By Paul Hellweg
Don’t let all the bad news get you down. True, we’re facing lots of crises, some of which even carry a risk of human extinction (nuclear war, climate change, maybe even AI). But there is hope, and you can start experiencing it simply by chatting with your neighbors.
A few months ago, I wrote an op-ed about how simply going outside will make you feel better, and it’s likely to make you more inclined to help save the climate too. A friend, Simon Nelson, commented that I overlooked the role of community. I have to quote his message directly because he worded it so beautifully: “I think it’s the breaking of our connections with community that has left us so disempowered and unable to see how collective action can solve our problems.”
He’s right. Establishing community ties is essential for us to both feel better and to save our world. Our best hope for surviving as a species is to put our parochial differences aside, and start working together. We need connection, we need community. You can start by saying hello to your neighbors more often.
Vivek H. Murthy, Surgeon General of the United States, would likely agree. In a recent essay he wrote that “ … our need for human connection is like our need for food and water: essential for our survival.” Indeed. Ever since the dawn of humanity, we have needed to rely on each other for survival. You don’t bring down a Woolly Mammoth by yourself, you need the support of the other hunters in your tribe. Nothing has changed. One person can start a nuclear war, but only collective action will deny him/her the opportunity. It’s similar for climate change and everything else. Alone we can help a little, but together we can save our world. And as an added little bonus, people with social connections feel better and are healthier too.
To quote Surgeon General Murphy again, “Evidence shows that connection is linked to better heart health, brain health and immunity.” Murphy’s essay and an article published by the CDC (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention), assert that socially-isolated people have a higher risk of anxiety, depression, heart disease, insomnia, inflammation, stroke, diabetes, addiction, suicidality and self-harm. But that’s not all. Socially disconnected people have both a 50 percent greater risk of dementia and an overall risk of premature death comparable to that of smokers. Rather makes one want to talk to her or his neighbors.
Clearly social connection (in person, not on social media) is important, but what can you do other than just saying “hello” more often? Why not call a friend or relative you haven’t talked to in a long while? Maybe you’d be up for joining a local social group – a sewing circle, garden club, book club, writer’s group, sports league, yoga club, etc. There are literally dozens of possibilities. That’s all good, but how does any of that relate to saving humanity?
According to Surgeon General Murphy, one of the best ways to combat social isolation is to help others. A marvelous idea, that. There’s always a need for volunteers at your local school, church, senior center, library, and more. Another approach to both helping others and reaping the benefits of social connectedness is to join a group working to make the world better. Again, there are lots of possibilities, mainly because there are so many problems: Climate Change, war, firearm violence, hate attacks, social and racial inequities, soil degradation, hunger, and so much more.
Thanks, Simon, you were right. It’s only through collective action that we can respond effectively to the problems that threaten our quality of life and potentially our very survival.
Paul Hellweg is a freelance writer and poet.