One of the loneliest times of my life was while living in a small bedsit in central London. Although I worked alongside people during the day, on returning to my single room at night I was miserable, isolated and felt very alone.
Loneliness is a killer. Social isolation puts us at greater risk of an early death, especially if we are young. Admitting to feeling lonely carries it’s own social stigma, keeping it hidden from view and harder to resolve.
Connection is human.
As a species we are hard wired to connect. We thrive when operating within recognised groups or tribes. Social cognitive neuroscientist Matt Liebermann (now there’s a mouthful for you) believes our need for human connection is as vital to our survival as shelter, food and water.
Today, our ability to connect with each other has never been easier, thanks to the wonders of our new technology that paradoxically is also contributing to a greater sense of disconnect and loneliness. Social media is a boon and a burden, connecting us to our ‘friends’, and facilitating constant contact over the cyber webs in real time. We share thoughts, ideas, and photos telling the world what we’re doing right now, what’s great, what’s not, anticipating buy-in and a response to feed our need for immediate gratification of knowing we’re part of the connected tribe.
But it’s also contributing to increased levels of anxiety and depression. Because of the lack of context of the shared messages, it’s easy to get a false perspective of what’s really going on. We are all experts at jumping to conclusions and making massive assumptions of what someone else’s reality is.
When faced with too much information and too little supportive fact we risk taking everything at face value rather than thinking more critically. Who is telling us this? Do I believe it? Is it a fact or an opinion? Do I agree with it just because it aligns with my own beliefs?
Safeguarding our need to connect boils down to being selective and taking care who we accept as our social media friends. Quality not quantity is what counts. It’s like how you choose to spend time at a networking event. Do you schmooze the room, speed dating your new contacts and showering them with a confetti of unwanted business cards, or do you take the time to get to know a couple of people, having longer and more meaningful conversations to discover more about them?
In her book Alone Together Sheri Turkle asks the question whether our technology is leading us to expect less from each other. The answer is yes unless we know how to put certain boundaries in place. While digital technology is fabulous for maintaining those connections that might otherwise be lost, getting down to the nitty-gritty of building relationships and establishing trust and empathy is about real face time.
Connecting with others is not only essential to our health and wellbeing and keeping us in the loop of what’s going on, it’s about greater understanding. Though we can never know exactly what’s going on in someone else’s head even if we have access to an MRI machine!
Connecting and collaborating creates the magic – sharing stories, ideas and knowledge; amplifying who we are. We become together as one.
Forget about engagement, what we really mean is connection.
Connection is about choice, choosing who we want to hang around with, who we can learn from, who we believe will look out for us when everything is turning to s#*t, and keep us accountable.
Getting on well with others is a choice. You may be an introvert or an extrovert, someone who loves sport or someone who is into heavy metal. Knowing who you are with self-awareness of your own imperfections, biases and belief systems helps you to have greater compassion for others we see as different. Choosing to be open to alternative points of view leads to tolerance and acceptance. It reduces our level of reactivity “what did they mean by that remark?” and increases our responsiveness, “I wonder what’s going on with them, they seem upset?”
We find strength in community.
Connection makes us feel accepted and acknowledged for who we are. It keeps us in what is called a “towards” state where the brain feels safe and anticipates potential reward which could be in the form of friendship, sex or chocolate.
Teamwork when done well is hugely empowering, creating a sense of contribution to something bigger than ourselves, and motivates us to kick our goals.
In 2014 Perth based social and business entrepreneur Alicia Curtis set up a giving circle called 100 Women. Her vision was to bring together a collective of women keen to contribute as everyday philanthropists, to enhance access to health, education and economic freedom for girls and women around the world. Three years on the group has gone from strength to strength now celebrating giving over $300,000 to grant recipients. The group’s success can be attributed to the level of connectivity and collaboration. Members each have a voice, using their vote to determine where the money will be spent each year. Networking events allow fellow members to get to know each other better creating a strongly collegial environment.
Collaboration doesn’t have to be hard, but it does have to be worked on, nurtured and maintained, starting with understanding how to create meaningful connections.