Our Bodies and Brains Need Belonging

Exploring the biological case for deeper connection

The Crystal Bridges Museum, site of the 2019 Sages and Scientists Conference. Source: https://crystalbridges.org/

Over the weekend, I got a firsthand glimpse of how expert opinion on health is rapidly evolving.

I spoke on a panel at the Sages and Scientists conference, which was held this year in Arkansas. It’s a gathering of academic medical researchers, technologists, philosophers, contemplatives, and business leaders from around the world, all focused on questions of how to boost well-being and health for humanity. While the roster included chairs of venture capital firms, Ivy League deans, teaching physicians, and other high priests of mainstream expertise, the “credo” of the conference was downright countercultural:

“Consciousness can help us find the solution to any challenge.”

Leading experts from the medical and scientific and economic establishments are now speaking openly and enthusiastically about the role of deep subjective experience —both individual and shared — as a basis of physiological and psychological outcomes. This kind of conversation would have been hard to imagine 15 years ago.

To me, the shift in thinking is simple: we’ve seen that the old paradigms aren’t suited to address the challenges we face in the 21st Century. We need to open up to possibilities of systems change. We need to honor the bio-mechanical elements of human life, while still leaving room to respect the mysteries inherent in each and every human being.

When I think of the role in “consciousness” in health and wellbeing, I think of the words of one of my heroes, the poet, farmer, and philosopher Wendell Berry, who once offered a powerful perspective on this topic:

Today, there’s growing scientific research demonstrating that Berry is right. Social connection is essential for positive psychological and medical outcomes.

The neuroscientist Julianne Holt-Lunstad has famously posited that loneliness is the physiological equivalent of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. New research is showing that social disconnection correlates with increases in systemic inflammation, heart disease, dementia and death rates. Other research shows that social isolation could lead to reduced expression of genes that are responsible for responding to viruses. It’s now well-known that social isolation is a driver of the opiate epidemic. A leading researcher on the neuroscience of addiction, Carl Hart, told me in a conversation last year that drug addiction is ultimately about the lack of what he calls “competing reinforcers” to drug use: factors like family bonds, a sense of place in the community, meaningful work, economic opportunity, or connection to a spiritual life. People get addicted when they’re isolated.

So, social disconnection isn’t just a hurdle to accessing essential health services. It’s a driver of disease. It’s a cause of stress, anxiety, depression, and despair that manifest as detrimental conditions that run down to the cellular level. Social connection is vital prerequisite for our physiological and psychological health.

And, yet, I believe the true meaning of connection is about more than loneliness or social contact. Over the course of my research and teaching and advocacy, I’ve come to a growing sense that what Wendell Berry is describing is deeper sand wider than social connection as we commonly imagine it.

Connection is health. Yet our health depends on multiple dimensions of connection, not just our social bonds, traditionally defined.

It’s connection to what I call the 4 P’s: People, Place, Power, and Purpose.

All four of these dimensions of connection, together, amount to what I call: Belonging.

I define belonging as a state of wholeness: the experience of being at home in the social, environmental, organizational, and cultural contexts of one’s life. Belonging is beloved community, rootedness in a place, a feeling of ownership in shared outcomes, and a sense of shared mission. It’s not just human contact — it’s care.

Returning to the “credo” of the Sages and Scientists conference, I believe that the experience of belonging is the essential pathway to transforming consciousness. When we reconnect with people, place, power, and purpose, we can reconnect with the foundation of our intelligence and strength. We can find resilience on multiple levels: physical, emotional, societal.

The Friendship Bench. Source: https://www.friendshipbenchzimbabwe.org/

The story of my friend Dixon Chibanda illustrates this idea. In 2005, Dixon was one of only a few psychiatrists serving millions of people in Zimbabwe. He saw a patient take her own life because she couldn’t access basic mental health care. She couldn’t afford the bus fare to come from a rural village to get needed treatment in the capital.

That year, Dixon had an idea. What if he could help train older women in communities across Zimbabwe in evidence-based talk therapy? Rather than seeing patients in crowded clinics in urban centers, these “grandmothers,” as he called them, could provide their services on inviting and accessible park benches all around the country. The solution he imagined was simple but powerful: Look to caring grandmothers to revolutionize mental health care.

It’s working. There are today hundreds of grandmothers offering services in more than 70 communities across Zimbabwe. The program served more than 30,000 people in 2017 alone.

Research published in the Journal of the American Medical Association demonstrates an improbable fact: The grandmothers are, on average, better at treating depression and related conditions than psychiatrists in the local context.

How is this possible?

To me, there’s a clear mechanism of action: It’s belonging.

I believe the grandmothers help patients restore connection to the 4 P’s: people, place, power, and purpose.

First, it’s connection to people: the grandmothers build belonging through relationship and care. The grandmothers ask questions without judgment, they pay attention, and they stay present.

Second, the grandmothers help cultivate a sense of place. The grandmothers meet you face-to-face and speak language that’s rooted in your local reality. You can sit on the park bench and feel at home.

Third, the grandmothers help connect people to their own power. They help patients to find solutions to their own problems. The grandmothers don’t try to pretend they have all the answers.

Fourth, the grandmothers help build belonging by focusing on purpose. They help people engage in deep questions about what they really want. They help people find inspiration.

The work of the Friendship Bench isn’t just about building belonging for patients. It’s also about building belonging for the caregivers themselves. It’s a two-way street.

This vision is taking off. New York City recently launched its own Friendship Bench program, called ThriveNYC. London is now following along. This example, to me, demonstrates how building belonging is a powerful pathway to health and wellbeing.

Dixon’s story is about transforming consciousness — from brokenness to wholeness; from despair to wellbeing. Yet the Friendship Bench is also a proven medical intervention that’s been validated by randomized controlled trials in medical journals of record. This story demonstrates the notion that we can achieve real progress with respect to medical outcomes by boosting connection. In our workplaces, neighborhoods, education systems, civic structures, and economies, we can work to amplify connection to people, place, power, and purpose.

There’s a growing movement of people and organizations who are doing this work and helping to realize and restore what I call the Right to Belong. There are multiple levels to the work. Everyone has a part to play.

  • For a school principal, building belonging could mean hosting a “Dignity Day” — an opportunity for students and staff stop to recognize each other and to hold discussions on how to live with more harmony.
  • For a local school board, it could mean adopting an official policy on belonging that requires budget and planning decisions to promote inclusion — for example guaranteeing financial commitments to special needs programming or bilingual education.
  • For a neighborhood organization that serves older persons, it could be a commitment to creating a space where people of all age groups— regardless of social status or condition — can meet as peers and support each other in a spirit of reciprocity.
  • For someone living in a community where there’s division over politics, it could mean hosting a party or a dinner to bring diverse people together people to build rapport.
  • For a church, synagogue, or mosque, it could be in hosting an interfaith festival to unite people across differences to talk about common values, shared spiritual beliefs, and opportunities for work together to bring more positivity to a community and to the world.
  • For someone living in a place where there’s low civic participation, it could mean working to create a community budgeting process to get people empowered to make real decisions.
  • For a city planner or a local government official, it could mean working with a community group to host listening sessions and crowdsource ideas for building a park or community center.
  • For people living in a community with little green space or limited connection to nature, it can be in coming together to form a shared public garden or to heal a polluted plot of land to create a space for children to play and people to gather.

These might not seem like traditional medical interventions.

Yet, many of the foremost medical and scientific authorities are coming around to the notion that these and other strategies should be seen as such.

As the relationship between isolation and health gets clearer, it stands to reason that we should prioritize ways to amplify connection to people, place, power, and purpose. Belonging is a pathway to enrich and empower human consciousness. This matters for our brains and our bodies.

Wendell Berry put it best: “Connection is health.”

Founder, Samuel Centre for Social Connectedness. Fierce believer in the right to belong.

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