Join The Club

Somewhere over North Dakota, on a flight bound for Seattle, I finally mustered up the courage to ask my seat companion where he was headed. “Nick” told me that he was a pilot from Seattle, working out of New York. As we swapped stories, it turned out that Nick lived in an apartment just one block away from me on the Upper East Side.

As these things often go, we both bike the same loop in Central Park on a regular basis. We also see the same people: the gal with the red bandanna, the t.v. celebrity, the music man who carries his radio on his handlebars, the ex-marine who pedals in his military gear…the list was long and colorful.

What I found interesting was how different Nick and I were, and yet how close our social circles were. Years ago, I had this same reaction when I joined with hundreds of others to watch the last episode of Cheers outside the Bull & Finch Pub on the Boston Common. I didn’t know anyone sitting next to me that night, but we were all connected in our laughter.

Any shared experience – good or bad – has positive impact on our sense of wellbeing. It makes us feel connected and lessens our sense of loneliness. Those living in New York will recall the sense of cohesion and goodwill that pervaded the city in the wake of 9-11. Ditto when the power grid fails and we have a “blackout.” People actually talk to one another!

Having many positive social connections doesn’t just increase your happiness, it can even help you live longer. John T. Cacioppo, a professor at the University of Chicago, led a study of 229 people between 50 and 68 years old. He found a 30-point difference in blood pressure between those who experienced loneliness and those with healthy social connections. Being connected to others in a positive way, feeling a sense of relatedness, is a basic need for human beings, similar to eating and drinking.

I’ll often hear clients say that they miss their friends who have moved on, or the companionship that their fraternity used to afford them. The groups to which they used to belong no longer exist and they have yet to fill the gap. I encourage them to get out and find a new tribe. Join a club. Sign up for a committee. Talk to your neighbors. For those of you who think spending loads of time with others is a sometimes a drag, remember that social isolation is not the brain’s natural or desired state. Having friends around you reduces a deeply ingrained, biological threat response. Being surrounded by people your brain perceives as friends, is not only good for your mind, it’s also good for your health. Melody Beattie in her book, The Grief Club, encourages her readers to find social connections. She writes, “If we’re alone we can’t see who we are. When we join a club, other people become the mirror. Through them, we see ourselves and gain an understanding of what we’re going through.” To know others, is to know ourselves. So go ahead and let yourself be known.