Despite our relatively gangly, ponderous, and unthreatening physiques, humans successfully evolved to become dominant creatures. What was the key to that successful evolution?
Obviously the answer to this question is multi-factorial, but one major aspect was our ability to work in groups, to collaborate and form communities. These communities provided both protection and support, helping us in the fundamental task of surviving but also in the supplementary and more growth-oriented tasks of learning, creating, and innovating.
Our reliance on care and yearning for inclusion is essential to our being: unlike many creatures, we cannot survive without the help of a parent or guardian when we are infants. The research of John Bowlby has even shown that attachments and bonds have a positive epigenetic effect, meaning nature and nurture go hand in hand. This is why, on a neurobiological and psychological level, inclusion equates with safety and exclusion with threat.
Psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Leary have shown that the need to belong has varied and powerful effects on emotional patterns and cognitive processes. They’ve also found that lack of attachments is linked to adverse effects on health, adjustment, and wellbeing. The need (as opposed to a want) to belong is a fundamental human motivation that, because of its impact on our psychology and health, feeds into every aspect of our lives.
Although we are animals and have selfish drives, which are sometimes called ‘Utility Maximizers’, we also have a profound altruistic capacity. This is essential for social cohesion but is largely mood-dependent. When we are in an open, positive mood we are more likely to be kind and compassionate than when we are in a negative mood. The problem is that bad moods shut us off from the rest of the world and, when we are closed off, we feel excluded, meaning we experience the pain of social exclusion, which is activated through the same circuit as physical pain. This is a vicious cycle, so it is important to understand the process and let go of negative moods so that we can open ourselves up to inclusivity again.
Key to facilitating inclusion is the human brain’s capacity for advanced interaction, which is arguably its most complex skill. It requires literacy and adeptness with many intricate social emotions – including compassion, gratitude, awe, embarrassment, and mirth – while also understanding the benefits of self-sacrifice, play, and kindness. These emotional operating systems were designed to make us good allies on the Savannah and are picked up by our highly sensitive social WiFi. However, the new complexity and nuances of many modern forms of exchange – especially virtual communication and social media (correct use of emojis etc.) – is sometimes hard to manage for them. Furthermore, the fundamentality and potency of our need for inclusion and connection means that if we feel disconnected, lonely, or excluded the repercussions can be protracted and intense. Such effects, however, can be combated by learning adaptive cognitive and behavioural techniques and increasing our emotional literacy.
John Cacioppo, a neuropsychologist at the University of Chicago, has shown that levels of loneliness – a major risk factor for broad-based morbidity and mortality – have doubled in America since the 1980s. Loneliness is also related to greater resistance to blood flow through the cardiovascular system and increased levels of cortisol. There are also correlations between loneliness and lower levels of empathy. Loneliness sends our brains into a ‘social preservation mode’ where we become more focused on protecting ourselves against threat than connecting with others. When we are excluded we go ‘offline’. It is tragic and ironic that the lonelier we become the less we reach out, distancing ourselves from the external support we need and crave. As always though, the neurobiological and epigenetic effects are brought on not just by real circumstances but also our perception of them, so it is important to manage this perception adeptly.
One important biological system involved with social connection is vagal tone. The vagus nerve plays a significant role in homeostasis, maintaining physiological equilibrium and balancing the sympathetic (controls fight or flight threat response) and parasympathetic (controls rest and digestion) nervous systems. The vagus regulates our facial expressions, thereby playing a large role in our emotional and social lives. Psychologist Barbara Fredrickson has shown links between a higher vagal tone, levels of social connection, and increased positive emotions. Her study’s participants underwent a ‘loving-kindness-meditation’ course where they learned how to cultivate positive feelings of kindness and goodwill to themselves and others. For all participants, as their positive emotions rose so did their reported positive social connections, and, as these connections rose, so did their vagal tone. “The daily moments of connection that people feel with others emerge as the tiny engines that drive the upward spiral between positivity and health”, Fredrickson concluded.
As well as individual practices like meditation, what can really help combat these issues is the creation of environments that support collaboration and connection. This can be achieved by developing our emotional literacy and cognitive flexibility on an individual and group level. Socially supportive communities and groups are shown to be a protective buffer against stress. They benefit the wider group by allowing creativity, innovation, and creative abrasion to proliferate. If we are cognitively flexible we will be more outgoing, open to experiences, and receptive of the ideas and offerings of others. We will also better empathise with others – a key component in human connection, paving a superhighway for our mirror neurons to travel on.
Cognitive flexibility will also help us out when we feel excluded. There will always be a time when we feel left out, so normalising feelings of exclusion and understanding that it isn’t the end of the world to feel disconnected, for whatever reason, is crucial. Accepting and letting go of, rather than holding onto, negative emotions is highly adaptive.