"Without community, there is no liberation." - Audre Lorde
These are the words that open Mia Birdsong’s book: How We Show Up: Reclaiming Family, Friendship and Community. Published in 2020 at the height of the pandemic and global protests in the wake of George Floyd’s death, How We Show Up is an important work that takes on the question of what it means to hold a collective vision of community in our time. Birdsong calls for a vision that: “Brings us closer to one another, allows us to be vulnerable and imperfect, to grieve, to stumble, to be held accountable and loved deeply.” (p 13.)
A 2018 Cigna survey found that one quarter of folks who live in the United States don’t feel that they have anyone in their life who understands them (Birdsong, 2020.) Only half of society feels that they have meaningful interactions with others each day (Birdsong, 2020.)
These statistics are pre-pandemic.
The attributes of community that Birdsong speaks to above need to be urgently addressed. Case in point: The Economist recently published a piece, “You’ll often walk alone,” exploring Noreena Hertz’s, The Lonely Century. In it, Hertz writes that isolation caused by social distancing, along with divides between family, friends and neighbors due to social and political tension have exacerbated the problem of loneliness that itself has been spreading for decades.
According to the Economist:
“Loneliness increases the risk of heart disease, strokes and dementia. Those who say they are lonely are likelier to be depressed five years later. In addition, lonely people can become more hostile towards others.”
The fact that loneliness increases hostility is incredibly important to note.
New research published in the Journal of Happiness Studies unequivocally underscores the fact that the way we relate to each other as humans will determine whether we experience post traumatic growth vs. post traumatic stress as a result of living through the COVID‐19 Pandemic.
In that article, the authors found that people who have positively associated beliefs towards other humans attach more easily to post traumatic growth. In contrast, individuals who view others with suspicion, or see themselves as fundamentally different from the rest of humanity, can expect to experience increased stress and compounded negative experiences as outcomes of living through the pandemic.
A Return To Collectivism
The pandemic has certainly highlighted the problem of individual isolation vs. community integration, but it did not create it. Modern life did.
Robert Putnam sounded the alarm on the risks associated with isolation in his book Bowling Alone, published in 2000. In it, he described how Americans weren’t joining, as they once did, the groups and clubs that promote trust and cooperation. This in turn has caused a breakdown in universal access to social capital.
We all need social capital (folks we can rely on) in order to experience enough psychological safety and positive emotions to flourish in life (Fredrickson, 2004.)
In The Lonely Century, Hertz decrys social media, isolation deepened by cyber-bullying, people stuck to their smartphones, contemporary employment where two in five workers feel lonely at work, and the gig-economy that leaves people with insecure incomes and without meaningful companionship or collegial support. Hertz also calls out a “minimum state, maximum markets” state of affairs as an additional culprit.
The Economist contextualizes Hertz’s point about the role of markets and modern life nicely, stating that “[m]ass urbanisation is a relatively recent development; if the history of human existence was squeezed into a single day, the Industrial Revolution did not occur until almost midnight. For much of that time, humans lived in small groups of hunter-gatherers; cities may just overwhelm the senses.”
In How We Show Up, Birdsong deepens this narrative by describing how the idea of the American Dream itself pits individuals against one another other in society. In the name of market maximization over community, we’ve created a narrative that "getting ahead in life" is a race that we all must run against each other so that as individuals we will not lose. She writes:
“This fear based sense of scarcity … leaves us with a poorly developed sense of “enough,” both of the material and of love and care. Both surviving these divisions and perpetuating them is draining us of our emotional resilience, grounding, and breathing room. It has us severing the bonds of empathy that allow us to recognize our shared experiences and our shared fates.” (Birdsong, p. 13)
The scientific literature supports Birdsong. We know that positive identification with all of humanity increases subjective wellbeing and aids resiliency (Vazquez, Carmelo & Valiente, Carmen & García, Felipe & Contreras, 2020.) Industry leaders like the Global Wellness Institute are beginning to direct practitioners towards, “a flurry of research papers pointing to the vital importance of social capital.”
According to the GWI, “Notions like trust, state capacity, community-building, social cohesion, and social values like empathy and altruism are now seen as a prerequisite for prosperity and welfare.”
In order to realize the conditions that are necessary for global prosperity and welfare, Birdsong calls for “models of success and leadership that fundamentally value love, care, and generosity of resources and spirit.” p13
Enter Positive Psychology
The world of positive psychology has been at the forefront of examining the mechanics of love, care, and generosity for a long time. Happily, there is a substantial body of work to support us in forging a new path towards interconnectedness and community care from the inside out.
Feelings of generosity and gratitude are called “main emotions” in positive psychology. Love itself is the “supreme emotion” that we need to be aware of in order to connect to others. Research has shown that love can quite literally undo cardiovascular stress caused by toxic individualism.
Connecting to the “main” or heavy hitting positive emotions also allows our minds to open up, generate alternative solutions, and become more creative (Fredrickson, 2004.) Our verbal creativity is especially enhanced and we are able to increase problem solving, cardiovascular health through enhanced coordination, as well as up our social capital by maintaining relationships and creating new ones (Fredrickson, 2004.)
Barbara Fredrickson’s book, Love 2.0: How Our Supreme Emotion Affects Everything We Feel, Think, Do, and Become, gives us the playbook for how this works. One of the most notable findings is “positivity resonance,” through which we can have positive feelings towards others and draw on them later in order to build stores of, and reap the benefits from, positive affect towards others. (Here is an excerpt that explains these concepts more deeply.)
Fredrickson says that taking the time to invest in “momentary experiences of love and other positive emotions builds resources… the small investments you deposit in the so-called bank don’t just sit there. They accumulate, earn interest, and pay out dividends in the form of durable resources that you can later draw on to face future adversity.”
The “investments” that Fredrickson references are the exact same experiences that Vazquez et all tell us are required to build a “primal world belief” that increases one’s chances for post traumatic growth coming out of the pandemic.
This sounds quite simple in practice, and it is.
The hard part is overcoming the isolation, separation, suspicion, and pitting against each other that we continually experience as individuals, families, communities, and nations as a result of the pandemic and current state of affairs. The work is in creating space to truly recognize our shared humanity through empathy.
Putting Insight into Action
Life coaching tells us that whatever we want to accomplish, awareness is the key.
In order to change course and establish a positive and communal view, we must first become aware of the internal bias and external blockers that keep us from connecting to others from a position of love and recognition of common humanity.
We must take the time to source our feelings and our actions, and then ask ourselves if the things that are held up by society as "the way we must mold ourselves" are truly in our interest.
Coaching tells us: rely on the science.
Empathy interventions help us build positive relationships through communication and perception. This helps us bridge the gap between ourselves and others (Davis et al., 2004.) The core tenant of empathy is to understand others’ perspectives and build a strong connection to them through that understanding (Hodges, Clark, & Myers, 2011.)
If we do this enmasse, according to the Global Wellness Institute, “study after study shows that positive linkages exist among social capital and wellbeing. Whether this takes place in the workplace, in the community, or at the level of a nation, stronger social capital (particularly higher levels of trust) is correlated with higher collective and subjective wellbeing.”
Simply put: If we take the time to see and understand each other - and to center humanity as whole with love, care, and generosity of spirit - collectively we will make it out of the pandemic in a position of post traumatic growth. If we do not, we will all slip into a sustained position of post-traumatic stress.
I like to believe that we will be successful in reaching a new threshold of shared humanity.
A byproduct of this outcome is a world where chronic stress holds less power over us, and a world where we can all find abundant peace and safety through community.
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