- by Natalie Alexander
The Secret Power of Social Connectedness
For five years I’ve attended my local gym and never connected with anyone. Most days I walk in the door, smile at familiar faces and knuckle down to burning calories. My exercise classes are always brimming with people. There are many opportunities for small talk but for some reason I never make much of an effort. I’m not looking to make new friends; I am there to keep myself fit.
However, I’ve noticed over time that my motivation has dwindled. It feels a little lonely and tiresome…a bit sterile and superficial. I could benefit from greater camaraderie. Without any meaningful connection, this fancy-pants gym is losing its gloss. No amount of membership marketing or state of the art equipment is enough to keep me going. I think I need greater connection!
I have noticed when I travel with hubby; he always sends post cards to his favourite coffee shop back home. Whilst his poor mother frequently misses out, his local barista keeps abreast of our travelling tales! I’ve wondered why he does this? When at work, hubby frequents his café most days. I know it’s a welcomed reprieve for him in the midst of work demands. Hubby’s café is a buzzing place filled with smiling people, conversations and the alluring aroma of freshly ground coffee. Staff members greet customers by name, whilst banter and humour are exchanged at every coffee transaction. Customers are asked about their weekends and their working days.
A colourful wall adorns the shop, with a collage of post cards, from customers away on their happy holidays. Ultimately, aside from the awesome coffee, my hubby keeps going back because in his words: “…there’s a sense of community...” Now, it’s a big surprise to hear my slightly introverted-coffee-snob hubby rate community over the quality of coffee! If only the café staff knew what an impact they made on the daily grind of their working customers. It’s small tokens of connection at play here that are making an impact and brewing a sense of community, albeit in a cafe.
Social connectedness is essentially a measure of quality human interaction. It’s a sign of community and belonging. Most people have a story of community, a time in life where they felt a part of something greater than themselves. A school group, sporting association or church network? As I reflect upon my own times of community, I realize how precious those times were. Community is an investment requiring work and nurture. A bit like tending to a garden.
After 15 years in my own coastal town, I genuinely feel part of community. The benefits are endless. My health has improved, both physically and mentally. I’ve connected with inspiring individuals. My local environment has become more important to me. New hobbies have been explored and personal growth has occurred. Opportunities to volunteer have been taken. Most importantly, my lingering loneliness has faded because I know community awaits beyond my front door. As the great Rumi beckons: “Why do you stay in prison, when the door is so wide open?”
I have felt loneliness, at different stages of life. It drains away joy and hurts. It is widely known that prolonged loneliness effects mental health. Depression is closely linked to loneliness, one feeding into the other. Here’s a disturbing fact: the negative health effects of loneliness, are equal to the damage caused by smoking 15 cigarettes per day (Holt-Lunstad, 2015).
Loneliness may appear to be an individual problem but it is much bigger. I’m convinced loneliness is a societal cause thanks to modernity. Isn’t there something off-kilter in society when a first-world government needs to elect a minister for loneliness? As former UK Prime minister Theresa May stated “Across our communities there are people who can go for days, weeks or even a month without seeing a friend or family member.” (Gov.Uk)
Our older generation is at a higher risk of social isolation, as are our rural communities. Recently, I went for country bike ride, along former railway lines that have been removed and converted into pathways. The scenery was breathtaking. Rolling hills and country towns dotted along the disused railway line. Yet it saddened me to see life stripped away from stable communities with the demise of the railway. No wonder rural isolation is a serious problem.
No man is an island
We are richer because of community. Social connection is a powerful force. It goes beyond the superficial connection of social media. It is far more meaningful in real life. We belong together; this is how we are designed. If we take the first step to connect, we will in turn build better-connected families, neighbourhoods, communities and societies. This untapped potential is waiting for us. It’s a super power. Let’s connect and thrive.
Natalie is passionate about human rights issues, matters of the mind and interfaith insights. When not in deep thought, Natalie loves to travel, drink good coffee and keep fit where she resides on the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia.
See all previous articles by Natalie Alexander