This is the second of a two-part article series. Part 1 is about how rituals improve performance. Part 2 is about how practicing group rituals with communities that bring you joy will help you lead a long, healthy life.
Loneliness is hard at the best of times. During the pandemic, it has taken on a new meaning for people who endured it in larger cities with the many lockdowns, social distancing, and lack of touch.
Feeling separated and disconnected in cities
In her 2017 book, The Lonely City: Adventures in the Art of Being Alone, British writer, Olivia Laing, describes what loneliness felt like after moving to various apartments on the Lower East Side in New York:
Imagine standing by a window at night, on the sixth or seventeenth or the forty-third floor of a building. The city reveals itself as a set of cells, a hundred thousand windows, some darkened and some flooded with green or white or golden light. Inside, strangers swim to and fro, attending to the business of their private hours. You can see them, but you can‘t reach them, and so this commonplace urban phenomenon, available in any city of the world on any night, conveys to even the most social a tremor of loneliness, its an uneasy combination of separation and exposure.
Can you relate? I can and have experienced the same feeling in subways, airports, and highrises in Toronto, New York, London, and Hong Kong. Oddly, at crowded gatherings like fan conventions and music festivals, I don’t experience the same disconnection. Those gatherings make it easier to strike up a conversation with like-minded people who share similar interests and values.
Noreena Hertz is the author of The Lonely Century, a new book where she asserts that we are in the midst of a global loneliness crisis and no one is immune today. Her book came out early in the pandemic. I agree with her view of the loneliness crisis during the pandemic, especially during lockdowns, self-isolation, and social distancing. The loss of hugging, connecting, and meeting with people you care about affected everyone and in particular the youngest and oldest. But people are resilient and I think they will bounce back towards community and connection both online and in-person after the pandemic.
Hertz says that young people today are particularly lonely and have grown up with fewer or often no friends at all. She writes that:
"In a 2019 United States YouGov survey, more than 1 in 5 millennials say they have no friends. In the UK, 3 out of every 5 people, 18- to 34-year-olds and nearly half of children aged between 10 and 15 say they are lonely sometimes or often."
Most people have 0 to 3 best friends today
I wrote about friendships in Issue 10 of the newsletter. Here's a brief recap: The average American has 16 friends today according to a 2019 poll. The first three are "best friends", five are "good friends" and eight are people you like but don't hang out with 1 on 1. Acquaintances and social media friends are not part of the 16. Then there is the "Dunbar's number", coined by veteran friendship researcher Robin Dunbar. He argues your maximum cognitive limit is 150 total friends - this means you know each person and you also know how all the other people know each other. It's harder to properly manage this many friends because you need to really care about the well-being of each person. In a nutshell, Dunbar says,
friendship is about creating small-scale, intensely bonded groups that act as protection [to life’s] stresses.
Small, intense bonds with a few close friends, while challenging is something everyone can and should do throughout their life, especially during periods when you say you are too busy.
Loneliness: a public health problem
The late John Cacioppo viewed loneliness as a “public health problem”. Cacioppo was a leading loneliness scholar and social neuroscientist and co-author of Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection. In 2018, the UK government appointed a minister of loneliness, after a 2017 report published by the Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness, which found more than nine million adults in the UK are either always or often lonely. Another 2018 study of 20,000 people in the US undertaken by health insurance company Cigna found that almost 1 in 2 or 47% of respondents reported often feeling alone or left out. Generation Z or people aged 18 to 22 and Millennials ages 23 to 37 scored the highest for loneliness. A 2019 report in Scientific American found that loneliness could reduce our lifespan by 15 years, which is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
John Cacioppo defines loneliness as:
“Perceived social isolation.”
Researchers, Daniel Perlman and Letitia Anne Peplau are even more specific, and write that:
"Loneliness is the discrepancy between what you want from your social relationships and your perception of those relationships."
Perception is reality. You need to recognize a few things:
“You are not alone”. You want to say things to yourself like, “If not now, then when?” and “If not me, then who?”
Take the necessary steps and actions to find your group or tribe. Push past loneliness and isolation because you deserve to belong and connect with others in a community.
A healthy community is “Survival of the Friendliest”
Lydia Denworth, the author of Friendship: The Evolution, Biology, and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond, says real friends have 3 essential ingredients:
1. Their friendships are long-lasting. Who is a stable and reliable presence in your life?
2. They accentuate the positive. Who makes you feel good regularly?
3. They are helpful and cooperative. Who are the friends that are there for you and support you (and vice versa)?
Friends keep you and your community healthy
Denworth says most people view friends in a trivial way. They view them as nice to have - merely pleasant and lovely. Denworth is more blunt saying,
"Friends are a matter of life and death".
From an evolutionary point of view, humans have always been driven to connect with others. Rather than over-invest to compete and pursue a survival of the fittest, Denworth suggests having a more collaborative “survival of the friendliest” approach. She says the health benefits of having social relationships are enormous:
"They can change your cardiovascular system, your immune system, how you sleep, your cognitive health. How could this thing that exists entirely outside the body affect whether you're likely to catch a virus? And yet that's exactly what we now know that social connection does."
Adults and families tend to have three large social network circles, namely family, school friends and work friends. Adults have less time and focus on the few social circles that help them manage and improve family, career, and health. For many parents, their social circles extend to whatever makes them better parents and meet others that overlap with their kid’s interests. Young people, as well as single people without children, have more time. They can afford to be more creative and experimental meeting various social groups that interest them. It is not surprising for these people to explore more than a dozen interests and social circles as they test and learn what interests and people they bond with. They often have the time to become fans of music, sports, gaming, pop culture, or just about anything that speaks to a fandom.
The statistics about young people being lonelier today than previous generations are true. They’re more connected globally than ever before through modern technologies. They have an abundance of choices and require more focus since it’s so easy to get distracted. If we’re in the midst of a loneliness crisis, we’re also in the midst of being able to find super niche communities with people who share our interests, passions, and values. Creating tight social bonds with the right friends empowers us. They significantly add to our health and wellbeing by making us less lonely.
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Fandom fosters long-lasting friendships in your community
In a 2017 article for Odyssey, called “Life of a Fangirl”, Michelle Reistad wrote about how fandom changed her life:
Fandoms. They’re everywhere. The possibilities of topics are endless. There are fandoms of TV shows, book series, bands, people, cultures, games and so many more categories....It’s crazy to think that some people still don’t understand just what a fandom is and seriously misjudge us fangirls/fanboys. There are many reasons why one would become part of a fandom; Each story is unique...
Knowing your own fan origin story for your fandom is crucial. It anchors you and ties your story to other like-minded fans who have their own unique story. Reistad writes about how the Harry Potter online community changed her life for the better:
Harry Potter led me to people and moments and memories far beyond the books and screens. Some of my closest friends growing up were results of the series. And although I never met them in real life, the fans I met online made me feel I wasn’t alone in the world. Harry Potter gave me hope.
Ask anyone and they’ll have their own definition of fandom. Zoe Fraade-Blanar, the co-author of Superfandom, gives her own definition:
Fandom is a verb. It’s a set of activities that people can do on behalf of the things that they love. Being a fan means being engaged in extra, additional activities above and beyond the intended purpose of the fan object.
Stories help you make sense of your world
William Shatner was the original Canadian actor who played Captain T. Kirk in Star Trek. He wrote a book and made a documentary film, both called Get A Life. He wanted to understand why fans were so devoted to the Star Trek franchise over many decades. In the film, Shatner interviews Robert Walker, President of the Joseph Campbell Foundation. The foundation was formed based on the work of Joseph Campbell, mythologist and author of The Hero with a Thousand Faces.
Shatner asks Walker why fans - young and old - ritualistically flock to Star Trek conventions dressed in cosplay (costume play) year after year. Walker says fans dress up and attend conventions each year as part of an annual group ritual to celebrate their fandom and friendships:
"Human beings are meaning-making machines. We are hard-wired for narrative. We struggle to make sense of our experience by casting it in stories. ..The shows [like Star Trek], that really endure and that capture this kind of rabid fandom speak to the human experience.
What (fans are) doing is much like what practicing Christians did in the Renaissance, when they adopted a patron saint for their confirmation, then took on that saint's name and used that saint as a touchstone for their behavior down the line. So, what they're really doing is they're buying into a series of narratives and mythology. If it's a mythology, it also tells you how to relate to your other human beings. It gives you some idea of your tribe. Mythology is a way for people to use metaphors to describe the unknown.
Costumes help us reveal ourselves to each other
Adam Savage, a special effects designer, and fabricator, producer, actor, and television personality gave a TED Talk in 2016 about his love for cosplay. He uses costumes to add humor, color, and clarity to the stories he tells. He says that wearing costumes is how fans reveal themselves to each other.
People need fandom because it helps them live the mythology in ways that makes sense to them. That may translate into reading the Harry Potter books a dozen times. That may mean watching Star Wars 100 times. That may mean buying new collectibles from their favorite fandom online or in-person at each convention (the unboxing of each collectible is a group ritual unto itself for like-minded collectors).
It may mean you and your friends “cosplay” or dress up as your favorite characters at a fan convention as part of a ritualistic act that deepens a fan's bonds with their community and fandom.
Each group ritual that involves friends meeting at a fan convention or festival deepens the relationship fans have with each other in addition to the fandom.
Fans attend fandom events for each other
Fans often first attend an in-person event to meet a creator like an actor, director, author, illustrator, gamer, musician, YouTuber, of a specific fandom they love.
But they rarely continue to attend only the creators year after year. They attend to support each other as part of a group ritual and tradition that strengthens their community and long-lasting friendships over many years or decades.
You should not be surprised if you meet and deeply connect with other people at conventions who are also fans of the same fandom and creators as you. You become fast friends, talk about why you love a certain fandom, commit to meeting each other again next year. Then, you start to look forward to meeting these same kindred spirits year after year at another convention or festival.
This annual group ritual or tradition where fans plan to meet each other face-to-face to celebrate their fandom is magical because the act creates an astonishing number of deep lasting friendships. I’ve spoken to many fans of a fandom, who met online. They became close friends or a couple at a fan convention or festival. Wedding proposals are common as is the thrill parents get when their kids are old enough to attend in full costume.
In the same way that fans come together for each other at pop culture conventions, they do the same for sports, music, gaming, and many other categories of fandoms
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Are we losing community?
Robert Putnam, in his popular book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community found that in just a few decades, the way people gather had declined rapidly. Bowling was once a popular leisure sport where teams competed in tournaments. Teams mingled and got to know each other. Today, people still bowl, but they do it mostly alone. Putnam says that:
"in the ten short years between 1985 and 1994, active involvement in community organizations in this country fell by 45 percent. By this measure, at least, nearly half of America’s civic infrastructure was obliterated in barely a decade."
Does this mean we have lost community? Not at all. It takes more time, effort, and action to find a community you truly connect with today. Fandom has gone super niche because the Internet and the number of online and in-person gatherings around creative content have exploded.
Bonded and Bridging Communities
Communities always start with friends and connections close to you. At the start, they are homogeneous due to their strong bonds. Putman says that for a community to remain strong, its members must also practice bridging in addition to bonding. Bridging involves bringing different types of people together to share their skills, ideas, talents, and information. The goal is to attract a diverse membership and be outward-looking. Examples would be choirs and service groups.
Communities focussed on bonding bring people together with similar interests, beliefs, and objectives, often around solidarity and social support. They are "inward-looking" and reinforce a homogeneous group of people.
Bonding can be very powerful because it unites people around common themes like pain and suffering, marginalization, loneliness, and vulnerability, to name a few. The risk of having an only bonded community is that without bridging, they could be antagonistic towards outsiders and make it difficult for them to join. Examples include local political and religious groups.
The Roseto Effect: We live longer in tight-knit communities
Western societies pay lip service when talking about the benefits of community. Instead of investing in cooperation and communities, they encourage and celebrate individualism, self-interest, and competition. Hertz tells the story of residents of the town of Roseto, Pennsylvania in the 1950s. It then mostly consisted of Italian Americans. Researchers noticed that Roseto men over 65 were dying at a rate of half the national average. From 1954 to 1961, Roseto had nearly no heart attacks for the otherwise high-risk group of men 55 to 64.
Yet, Rosetans were working grueling jobs, smoking unfiltered cigarettes, and had unhealthy eating habits. The reason for the amazing health outcomes was the solid families ties and community support and bonds among Roseto Italian Americans.
Malcolm Gladwell in his book, Outliers, interviewed Stewart Wolf, a physician, and John Bruhn, a sociologist who conducted a research study about the amazing long lives of Rosetans. They discovered the secret to Rosetans living so long wasn’t diet or exercise or genes or location. It was the town of Roseto itself:
They looked at how the Rosetans visited one another, stopping to chat in Italian on the street, say, or cooking for one another in their backyards. They learned about the extended family clans that underlay the town’s social structure. They saw how many homes had three generations living under one roof, and how much respect grandparents commanded. They went to mass at Our Lady of Mount Carmel and saw the unifying and calming effect of the church. They counted twenty-two separate civic organizations in a town of just under two thousand people. They picked up on the particular egalitarian ethos of the community, which discouraged the wealthy from flaunting their success and helped the unsuccessful obscure their failures.
Bruhn describes his first visit to the town of Roseto:
“You’d see three-generational family meals, all the bakeries, the people walking up and down the street, sitting on their porches talking to each other, the blouse mills where the women worked during the day, while the men worked in the slate quarries. It was magical.”
A follow-up study of Roseto was done in 1992 and found that the death rate increased and matched the national average in the United States. The erosion of traditional tight-knit family and community relationships had set in from the late 1960s to the present day. It was accompanied by the arrival of "big box" stores and the closing of local independent stores. It was met with a shift from multi-generational homes to single-family homes with fences and gates surrounding gardens and homes. It was also met with richer neighborhoods displaying their wealth for all to see.
Until Roseto, the medical community never thought about health in terms of community. As Gladwell writes, Wolfe and Bruhn had to get the medical sector to understand how one’s community and the people around you are so important for health and well-being than individuals who live in isolation.
They had to look beyond the individual. They had to understand the culture he or she was a part of, and who their friends and families were, and what town their families came from. They had to appreciate the idea that the values of the world we inhabit and the people we surround ourselves with have a profound effect on who we are.
The phenomenon in Roseto, which was first observed in 1961 became known as the Roseto effect. It denotes a close-knit community that experiences a reduced rate of heart disease compared to other towns or cities.
The Hutterites are one of the least lonely communities
Johann Hari writes about the highly religious farming community, known as the Hutterites in his book, Lost Connections through John Cacioppo's work. They do everything together and live off the land. They work, eat, worship, and relax together. Researchers wanted to know how lonely the Hutterites were. One way to tell how lonely someone is is through sleep. While asleep, lonely people experience more "micro-awakenings", which are those small moments you don't recall after you wake up. The theory is that you don't feel safe enough to go to sleep when you are lonely. Early humans were hunters and gatherers. They felt less safe when apart from the tribe and closer together when part of a tribe. The researchers discovered the Hutterites barely had "micro-awakenings" because the community demonstrated one of the lowest levels of loneliness in the world due to the connections that bound them together.
The cow is the anti-depressant
Hari tells a story in his book about a Cambodian rice farmer who stepped on a landmine and lost his leg. The farmer worried about his future, was constantly anxious, found it too difficult to return to his livelihood in the rice fields. He didn't recover even after doctors fitted him with a new limb. A Western doctor suggested to local doctors that they give the farmer antidepressants.
After explaining what antidepressants were, the local doctors had an idea to help the farmer become a dairy farmer and set him on a new path. Instead of prescribing anti-depressants, the local doctors gave the farmer a cow, which was the "antidepressant". Instead of trying to change the farmer's brain chemistry, the community wanted a way to solve the problem that was causing the depression in the first place.
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Group rituals bond us, and give us purpose
Sports teams, music bands, and workplace teams do it. There is evidence that doing ritualistic behaviors helps to increase a team's bonds and boosts performance when performed collectively. Valerie van Mulukom, a UK-based psychologist and co-author of a study on the effect of secular rituals on social bonding, says,
"Having social networks has frequently been linked to well-being, and it is thought that rituals – frequent group gatherings – are particularly good at facilitating such networks."
Participants who invest time in group rituals often report having a stronger connection with others in the group. In some cases, the connections are even felt by others who only observe a ritual.
Group rituals show that like-minded members share certain values, which fosters vulnerability and trust. At soccer matches, ritualistic chants have been shown to unite and connect fans with their team. Beyoncé is known for saying a prayer in a circle with her entire crew as part of a "spiritual practice" before a concert.
The Last Dance
In the final episode of the Netflix docuseries "The Last Dance", which chronicles the rise of superstar Michael Jordan and the 1990s Chicago Bulls, Phill Jackson organized one final meeting for the 1997-98 squad. Jackson asked the members of the Bulls team before they went their separate ways to:
"write what being on this team has meant to you during this year" and share it at that last meeting."
Jordan wrote a poem to capture his feelings in his final moments as a Bull. Steve Kerr remembered that final emotional team meeting saying:
"It was like, This is it, this is the last dance, this is the last time we're ever going to be together.' Every guy had emotional words to say...We saw (Jordan) as this bully sometimes. But that day, he showed his compassion and empathy for all of us."
About Jordan's poem at the last meeting, Jackson said,
"It was a depth of emotion that you never thought that he had."
After every player finished speaking, the players put their papers in a coffee can. Like so many rituals that came before this one, Jackson then turned off the lights and set the contents on fire. The players watched their memories burn one last time and the meeting ended. Kerr said the group ritual was,
"One of the most powerful things that I've ever seen."
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Social connections foster well-being
Noreena Hertz in The Lonely Century writes about Alex, a teenager, who lives in the UK and has a social anxiety disorder. Alex says,
"Social anxiety has made my world so much smaller. As it got worse, I started to get more insular. The more intense it got, the more I started to feel very lonely and isolated … I would avoid going to the shops or getting the bus during rush hour because there were too many people … The longer it went on, the more it started to affect work, close relationships, and friendships … so my social life has … well, I don’t really have one."
Social anxiety sucks. Some people will need more help coming out of their shells and blossoming. If you don’t suffer from social anxiety, notice people who do. Give them a hand as they struggle to find ways to open up at the same time the world is opening up post-Covid.
Re-connecting in community post-pandemic
Many scholars have argued that we are losing community. Statistics show people spend less time gathering around formal community organizations. I think communities are here to stay. They are changing as people discover super niche groups on the Internet and at in-person festivals, conventions, and other gatherings. People come alive when they get the chance to live their passions and interests with like-minded people. Group rituals strengthen communities and help reduce social anxiety and loneliness. Lifelong friendships really are worth fighting for, especially when the science shows you'll grow healthier, happier, and older together.
If you want to be less lonely and happier, be vigilant in finding a community where you feel you truly belong. Pay it forward by helping others feel better about themselves. I think you’ll discover you want to give back more than you get from your community. We rarely forget those friends who were there for us and helped us when we needed support.
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