What was your first social network? (Hint: Not Facebook)

A baby in the arms of her father – with her mom looking on – is forming her first and most important social network. Her network expands day by day, babybecoming more complex, as she is introduced to siblings, babysitters, aunts, uncles, and cousins. Soon, she starts forming networks separate from the family – friends, neighbors, teachers and coaches. Eventually she has networks that encompass jobs, community and the entire digital world.

Traditional social networks give us several kinds of support.  Tangible support includes things like money, a place to live or help with chores; informational support includes advice and instruction; emotional support covers love, trust, a listening ear, a shoulder to cry on. When we’re young, we rely on our parents for all three kinds of support; but as we mature, we look to other people in our network to provide some or most of these things, and we learn not to rely on any one person for everything.

Social connection is vitally important for health and well-being, but “connect” may be one of the most overused words of the last decade. We connect on Facebook, Linked In,Twitter and blogs; we connect with old friends, strangers, and people around the world; we connect at home, at work, on the subway and as we walk. But in our rush to connect with everyone, all the time, everywhere we go, do we make it all seem too facile? Do we forget the effort that goes into forging strong and lasting bonds?

It’s easy to click the “Like” button, but not so easy to engage with people day after day, through good times and bad, in the face of disagreements and hurts. It’s easy to send a text or an email, but it takes time to pick up the phone or meet in person to iron out differences. As our digital networks expand, are our in-person networks contracting?

The family network – our first – in many ways bears the brunt of our relational laziness. Maybe it’s because we don’t have the same fear of losing the people in that network. We learned early that we could rely on them, so we don’t worry about paying attention to them and cultivating the relationships. We take them for granted. Worse, we don’t mend the little tears and breaks in the fabric of the relationships, because we don’t think we need to.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAIn the past two weeks, I’ve been both to a family funeral and on a family vacation. Each one reminded me that families are messy and complicated organisms! At the funeral, a sister stood on one side of the room not speaking to her siblings. No one even knows for sure why she’s not speaking to them. On every family vacation, I see how hard it is for everyone not to slip back into their habitual roles: good child, bad child; provocateur, peacemaker; the bossy one, the passive one. No wonder we want to be with our “easier” social networks instead!

The novelist Doug Coupland has written, “People are pretty forgiving when it comes to other people’s families. The only family that ever horrifies you is your own.” The truth is, though, that unless you have a truly terrible family, they are the people who will be there for you over the long haul, the ones you’ll be able to call in the middle of the night with a crisis, and the ones you’ll want to share your successes with. Sometimes you feel like you can’t live with them, but it’s almost always better than living without them.

My intention for the new year? To pay attention to my family, to give and forgive, to listen more patiently, to judge less often and to share more meaningfully.

Advertisements

Our essence

Do you consider yourself to be a spiritual person? Do you have only the vaguest idea of what that means? Does it matter?

Spirituality is one of those amorphous words that mean different things to different people. That’s part of why it’s a mistake to draw too many conclusions from the new religious affiliation study by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life. While the number of people who say they are not affiliated with any religion has grown to 20% of adults, 37% of those people say that they are spiritual; and even among those who do affiliate with a religion, many say they are “spiritual, but not religious”.

Spirituality is important for health, which is why it is one of the Six Dimensions of Wellness. Its role is to bring together the other dimensions by providing meaning and purpose to our lives. It is not enough to be physically, intellectually or socially healthy if there isn’t an overarching “world view” supplying significance to our actions. Herbert Benson, in his book, Timeless Healing, discusses the idea that humans might be the only species with a sense of our own mortality. If our brains were not wired to “harbor beliefs” that there is a deeper meaning to life, we could easily be overcome by dread and fear.

More and more research shows that people who are religious or spiritual are healthier and live longer than those who are not. The problem is that most studies are based on religion rather than that vague “spirituality” because it is easier to measure. So it’s somewhat unclear where the health benefits come from – the belief itself, the healthy behaviors required by some religions, or the social support that comes from belonging to the religious community?

Unlike religion, each of us can personally define spirituality. At its core, it is about feeling connected to something larger than ourselves. As we become more spiritual, we focus on others more than just ourselves, and move away from material things as a source of meaning. So how do you tell if and how you are spiritual? One good way is to ask yourself where you are and what you are doing when you have feelings of spirituality. In the Pew study, about 58% of people said that they have a deep connection with nature and the earth. For many, spirituality can be found most easily in nature.

What are your beliefs and values? Are you putting them into practice in your life? For many of us, stress results when there is conflict between our values and our actions. The Dalai Lama says, “I don’t see any difference between religious practice and daily life. One can do without religion, but not without spirituality.” He calls spirituality “the full blossoming of human values that is essential for the good of all.”

Other characteristics of a spiritual nature are compassion for others, having the capacity to love and to forgive, altruism, and the ability to experience joy. Even if you feel that you are lacking in one of these areas, they can all be developed and enhanced through practice. Whether it’s volunteering in your community or engaging in compassion meditation, there is a way to cultivate greater spiritual connection.

The root word of spirituality, spirit, comes from the Latin word for breath. A sense of spirituality may be as natural to us as breathing. We not only need it to live, we need it to live well.

What it means to be happy humans

Today I attended a discussion on the question, “Are we losing our humanity?” It was a wide-ranging conversation on what it means to be human, how the study of humanities serves us, and what it means to put the humanities into practice in daily life.

One of the many topics that came up was reading, and the importance of reading in helping us develop as human beings. One of the panelists commented that “reading is the vehicle for getting us into narrative,” and that narratives (stories) teach us about human behavior, which can be the basis for discussions about society.

This reminded me of something that my children’s elementary school principal used to say: “Reading is the way in, writing is the way out.” Although she never specified in and out of what, I have some ideas on it in the context of what I heard today: Reading is the way in to your mind, to your inner self, to a deeper understanding of life. Writing (and other forms of expression, especially speaking) is the way out to the world, out to society, out of yourself and into your community.

So to “do” humanities involves engagement in the world. But that’s another area that troubled some of today’s panelists – what is true engagement, true connection, in today’s world? Technology allows us to “talk” all the time, but does it help us listen, truly listen, to others? Certainly we’ve seen that the decline of listening has made us less tolerant of others’ opinions, and less likely to change our own.

Part of that issue is the shrinking of people’s attention spans. We communicate in ever more truncated “language”, we engage in shorter and shorter bursts of activity, and our brains are changing accordingly. Many of us would be hard-pressed to sit and listen to someone for any length of time. In order to be fully engaged as citizens of the world and members of our communities do we need to reverse that trend? Should we be re-training our brains to be able to pay attention and focus for longer periods? There was talk today of the “slow reading” movement – literally an attempt to get people to “move away from the computer” for a while and sit with a book, reading slowly and carefully, even re-reading favorite texts.

Modern life has been made easier by technology and by many of the societal changes that have occurred; but I don’t think that people are really much happier than they were two or three generations ago. Martin Seligman and others who study happiness have developed a three-part model of what happiness is. It includes positive emotion (the kind that comes from having pleasurable experiences), engagement (being in the “flow”, fully absorbed by some activity), and meaning. Tweeting and texting and multi-tasking might provide moments of pleasure, but I doubt that they can generate that feeling of flow that comes with full engagement, let alone supply meaning to our lives.

Engagement and meaning are more likely to be found in reading a book that touches something in your soul; listening to music that moves you; seeing a piece of art or a play that provokes ideas or controversy; writing a letter or a journal; or learning something new. The ways that we assimilate those experiences and make them a part of us opens the door for a deeper connection with others and something larger than ourselves. That’s what makes us happy.

So maybe the question is, are the humanities the key to more happiness in life?

Human connection

Our search for connection was something that has been on my mind for a while. It started with some books I was reading when I noticed how many had the words “I” and “You” in the title: Titles such as I See You Everywhere, The Last Time I Saw You, and I Still Dream about You. They made me wonder how much we really know or see anybody; otherwise, why so much striving for it?

Over the last week, a series of seemingly unconnected experiences raised this issue for me again. The first was an event I attended in support of some friends who have suffered a great loss. Afterward, I realized that I have a sort of intimacy with them now that I probably was not on a trajectory to experience if their lives had not been irrevocably altered. At first that intimacy feels awkward, because we have everyone neatly categorized into family, work friends, college friends, parents of our kids’ friends, neighbors. How often do we run from these moments when relationships have a paradigm shift? There’s an instinct to turn away, go back to that comfortable corner where I didn’t know their pain so well. But I can’t, I won’t – I’m connected now.

The next evening, I attended Shabbat services where the Torah reading had to do with separating “unclean” people (such as lepers, menstruating women). In addition, the guest speaker of the evening was there to talk about gays in the military and the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”. I was reminded yet again of how we separate ourselves from what is uncomfortable, unfamiliar or frightening. We make it into “I” and “You”, instead of “Us”.

Finally, on Sunday, I went to see the new documentary, “I Am”. I thought it was going to be about values, and it is, but it was more about connections. I was fascinated by some of the science that shows how we are “hard-wired” to feel empathy, compassion and connection. So what has gone so wrong to make us so afraid of connection sometimes? Why do we turn away – and how can we change that? One of the most intriguing parts of the film had to do with an organization called HeartMath, which has done a lot of research about how the heart communicates with the rest of our bodies. Tapping into the intuitive power of the heart can calm us, change our perspective, and help us feel more fulfilled. The heart also connects us bioelectromagnetically to other people. Maybe if we learn to focus more on the heart instead of the head, we can meet people with love, rather than fear.