A long time ago we used to live in tribes and tight-knit communities. Everyone knew everyone, your extended family was a stones throw around you, and you had a pretty large social circle and community of people you interacted with regularly.
In fact, you could spend a whole lifetime rarely having to interact with people outside of either people you know, or people known to the people you know.
Then things changed. And kept changing fast.
You grew up in a rural area, and suddenly, everyone is moving to the big city for commerce and jobs. Since there aren’t enough people to buy your goods anymore, you too have to move away from your home and closer to the big city.
Still, there were communities. Neighborhoods. Small towns and suburbs. Then air travel became common. The tech age. Globalization.
You might have grown up in Turkey, like me, and suddenly, you’re on the other side of the world on a college campus of tens of thousands of strangers.
Then perhaps you move again because you got a job offer.
Your family is scattered. Your friends are scattered. Not just across town, but across the country and possibly the world.
And even if you have friends in the same town, you rarely see them anymore because you’re working. You’re busy. You have obligations and so do they, and it’s a challenge to figure out mutual free time.
Research shows that over the past 50 years, family ties and communities have weakened. More children are experiencing separation. Membership in civic, recreational, or philanthropic organizations has declined drastically.
We’re increasingly fragmented, such that we often feel lonely in crowds, and it’s affecting us not just personally, but professionally.
Let me just diverge for a moment here : It puzzles me that I and others feel compelled to continually say “personally and professionally” or “in life and work” (as I did in the above sentence) when it comes to anything that affects functioning and well-being.
Our work is a huge part of our life. So what affects us personally inevitably affects us at work and vice versa. Yet, many will continue to insist that they can be separate. You take yourself everywhere you go. If you’re unhappy in your life, it’s going to show up in your work. If you’re unhappy at work, it’s going to show up in your personal life – whether you recognize how it’s showing up or not.
So when research from Gallup tells us that 2/3 of Americans are disengaged at work, it makes sense that weakening family and social ties, and disengagement at work are related.
We learn about connection in our families and communities. We gain a sense of our place and where we belong in the world. Family and community anchor us not just physically, but emotionally and mentally. We’ve taken this for granted until relatively recently.
Lacking in those deep and meaningful experiences with others, our sense of belonging and connection in the world becomes shaky.
Unless we find new places of belonging and connection, we can begin to feel adrift, lost or anxious and we may not always understand where these feelings are coming from.
Social psychology and neuroscience tell us that the breakdown in social connections has caused significant declines in emotional and physical health. Addictions, anxiety, depression, suicides, and a myriad of mental and emotional disorders have all increased.
Sadly, these issues and problems often cause someone to further isolate themselves.
And all of these problems follow people to work and affect their engagement.
We’ve exchanged deep social connections for work and material well-being, when once again, research clearly shows over and over that material wealth doesn’t promote happiness beyond the level at which our needs are met.
Meanwhile, social connections do increase our happiness. The more connection and belonging we feel, the happier we are.
We have to stop the cycle.
Start somewhere. Anywhere you have the opportunity to connect, make the effort. A list of ways and means could fill a book, but here are a couple to either start with, or turn into habits and rituals:
1 – When is the last time you had a heart to heart with someone you really care about? One in which you sat eye to eye, and weren’t multi-tasking?
2 – When is the last time you noticed the humans and strangers around you when you were out in public? Take note of them. Observe them. Even if its for 5 minutes. We all have our noses in our gadgets now, and we forget that we’re part of a larger world.
3 – Talk to a stranger. In line. At the bookstore. Look a cashier or receptionist in the eye and SEE them.
4 – Go to lunch with a coworker and ask them to tell you about a highlight in their life. Watch them light up. Then share your own. Yeah.. talk about something other than work.
5 – Go look for, and then send, via snail mail, the perfect card for someone just because. Just to let them know you’re thinking of them.
6 – The next time someone does something for you, even if they were expected to or always have, tell them how much you appreciate it. If you have direct reports, tell them you appreciate them.
7 – Find a hobby, a sport, a cause, or create a ritual with your friends so that you are getting together regularly and LIVE with other human beings. Whether its intellectual or physical stimulation, or just plain fun, you need community. Find the time. You must. Whatever time it costs you on the clock will be more than made up for in efficiency, joy, and creativity in your other endeavors. Start with once a month, and make it non-negotiable.
8 – Lastly… Connect to yourself. I won’t go into the wonders of meditation here, or preach ‘presence’, but when is the last time you took 5 minutes to sit quietly and alone and do NOTHING but breathe?
None of these are hard. And if you make them into habits, you’re guaranteed to feel more connected.