It’s inevitable that our society will move back to an affordable, sustainable set point. We’ll give higher priority to belonging, and lower priority to belongings. The reason is simple: our current way of life often leaves us feeling used-up, and lonely. In that emotional state, it doesn’t matter what we own or don’t own – we’re not thriving. On the way to becoming world-class, gold medal consumers, many assumed that social connections were so basic they didn’t require much effort. After all, relationship challenges on TV usually resolve themselves in 23 minutes or less, and we expect the same in our own lives. We buy into a richly advertised paradigm that says products are socially advantageous — we smell sexier, or have that distinctive sparkle * of success. But the sparkle is fading from a lifestyle that vacuums so much time and human energy out of our lives — leaving fewer opportunities for genuine connection and taking care of things. Now we see that many of the products we work so hard to buy actually isolate us from other people — for example, the iPhones, video games and Visa-funded fantasy vacations; houses so large we sometimes can’t find family members; and automobiles that carry us on solo journeys in which we can’t stop dialing numbers on our cell phones.
According to a study conducted by the National Science Foundation, summarized in American Sociological Review, one fourth of Americans say they have no one they can discuss personal problems with – more than twice the number in the lonely hearts club in 1985. The typical American has lost one of his closest friends, it seems, since even the average number of confidants has fallen from about three to about two.
A wealth of scientific evidence now supports what we’ve known in our hearts all along: without strong social and spiritual connections, we wither. We need to elevate love and connection to a higher priority even if that means we make less money and spend less time worrying about it. Researchers say it’s a matter of life and death. Dr. Dean Ornish, author of Love and Survival, says, “Study after study has shown that people who feel lonely, depressed and isolated are 3 to 7 times more likely to get sick and die prematurely than those who have a sense of love, connection, and community in their lives.” (6) One study looked at men and women who were about to have open-heart surgery. “The researchers asked two questions: ‘Do you draw strength from your religious faith?’ and, “Are you a member of a group of people who get together on a regular basis?” Those who said no to both questions were dead within 6 months, compared to only 3 percent of those who said yes to both questions.
Our health is even boosted by the unconditional love of pets. In a study of heart attack victims who now had irregular heartbeats, six times as many people died if they didn’t have a pet. Many other studies show similar results. Says Dean Ornish, “If some new drug showed a six-fold decrease in deaths, you can be sure that just about every doctor in the country would be prescribing it. Yet when was the last time your doctor prescribed a pet or supportive friend for you?”
After many years of hands-on medical work, Ornish concludes that the real epidemic is not just physical heart disease but also emotional and spiritual heart disease. Social support makes us feel valued and loved, feelings that enhance our health; but conversely, “Anything that promotes a sense of isolation can lead to illness and suffering.” The reasons why are tangible: for one thing, isolation increases the likelihood we’ll smoke, overeat, or fail to exercise. Furthermore, says Ornish, “Bacteria, viruses and other microorganisms must penetrate through our immune, neuroendocrine and other defense systems, and these defenses are measurably enhanced by love and relationships.” Social connections also reduce stress, the universal Grim Reaper. For example, when you’re low on cash, one of the most stressful things going, it sure helps to have a friend throw you a lifeline. When you’re sick, maybe another friend will take care of your kids for a few days until you feel better. Ornish has observed an especially strong correlation between the love of parents and good health, in part because parental relationships have such a long span: nutrition before and after birth; coping styles developed when young — such as anxiety, anger, and optimism — spiritual values and practices, and parental support and love in one’s adult life.
What sociologists call “social capital” is a renewable resource – the more we spend, the more we have. Social capital is the glue that binds communities together, creating cultural norms, energetic networks, and reservoirs of trust. When freely and wisely spent, social capital lowers crime rates, makes schools more productive, and helps economies function better. Contracts, leases, and schedules operate more smoothly. In socially abundant communities and nations, individuals don’t have to earn as much money to be comfortable, because quality of life is partly provided by the strength of social bonds. For example, two farmers who share machinery with each other avoid having two combines on adjoining farms; credit union members and insurance carriers can share pools of financial capital; and jobseekers can find work more easily — substituting networking for possible bankruptcy. (More jobs are found by word of mouth than by reading the classifieds). The wealth of social capital also becomes apparent when we share information about resource efficiency in our houses; about which computers are more reliable; or which friend of a friend is looking for a partner.
Philosopher Martin Buber’s work distinguishes between two kinds of social connection. In the I-You relationship, an unwavering, holistic bond of trust exists between and an individual and key aspects of his life, including other people, other living beings, and whatever a person perceives God to be. In Buber’s view, when we experience life from a perspective if I-You, we enter a sacred realm of authenticity and oneness. We make and keep commitments to “be there” without pretense or judgment, on a playing field of mutual caring, respect, and responsibility. In this way, we create the priceless relationships that make life worth living.
On the other hand, in I-It relationships, people are misperceived as objects, valued only for what we can get from them. The ego is in the center, surrounded by things and people it tries to manipulate. Instead of being at one with the world, we become detached and isolated from it. If people or other living beings are no longer of use, we just throw them away. For example, when a huge school of fish is perceived as huge profits, it doesn’t matter if that particular species is an endangered species – the fish are just objects that exist for our benefit. We assume there are always more objects or more people to exploit.
The analytic I-It approach to life makes us strangers in our own world, and is a primary reason why many feel a sense of emptiness. We strive to connect with a Higher Power we can sanctify rather than objectify — a being who won’t let us down, and to whom we are devoted. I believe we can and must bring sanctity to our everyday lives by creating I-You relationships; treating even the food we eat or a masterpiece painting with great respect, wonder, and connection, because the people who grew healthy food or created the painting “speak” through it. By changing the way we regard the world, the “me” in each of us becomes a much wider we, and we feel interconnected and complete. Even in a world filled with contradiction and superficiality, we find True North.