Sometimes we all feel anxious. Sometimes lonely or disconnected. Sometimes unhappy, and maybe even a little crazy. You know what might fix all of this?
Would you believe me if I said… a war?
The positive effects of war on mental health were first noticed by the great sociologist Emile Durkheim, who found that when European countries went to war, suicide rates dropped. Psychiatric wards in Paris were strangely empty during both world wars, and that remained true even as the German army rolled into the city in 1940. Researchers documented a similar phenomenon during civil wars in Spain, Algeria, Lebanon, and Northern Ireland. An Irish psychologist named H. A. Lyons found that suicide rates in Belfast dropped 50 percent during the riots of 1969 and 1970, and homicide and other violent crimes also went down. Depression rates for both men and women declined abruptly during that period, with men experiencing the most extreme drop in the most violent districts. County Derry, on the other hand—which suffered almost no violence at all—saw male depression rates rise rather than fall.
Hold on a second before you send me that angry email. I’m not really suggesting war as a solution to any of our emotional ills. God forbid.
But, that said: what the heck is going on here? Wars are supposed to be bad, right?
Why are people feeling less depressed, less crazy, less violent and less suicidal when something we can all agree is horrible and life threatening is happening around them?
Because war and natural disasters force people to unite together. To help others. To act as a community.
“When people are actively engaged in a cause their lives have more purpose… with a resulting improvement in mental health,” Lyons wrote in the Journal of Psychosomatic Research in 1979. “It would be irresponsible to suggest violence as a means of improving mental health, but the Belfast findings suggest that people will feel better psychologically if they have more involvement with their community.”
We need a community to feel good. And community is something we sorely lack in the modern world. Sadly, we often only feel it these days when forced to.
Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary.
Many of us live alone. We’re often surrounded by strangers rather than family or friends. We communicate by text rather than face to face. We hire a service instead of getting the help of a buddy.
These are new developments in the existence of Homo Sapiens. And while efficient and effective, they don’t contribute to the feeling of community we all need to feel whole. So it’s no surprise that empathy is dropping:
A recent study at the University of Michigan revealed a dramatic decline in empathy levels among young Americans between 1980 and today, with the steepest drop being in the last ten years. The shift, say researchers, is in part due to more people living alone and spending less time engaged in social and community activities that nurture empathic sensitivity.
And when you feel like you don’t belong to a group, health and self-control plummet. If that doesn’t register with you maybe that’s because when you feel disconnected, your IQ drops too:
When people’s sense of social connectedness is threatened, their ability to self-regulate suffers; for instance their IQ performance drops (Baumeister, Twenge, & Nuss, 2002). Feeling lonely predicts early death as much as major health risk behaviors like smoking (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).
I know what some people are thinking: But I have friends. Got a bunch of ’em, actually.
That ain’t the issue, Bubba. We’re talking about a community. A group. A band of brothers. A syndicate of sisters. Your fantasy football league. Your sewing circle. Your drug cartel.
But they’re all relationships, right? Maybe the difference isn’t clear. So what’s the difference?
Well, I’m so glad you asked…
It’s all about Danish churches
Research shows Denmark is home to the happiest people in the world. (Hamlet was, apparently, an exception.) And pretty much everywhere, religious people are happier than the nonreligious.
Both are due to being in a community. 92% of Danes are part of some kind of group:
The sociologist Ruut Veenhoven and his team have collected happiness data from ninety-one countries, representing two-thirds of the world’s population. He has concluded that Denmark is home to the happiest people in the world, with Switzerland close behind… Interestingly enough, one of the more detailed points of the research found that 92 percent of the people in Denmark are members of some sort of group, ranging from sports to cultural interests.
And the happiness effects of religion?
We find little evidence that other private or subjective aspects of religiosity affect life satisfaction independent of attendance and congregational friendship.
Membership has its privileges and we ain’t just talking about smiles. Seems like everybody is yakking about “grit” these days. (Apparently, the subject of grit promotes grit, but only when it comes to talking about grit more often.)
What promotes that resilience? Groups.
Belonging to groups, such as networks of friends, family, clubs and sport teams, improves mental health because groups provide support, help you to feel good about yourself and keep you active. But belonging to many different groups might also help to make you psychologically and physically stronger. People with multiple group memberships cope better when faced with stressful situations such as recovering from stroke and are even more likely to stay cold-free when exposed to the cold virus.
And if happiness and resilience aren’t enough for you, let’s talk about the ever-popular benefit of not dropping dead:
Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Ph.D., professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, did a meta-analysis of 148 studies and concluded that a lack of social support predicts all causes of death. People with a solid group of friends are 50 percent more likely to survive at any given time than those without one.
Okay, groups are good — to say the least. But maybe the local bowling league doesn’t seem that appealing…
(To learn more about the science of a successful life, check out my new book here.)
So how do you start your own little community? What’s it take to form a group of friends and get all those wonderful benefits? Here’s what the research says:
1) Regular meetings
Drinking Tang once does not make you an astronaut. And one get-together is not a community; it’s a party.
If you don’t have regular, consistent meetings, the thing is probably going to fall apart and you certainly won’t get the bonding, trust and all them good “feels” that you’re wanting.
Two of the biggest boosters to overall well-being are exercise and religious attendance. It’s because both give consistent, scheduled benefits:
We suggest that while major events may not provide lasting increases in well-being, certain seemingly minor events – such as attending religious services or exercising – may do so by providing small but frequent boosts: if people engage in such behaviors with sufficient frequency, they may cumulatively experience enough boosts to attain higher well-being.
It’s comical when you think about it. We have set work hours. Hair appointments get scheduled. But often when it comes to relationships — you know, that one thing that pretty much every variety of religion, philosophy and scientific paper all agree makes life worthwhile — that’s the area where, ehhhh, we just kinda wing it… Does that make any kind of sense?
Priorities, people, priorities.
Seeing friends and family regularly is the equivalent of making an extra $97,265 per year:
So, an individual who only sees his or her friends or relatives less than once a month to never at all would require around an extra £63,000 a year to be just as satisfied with life as an individual who sees his or her friends or relatives on most days.
So make a plan. Set a schedule. Once a week, once a month, whatever. But consistency is key.
(To learn the 3 secrets from neuroscience that will make you emotionally intelligent, click here.)
Okay, you’ve got a schedule. But who is coming? Time to play recruiter. For a solid group, what kind of people do you want to invite?
2) Who makes you feel good? Whom do you admire?
You want people who make you feel good. Yeah, I know. Obvious. But it’s worth repeating.
You know why old people are so happy and mellow? The research shows it’s because they’ve deliberately pruned their social circles over the years:
Other studies have discovered that as people age, they seek out situations that will lift their moods — for instance, pruning social circles of friends or acquaintances who might bring them down.
Often times we include people because we “should” and this can lead to problems. Spending time with fake friends — or “frenemies” — is worse than spending time with real enemies:
Friends that we feel ambivalently about raise our blood pressure more — cause more anxiety and stress — than people we actively dislike.
And you want to have people in the clan who you admire. People you aspire to be like. Because you are going to become similar to the people around you — like it or not.
The Longevity Project, which studied over 1000 people from youth to death had this to say:
The groups you associate with often determine the type of person you become. For people who want improved health, association with other healthy people is usually the strongest and most direct path of change.
When you take a job take a long look at the people you’re going to be working with — because the odds are you’re going to become like them, they are not going to become like you.
Who do you like and who do you look up to? There’s your squad.
(To learn the seven-step morning ritual that will make you happy all day, click here.)
Alright, we know you want to be surrounded by people you want to be like and people you feel good around. So what’s the next step?
3) Struggle, help, and celebrate
So what’s your group gonna do? Hopefully something you all enjoy. But if you want to accelerate the bonding process, make it something with a touch of struggle to it.
Sports, games, volunteer work, or building something all qualify. I’m not saying you all have to get together to have an Amish barn raising… but it’s not a terrible idea, either. Do something interactive and struggle a bit:
Anthropologist Dimitris Xygalatas (say that three times fast) found that groups that went through “high-ordeals” bonded far more than those that went through “low-ordeals.” Struggling together made people closer. This is why fraternities haze. Why soldiers feel like they are kin.
And help each other. You surrounded yourself with people you admire, right? Great. They’re gonna rub off on you. But there’s almost always a way for you to give back and bring value to their lives as well.
And this may surprise you but the people who live the longest aren’t the ones who receive the most help — they’re the people who give the most help:
Beyond social network size, the clearest benefit of social relationships came from helping others. Those who helped their friends and neighbors, advising and caring for others, tended to live to old age.
And after you struggle, after you’ve given and received help, celebrate your successes. It’s no big shocker, but leading happiness researcher Sonja Lyubomirsky has shown that sharing our achievements with others and celebrating boosts well-being:
Sharing successes and accomplishments with others has been shown to be associated with elevated pleasant emotions and well-being. So, when you or your spouse or cousin or best friend wins an honor, congratulate him or her (and yourself ), and celebrate.
(To learn the 4 rituals from neuroscience that will make you happy, click here.)
Okay, we’ve covered a lot on what your little group needs to survive and thrive. Let’s round it up and see how this plays out in the long term…
You can build a great group by:
- Consistent get-togethers: Leaving happiness to chance is an excellent way to be unhappy. If you can make a dentist appointment, you can make an appointment to enjoy “Game of Thrones” together every week.
- Recruit people you like and people you look up to: If you don’t like anyone and think everyone is beneath you, create an Antisocial Narcissists Club. (Nobody will come but everyone will think they deserve to be the leader.)
- Struggle, help and celebrate: Build or make something. Engage in friendly competition. Help each other. And when you succeed, party like rockstars.
Nobody wants deathbed regrets and everyone would like a good life.
When people are dying, what do they regret the most? Coming in at #4 is: “I wish I had stayed in touch with my friends.” A group is a way to solve the problem efficiently and on a consistent basis. Oh, and it’s a lot of freakin’ fun.
How do you live a good life? Well, The Grant Study has followed a group of 268 men for over 80 years. They have learned a lot about what does and doesn’t make for a good life.
George Vaillant led much of their work. He was asked, “What have you learned from the Grant Study men?” Vaillant’s response?
That the only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.
So make a plan to get together regularly with your community…
Waiting for the next war is just so lazy.
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