I’m a big fan of technology but one of the potential downsides, as we all know, is the risk of isolating ourselves instead of engaging in ‘real’ relationships. We most often think of those relationship casualties as those of an intimate nature, but what about the group and community bonding we’re giving up? As society has become more individualistic over time, our communities just don’t seem to have the coherence they once had.
Since the baby boom generation, we value mobility and independence over community, where neighborhood is now just a place to sleep at night. I have literally lived next door for years to neighbors that I have never met. It always struck me as odd that a sense of neighborhood unity and coherence was only present at times of distress and disruption: after a hurricane or big snow storm or a national tragedy like 9/11. But that on-again, off-again sense of community has always been my reality. Even places that might provide a sense of community bonding, such as school or work, have largely failed to coalesce for me into feeling like an integral part of the whole. I have spent most of my life feeling like a lone wolf that periodically joins the pack.
But it’s not always that way. My leadership development programs and my current master’s program have had a very different and distinct sense of community and team spirit. Getting together has felt like one huge warm bosom of camaraderie and good will. We’re in it together, and any egos or agendas are left at the door. Though the master’s program is large enough such that I am not intimate with every classmate, I nevertheless feel we are all one big family. In for a penny, in for a pound.
What do we give up by losing this sense of community in our daily lives? Ultimately, humans are pack creatures. We have huddled together around fires for millennia, and to be isolated in front of the computer or TV in our work or homes is counter to our instinct and basic human nature. Our species has used collaboration to enable the community to survive and thrive. Individual self-sacrifice is even necessary occasionally for the species to survive and flourish. That sacrifice is still evident among those in the armed forces and first responders who are willing to make the ultimate sacrifice to protect and advance our communities and nation.
This transition from feeling alone to an integral part of the group is a distinct phenomenon called the hive switch by Jonathan Haidt, author of The Righteous Mind. The switch from individual interest to group interest makes the individual feel like a part of a whole, provides energy to the group, and elevates the group from the ordinary to the sacred. We are rewarded physiologically for this switch via a release of oxytocin, the hormone that enables the feeling of connection.
Organized sports and religion continue to provide access to this feeling of community. The rituals of sports and religion activate the hive switch (imagine the spectators at the Super Bowl), though modern religion is losing the ability to provide the feeling of community in this increasingly individualistic society. So, regardless of how you may feel about organized sports or religion, they do provide a useful service in the provision of the essential human need to belong. I’m not sure what I’m going to do when my master’s program ends and I’m left with a void that was my community and family-away-from-home. I’m not a big fan of organized religion or sports, so I’m unlikely to find a surrogate in those arenas. Perhaps I can use technology to my advantage here and find people of like interests in my area to meet with, either by joining a pre-existing group or organizing my own. What do you do? Do you have your community or are you like me, a lone wolf who occasionally circles with the pack?