What stops us from connecting even though we know social ties make us healthier and happier?
It’s Good for You
Socialization is to therapists what leafy green vegetables are to dieticians: we both strongly believe our clients could use more of these things, usually a lot more. And our clients don’t disagree — either about the greens or the socialization. Yet despite our professional exhortations, few greens are eaten and few friends are made. What’s going on here?
Shape and be Shaped
One answer to the dearth of socialization came to me tucked away in a chapter of Charles’ Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK]. Duhigg spends a great deal of time discussing the different ways a person’s social milieu affects the choices they make and the habits they develop over time. These effects can be as banal as our choice of cleaning products, or as profound as the willingness to stand up against the status quo against segregation or apartheid.
Duhigg describes ideal agents of social change as those who have loose alliances with many people from different segments of a community. And while all these connections confer a kind of power to influence, the links go both ways, and individuals who have the power to shape others are also pressured to make themselves more acceptable to their constituencies.
Some of the time, these social influences are subtle. We believe we make our own choices for our own reasons, when in fact we’re shaped by what we think our peers will say. At other times, social pressure is obvious and intense. For those who struggle to conform to external standards, whether that be personal appearance, tastes in music or movies, religious beliefs, or any of the countless other criteria by which people judge one another, what a relief it would be to stop playing the game and just do whatever individual preferences dictate for once.
Social Engineering in the Classroom
Schooling is one of the most artificial things we human beings do. For most of the day, young children leave their homes and spend time with dozens if not hundreds of other unrelated children almost exactly the same age, moderated by relatively few adult caregivers. Teachers observe that this many children, left to their own devices, do not naturally form healthy, inclusive social networks, but instead coalesce into exclusive cliques which seem to feed on their own sense of exclusivity, leaving a sizable minority of students out in the cold.
Kindergarten teacher Vivian Paley saw this drive to exclude in her students, and wanted to do something about it. She contemplated making a seemingly simple rule: “You can’t say you can’t play.” She eventually went on to write a book by the same name [Amazon-US | Amazon-UK], recounting her experience with this rule.
At first, she asked students in kindergarten through fifth grade what they thought of this rule. While they agreed that it hurt to be excluded, and they could agree in principle that other kids should not be allowed to exclude others, they were reluctant to be held to the same rule themselves. The children had deep concerns about whether the rule could even be implemented or enforced, and if it could, what would happen to the quality of play when association was forced rather than freely chosen?
Paley decided to implement her rule in her kindergarten class. After one year of “you can’t say you can’t play,” she felt it helped the previously-excluded children enough to become a standing rule in her classroom. Other educators know of the rule but resist implementing it, both because social exclusion is a fact of life, and because taking away that power gives sanction to those who would wreck others’ games.
Social as Optional
Mobility and modernity have made isolation possible, even comfortable. In a world where you can work from home, get your groceries from Amazon, and live alone in an anonymous apartment tower-block where it’s perfectly acceptable not to know any of your neighbors, one can survive, at least at the physical level, with almost no human connection at all.
Even for those of us with families or housemates, it’s easier to be alone in the same building. In my own house, it seems that we’re beginning to adopt a ‘one screen per family member’ policy, where one person watches TV, another is on a laptop and still a third has a tablet or phone in their hand. We’re together, but that doesn’t mean we’re connecting, at least not outside of instant messaging.
Technology also brings about the possibility for a kind of faux-sociability through online gaming. World of Warcraft may be the most recognized example of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) that seemingly devoured some people’s lives outside of the game world. More recently, ‘casual’ games — typified by Farmville — which are often built on top of Facebook, have lured more people away from their real-life friends and into more and more screen time.
In many ways, these games make up for deficiencies or difficulties found in real-life socialization. Besides banishing the problem of physical distance, MMORPGs and other ‘social’ games mitigate some of obstacles to in-person socialization. For people who don’t feel comfortable with their physical appearance, gaming is a great way to downplay that aspect of themselves. In-game status and attention can be won by simply putting in the time and effort to ‘level up’ in a way that’s a lot harder to achieve in real life.
The hard truth I’m beginning to see for myself is that socialization isn’t the panacea therapists might wish it to be. Being social is daunting for many of us (myself included). It brings with it the risk of failure and rejection, which we now know are felt in the same way physical pain is experienced. Meanwhile, our consumer culture and Internet technology provide a relatively easy, risk-free way to have some simulacrum of a social life through instant messaging, social media, and the good old standby of television. In order to really help our clients, we’ve got to become clear on the many very real reasons why our clients are staying on the couch and avoiding the park.