Life is a team sport. We need to belong. We’re hardwired to be creatures of community. In modern society isolation is one of the leading causes of mental illness—especially depression and anxiety. Whether its relationship issues, addictions, depression, anxiety, or any other challenge, most people I treat come to me with some version of the same complaint—“I’m lonely.” How did we get so isolated in a country of 319 million and counting? There are a lot of factors.
As noted in the last post, our culture is big on “rugged individualism” and the idea that we get respect by “going it alone,” “clawing to the top,” “being our own person,” etc. This sets us up for a lot of fear of each other. Others are often seen more as competition than as fellow travellers we can rely on in good times and bad times.
Today, the most famous community group, the family, is often lacking in its ability to offer the kind of deep love, connection, and support members need. Too often, the family can be just plain toxic.
Group therapy is a powerful form of reparative therapy. The group acts as a “family of choice.” The group replicates the family dynamic to the unconscious, offering an opportunity to repeat the family experience in a healthy, reparative way. Members learn that they are fully accepted for who they are. They are supported, encouraged, and loved into a new way of being that starts with a sense of deep acceptance of themselves and connectedness to the other group members. Members get from the group what their own family was unable to provide. This can be crucial in their ability to form the kind of life they want. Without acceptance from a group, many of us feel extreme stress and are even emotionally disabled by an experience of ongoing, self-imposed isolation.
I sometimes get a call from people who have left group therapy asking, “Can I come back to group?” Why? Because good groups can be hard to find. We need the connection groups offer. Community is rarely right out the front door anymore. We have to go looking for it.
The Internet has created more opportunity for connection and more opportunity for isolation. You can find many places to connect with others on the web. You can also get into a deluded state of believing that Facebook, Instagram, dating apps, porn, etc., are meeting your social / intimacy needs. They do not. We need face-to-face communication, intimacy, and love from others to meet the psyche’s needs for human connection. We need this contact with others who are truly able to communicate, to see us, and to be there for us.
Psychology has come to rely on groups for many healing modalities— the most famous being the twelve-step community of which millions attend every day. There are incest survivors groups, Al- Anon groups, debtors groups, couples groups, etc. One of the biggest websites to come along in years is Meet Up (meetup.com), offering social groups of all kinds. It might be said that healing mental illness has as much to do with healing the space between our ears as it does with healing the space between each other.
Roseto Pennsylvania is an unusual community that was settled in 1912 by Italian immigrants. The entire community was what author Malcolm Gladwell called Outliers (outside the range of normality). Roseto was studied by Dr. Stephen Wolf and a sociologist by the name of Bruhn in the 1950’s when they were told almost no one in the town was treated for heart disease in an era when the illness was at epidemic proportions. After an exhaustive study of nearly the entire population and their ancestors, the researchers were astonished. There was a complete absence of heart conditions for men under 55. In addition, they found a fifty percent lower rate of heart attacks for men over 65 from the general population. There were no addictions, no ulcers, practically non-existent crime, no one was on welfare, no suicide, and no peptic ulcers.
Wolf and Bruhn were confounded. None of the prevailing wisdom on diet and exercise was at play here. The Rosetans cooked with lard, they smoked heavily, drank regularly, and many had obesity. The study concluded there was nothing special about the air, water, land, genetics, or exercise routines of the people. Wolf and Bruhn found that the remarkable health of the Roesetans was attributed to how the people lived together: They built close houses, extended families lived together, they went to mass together, competed in wine making, had deep respect for elders, visited each other on the streets, were egalitarian in their treatment of each other, and knew about each other’s families. The health and happiness of the community was linked to the benefits of people talking to each other on the streets and living in community.
From Outliers: "I remember going to Roseto for the first time, and you'd see three generational family meals, all the bakeries, the people walking up and down the street, sitting on their porches talking to each other, the blouse mills where the women worked during the day, while the men worked in the slate quarries," Bruhn said. "It was magical."
The study convinced medical professionals to look beyond the habits of what individuals did in isolation and into how they related to friends, family, and community as a determiner of health and overall well being.
What groups do you belong to? Do you feel lonely, isolated, or disconnected from others? Maybe its time to stop medicating, surfing the Internet, or trying to figure it out on your own. It could be time to step outside, find your group, and join the team.
Check out, The Roseto Effect: