone nearby, whereas other pairs conversed while a pocket notebook lay nearby.  After they finished the discussion, each of the strangers completed questionnaires about the relationship quality (connectedness) and feelings of closeness they had experienced.  The pairs who chatted in the presence of the cell phone reported lower relationship quality and less closeness.

Przybylski and Weinstein followed up with a new experiment to see, in which contexts, the presence of a cell phone matters the most.  This time, each pair of strangers was assigned a casual topic (their thoughts and feelings about plastic trees) or a meaningful topic (the most important events of the past year) to discuss — again, either with a cell phone or a notebook nearby.  After their 10-minute discussion, the strangers answered questions about relationship quality, their feelings of trust, and the empathy they had felt from their discussion partners.

The presence of the cell phone had no effect on relationship quality, trust, and empathy, but only if the pair discussed the casual topic.  In contrast, there were significant differences if the topic was meaningful. The pairs who conversed with a cell phone in the vicinity reported that their relationship quality was worse.  The pairs also reported feeling less trust and thought that their partners showed less empathy if there was a cell phone present.

Thus, interacting in a neutral environment, without a cell phone nearby, seems to help foster closeness, connectedness, interpersonal trust, and perceptions of empathy — the building-blocks of relationships. Past studies have suggested that because of the many social, instrumental, and entertainment options phones afford us, they often divert our attention from our current environment, whether we are speeding down a highway or sitting through a meeting.  The new research suggests that cell phones may serve as a reminder of the wider network to which we could connect, inhibiting our ability to connect with the people right next to us.  Cell phone usage may even reduce our social consciousness.

In principle, we want to have good relationships and social connections. We love family life and are very keen on and devoted to relationships. But, obviously, the reality is tricky. The wonderful things are mixed up with a lot that is awkward and frustrating. Our partner isn’t quite as sympathetic as we’d ideally like; our family is more conflicted and challenging than feels fair or reasonable.

Our phone, on the other hand, is docile, responsive to our touch, always ready to spring to life and willing to do whatever we want. Its malleability provides the perfect excuse for disengagement from the trickier aspects of other people. It’s almost not that rude to give it a quick check – just possibly we might actually need to keep track of how a news story is unfolding; a friend in another country may have just had a baby or someone we vaguely know might have bought a new pair of shoes in the last few minutes. It’s so tempting to press the screen when one’s partner launches into an account of their day or their play-by-play of today’s golf results. The details of their existence and their hopes for our shared domestic life cannot compete with how much the signed John Lennon print is going to go for on ebay or how many likes our last Instagram post received. Only the former will, in the long-run, be a lot more important – as we know.

Perhaps, the ongoing questions need to be – who am I in a relationship with right now? Who should I be connecting with? Is it myself? The person seated opposite me? Or is it my phone?

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Challenges for Connections

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Taking each other seriously

All of these blogs thus far are nice and all. Us humans are wired for social connection. Social connection is really good for us. Both physically and psychologically. Blah blah blah. But what is good social connection? What does it look like? What does it feel like? How do we know when we’re getting it? How do we get it? How do we give it to others?

There’s this friend of a friend who I occasionally see at the odd event or gathering or dinner. For ages I’ve been completely perplexed by this dude. My friends seem to really enjoy his company and they describe him as funny and nice and intelligent. But all of this is lost on me. Initially I just assumed he must think I am an idiot. Obvs. Over the course of a number of years, I have never been able to connect with him. And now I am going to put all the blame onto him. Obvs.

Firstly, he has a tendency to speak really quietly out of the side of his mouth to the person/s directly to the side of him. This makes any conversation difficult when you sit on the other side of the table. And he mumbles. His eye contact is incredibly poor. Secondly, when I offer something to the conversation, he will never engage in the topic. And often he will immediately change or dismiss the topic. And in all this time, and despite my best efforts to engage him in conversation, he has never once asked me a question. This could be because he thinks I am an idiot. Or his capacity for connection with me is a bit deficient.

Social psychologist, researcher and writer, Hugh Mackay reckons that human behaviours are motivated by ten main desires. When it comes to social connection, there’s one of these that I think is particularly important in determining how we relate to others and how we want others to relate to us – that’s the desire to be taken seriously.

To some degree, all of us want to be taken seriously. We want to be noticed, accepted, appreciated, valued and understood. Perhaps as we get older, we want to make sure we’ll be remembered.

When I engage with the fellow mentioned above do I have the opportunity to feel that I have been taken seriously? Hell no! The truth of the matter is, that I’ve been taken more seriously by puppies than this gentlemen. And as a result, I haven’t yet had a good connection with this guy.

And how do we ensure that we take others seriously? We really only need to do a few simple things.

It’s the desire to be taken seriously that explains why people who listen are the most wonderful people in our society. Is there a better experience than when someone gives you the gift of their undivided attention? It’s not just that they’re listening, it’s the message that they’re taking you seriously enough to listen. And the opposite is true too, when people are looking over your shoulder hoping to find someone more interesting to speak to. Again, listening is just the symptom here. What’s really being said is that this person is not taking me seriously.
And I’m talking about active listening here. Listening to understand. Not, listening to reply.
When we give others our undivided attention, the clear message is – I am taking you seriously as a human being. It’s probably why counselling is generally so effective. The counselling relationship and model, says to the client – This is about you. I am here to listen. I am taking you seriously. And all of us need to know that someone is.
  1. Reduce our need to control.
This is another of our great big desires, but as Hugh Mackay notes, one of the more “troublesome” ones. Us humans really like to control things. But if we really want to connect with something, this desire can get in the way.
Most of us stumble through life hoping to be able to control the uncontrollable, such as the weather and the traffic, and, most especially, each other! It takes us a long time to realise – and then accept – that the only life we can control is our own and, when it comes to weather or traffic or the myriad other external events and circumstances that affect our lives, the only thing we can control is our reaction to those external forces.
When we feel the need to impose our own views and “shoulds” on others, they often start running away from us – either emotionally or physically. We are all individual entities, and if we continue to hope or expect something from each social connection we have we will continue to be disappointed.
  1. Respect each other’s differences.
If we can all acknowledge that we share the same basic desire; to be taken seriously, to be heard and that we matter, what can we do to ensure that our unique views are heard while avoiding as best we can, conflict and opposition?According to Hugh Mackay, it all comes down to the method with which we interact…
“So the way we listen to each other, the way we respect each other’s passions (even if we don’t share them), the way we respond to each other’s needs, the way we make – or don’t make – time for each other… all these things send clear signals about the extent to which we are taking each other seriously”.
All of our views of the world and how we live in it are going to be a bit different. That’s because each of us has had a different life experience, each of us has a different temperament, personality, environment. We’ve all experienced love, support and security in a different way. Our accessibility to education and knowledge is different.
Knowing this and knowing that the basic desire is the same, we can start from a place of compassion and acceptance. When we accept, we judge less. When we judge less the capacity for response and connection is truly open.

So, the desire to be taken seriously, a possible starting point for us to form good social connections. It does have a dark side though. When we feel as though we’re not being taken seriously, we can become incredibly frustrated and cranky.  But maybe it’s possible, if we go into our dealings with others, recognising that they too want the same thing as we do, we end up with interactions filled with patience, a little more kindness and a little more compassion? And listening. I’m a big fan of listening.

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The need to belong - to something.

“Man is by nature a social animal … Anyone who either cannot lead the common life or is so self-sufficient as not to need to, and therefore does not partake of society, is either a beast or a god.” Aristotle

Not heaps has changed since Aristotle was around. Just as us humans have a basic need for food and shelter, we also have a basic need to belong to a group and form relationships.

The desire to be in a loving relationship, to fit in at school, to not be picked last for sporting teams, to join a mother’s group or men’s shed, to avoid rejection and loss, to see your friends do well and be cared for, to share good news with your family, to cheer on your NRL team, and to check in on Facebook—these things motivate an incredibly impressive array of our thoughts, actions, and feelings.

Abraham Maslow suggested that the need to belong was a major source of human motivation. In his hierarchy of human needs, the believed that belongingness was one of the major five - along with physiological needs, safety, self-esteem, and self-actualization. After we meet the needs of physiological and safety, we are then motivated towards the need to belong and to be loved. According to Maslow, if the first two needs are not met, then an individual cannot completely love someone else.

Other theories have also focused on the need to belong as a fundamental psychological motivation. According to Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary, all human beings need a certain minimum quantity of regular, satisfying social interactions. Inability to meet this need can results in loneliness, mental distress, and a strong desire to form new relationships.

Baumeister and Leary argue that much of what human beings do is done in the service of belongingness. They argue that many of the human needs that have been documented, such as the needs for power, intimacy, approval, achievement and affiliation, are all driven by the need to belong. Human culture is compelled and conditioned by pressure to belong and this need to belong and form attachments is universal among us humans.

And this need to belong has its roots in evolution. In order for our ancestors to reproduce and survive it was essential that they establish social bonds. From an evolutionary selection perspective we now possess internal mechanisms that direct us into lasting relationships and social bonds.

One of the great mysteries of evolutionary science is how and why the human brain got to be so large. Brain size generally increases with body size across the animal kingdom. Elephants have huge brains while mice have tiny ones. But humans are the great exception to this rule. Given the size of our bodies, our brains should be much smaller—but they are by far the largest in the animal kingdom relative to our body size. The question is why.

Scientists have debated this question for a long time, but the research of anthropologist Robin Dunbar is fairly conclusive on this point. Dunbar has found that the strongest predictor of a species’ brain size—specifically, the size of its neocortex, the outermost layer—is the size of its social group. It is entirely possible that we have big brains in order to socialise! Scientists think the first hominids with brains as large as ours appeared about 600,000-700,000 years ago in Africa. Known as Homo heidelbergensis, they are believed to be the ancestors of Homo sapiens and the Neanderthals. Revealingly, they appear to be the first hominids to have had division of labour (they worked together to hunt), central campsites, and they may have been the first to bury their dead.

One of the most exciting findings to emerge from neuroscience in recent years underlines the brain’s inherently social nature. When neuroscientists monitor what’s going on in someone’s brain, they are typically interested in what happens in it when people are involved in an active task, like doing a math problem or reaching for a ball. But neuroscientists have looked more closely at what the brain does during non-active moments, when we’re chilling out and the brain is at rest. Every time we are not engaged in an active task—like when we take a break between two math problems—the brain falls into a neural configuration called the “default network.” When you have down time, even if it’s just for a second, this brain system comes on automatically.

What’s remarkable about the default network, according to social psychologist and neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman, is that it looks almost identical to another brain configuration—the one used for social thinking or “making sense of other people and ourselves.” He writes: “The default network directs us to think about other people’s minds—their thoughts, feelings, and goals.” Whenever it has a free moment, the human brain has an automatic reflex to go social. Why would the brain, which forms only 2 percent of our body weight but consumes 20 percent of its energy, use its limited resources on social thinking, rather than conserving its energy by relaxing?”

Evolution only makes bets if there are payoffs—and when it comes to being social, there are many benefits. Having strong social bonds is as good for you as quitting smoking. Connecting with other people, even in the most basic ways, also makes you happier—especially when you know they need your help. One study of adults found that the brain’s reward centre, which turns on when people feel pleasure, was more active when people gave $10 to charity than when they received $10.

On the other side though, our motivation for belongingness can get us into pickles. When we experience interpersonal strife we often contemplate walking away rather than sticking it out, however, finding a relationship with similar depth is not an easy task. If we always end every relationship thinking that we can swap-out the old for a more positive one, we would find ourselves in a constant state of seeking and never experiencing and this would conflict with our fundamental need to belong.

This explains why so many of us are apt to hold on to destructive relationships. The fact that some people display an unwillingness to leave an abusive partner conveys the strength and power of our need to belong. Any threat to social attachments can have the capacity to lead to anxiety, depression, jealousy and loneliness. When we feel anxious at the thought of losing an important relationship, we may feel depressed when the connection ends and then feel lonely because we no longer have the important relationship. One such example of this is the death of a loved one. Some researchers even conceptualise grief not as a reaction to the death, but as breaking the connection with another individual.

And by all means, research shows us that pain caused from social connections is real pain. Research has repeated shown that the feelings of heartbreak can be similar to that of physical pain. This pain is caused by the hormonal triggering of the sympathetic activation activation system (region where flight-or-flight stress takes place) and the parasympathetic nervous system.  To the brain, social pain feels a lot like physical pain—a broken heart can feel like a broken leg. The more rejected the participants report feeling, the more activity there was in the part of the brain that processes the distress of physical pain.

These studies are no doubt provocative and counter-intuitive. A broken leg and a broken heart seem like very different forms of pain. But there are evolutionary reasons why our brains process social pain the way they process physical pain. Pain is a sign that something is wrong. Social pain signals that we are all alone—that we are vulnerable—and need to either form new connections or rekindle old ones to protect ourselves against the many threats that are out there.

What makes me sad though, is that despite our evolutionary, biological and psychological needs for connection and belonging, we seem to be sacrificing our relationships more and more. Across the board, people are increasingly sacrificing their personal relationships for the pursuit of wealth. The American Freshman survey has been tracking the values of college students since the mid-1960s. The survey is a good barometer of social and cultural change and it shows how far we've come in prioritizing material values over social ones. In 1965, college freshman said that “starting a family” and “helping others” were more important life goals than being “very well off financially.” By the eighties, it was the reverse: “helping others” and “starting a family” were less important to college freshman than making a lot of money. In 2012, freshmen prioritizing being “very well-off financially” peaked at 81 percent, the highest that number has been in the survey’s history.

But here’s something ironic. When economists put a price tag on our relationships, we get a concrete sense of just how valuable our social connections are—and how devastating it is when they are broken. If you volunteer at least once a week, the increase to your happiness is like moving from a yearly income of $20,000 to $75,000. If you have a friend that you see on most days, it’s like earning $100,000 more each year. Simply seeing your neighbours on a regular basis gets you $60,000 a year more. On the other hand, when you break a critical social tie—here, in the case of getting divorced—it’s like suffering a $90,000 per year decrease in your income.

So, not only is our need to belong and connect with others a human need, it will make us feel richer. Let's get connected peeps!

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Mental Health Month 2017 - Let's Connect

Happy Mental Health Month our friends!

Yesterday, marked the beginning of the month in which we focus on the psychological wellbeing of ALL of us Australians. And the theme for 2017 is ‘Share the Journey’, highlighting the importance of connecting with others for our physical and psychological health, and survival.

When we feel connected, valued and loved by others it gives us a sense of security, support, purpose and happiness. Close connections and good relationships with others allow us to enjoy the good times in our lives and also help us deal with the hard experiences we face. This is important for all of us. Unfortunately in today’s society, we have many demands on our attention and time, and more people experience loneliness in Australia than ever before. For those experiencing or living with mental illness, loneliness can be far worse as individuals can face social exclusion, stigma and discrimination. As social beings, this can affect all aspects of our wellbeing.

And it’s more than just our feelings of connection and sense of safety and support. Hanging out with those around us is vital for our physical survival. Research has shown that:

  • Social connection is a greater determinant to health than obesity, smoking and high blood pressire.
  • Strong social connection leads to a 50% increased chance of longevity.
  • Social connection strengthens out immune system, helps us recover from disease faster, and may even lengthen our life!
  • People who feel more connected to others have lower rates of anxiety and depression than the general population.

Despite the clear importance for health and survival, sociological research suggests that social connectedness is waning at an alarming rate. A revealing sociological study showed that the modal number of close confidantes (i.e., people with whom one feels comfortable sharing a personal problem) people claimed to have in 1985 was only three. In 2004 it dropped to one, with 25% of of those surveyed saying that they have no one to confide in. This suggests that one in four people that we meet may have no one they call a close friend! This decline in social connectedness may explain reported increases in loneliness, isolation, and alienation and may be why studies are finding that loneliness represents one of the leading reasons people seek psychological therapy.

Here at Hope Street Cards, we’re totes on board with this year’s theme for Mental Health Month. To encourage us all to connect with others to continue our journey towards better mental health, we’ll be sharing ideas and insights around this theme all month on the blog. We’ve also got a couple of extra surprises coming your way to celebrate the wonder of social connectedness of us social creatures. Stay tuned …


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