The Power of Human Connection

Yes I know it is an advert, but the short 2 minute video below from Thailand beautifully illustrates the power of  human connection.

It is certainly a sweet, feel-good video, but strong interpersonal connection is not just important for babies!
We were designed as relational beings and we thrive best in every area of life when we are strongly ‘in relationship’ with others. However, there is something about modern life that seems to conspire agains this.

A study published in August 2014 by Relate, a relationship charity in Britain found

- almost 1 in 10 people (close to 5 million people in the UK)  stated that they had no close friends.

- more than 1/3 of working parents do not see or speak to their own children every day because they are too busy at the office.

- most workers have much more contact with their boss or colleagues than their own friends or close family

- in spite of the increased connectivity with work through email and mobile phones more than 4 in 10 said they had no real friends at work.

Another study by Juliane Holt-Lunstead at Bingham Young University found that loneliness and isolation is as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or drinking excessively. Their conclusion was that friendship and family can improve health by providing support during tough times to help us find meaning in our lives.

This same research team also looked at 148 studies that tracked the relationships and health of 308,849 people over an average of 7 1/2 years. They found that sociable people had a 50% better survival rate. The reason for this they concluded was that when someone is connected to a group and feels responsibility to other people, that sense of purpose and meaning translates in to taking better care of themselves and taking fewer risks.

I have certainly noticed that working as a psychiatrist and spoken to many people who have contemplated suicide. One of the questions we are taught to always ask is, ‘What keeps you from taking your life?’ And the consistent response is the devastating impact it would have on friends, family or other loved ones.

So how do we increase this human connection?
One of the important ways is through gratitude. Being thankful and expressing thanks to someone puts you in the centre of the way life was designed to be – in relationship. It literally bonds you to the other person in a deeper way and cements the connection.

Here are some practical steps:

1. Stop and reflect on the people and circumstances in your life that you are grateful for.
In other words, feel your feelings of gratitude. They will literally fill you your soul, create happy feelings and increase your sense of well-being.

2. Put words to your feelings of gratitude.
It is important to not just allow yourself to feel thankful in a vague or non-specific way. There is genuine power when we express our gratitude precisely and specifically through words. We are literally re-wiring our brains. That is why writing down things to be thankful for on a consistent basis can be so beneficial for mental health. Research has shown that having a gratitude journal in and of itself will improve your mood and help you feel less down (for more on that see here). In other words, happiness follows gratitude.

3. Express your gratitude to God through prayer and to other people.
This is such an unusual thing to do, but it can be enormously powerful in bringing about a connection with others. Most people are use to only being told what is wrong rather than what it is about the things they do that are appreciated by others. As you make the practice of expressing gratitude something you consistently build into your life, then the people you thank will be blessed and feel appreciated, and you will find yourself better connected to others as well.

(For another video and blog post on human connection, see The Power of Connecting With Your Past.)

So who do you need to connect with in your life?

What comments and questions does the issue of human connection raise for you?
Please feel free to write down your thoughts and comments.

Moving from disappointment to joy

As we discuss that elusive search for joy that goes on in our lives, we have looked at the cultural myths that get in the way of us finding the joy we deep down long for. Tim Keller describes these as ‘naive primary strategies’.(See previous post).

appreciation-and-gratitudeThey are naive in that they are both too simplistic and because they have to do with things that have to go right in our lives for us to be happy. In traditional cultures it is about having the right spouse or family or career; while in more contemporary cultures it is the thirst for success as I choose to define it. But relying on your circumstances for ultimate happiness is doomed to failure because of the experiences of failure or success that we all go through. (There is more on this in the previous post). Psychologists have also pointed out that life circumstances only account for 10% of our overall level of happiness.

Keller helpfully points out that as a result of this we move to precarious secondary strategies to deal with disappointment in not finding joy. We may not even be aware we are doing it, but they are nevertheless powerful influences in our lives.

The lies we tell ourselves about joy

Our hearts are hungry for joy. We think it is our circumstances that need changing, but joy goes well beyond our circumstances as this powerful and joy-filled video illustrates:

As children we looked to all sorts of things for joy fulfilment. I gave some examples from my own life in the previous post.

The other huge area where this expresses itself is with romantic love. For me as a teenager growing up in an all boys school in England that was a huge subject to deal with. And it still is for anyone growing up.
As the poem says:

The search for joy

You and I are hungry for joy.

The 4 minute video below about Nick Vujicic we introduced in the last post illustrates how there is a form of happiness that is independent of our circumstances. Nick in this video has certainly experienced it.

There is a deep desire in our hearts for joy. At the same time there is also in our hearts a deep lack of joy that creates an intense internal longing. As C.S. Lewis says,

“There is a kind of happiness and wonder that makes you serious.”

Why is joy more important than happiness?

I don’t think it is a matter of semantics. We have looked at the importance of a happy disposition in life, but we also need to make a distinction between happiness and joy. What is the distinction?

The following 4 minute video of  Nick Vujicic who was born with no arms and legs is incredibly joyful:

Nick is able to show an incredible amount of happiness in spite of his apparent limitations because he has joy.

That joy empowers him, as he says on the video “to be thankful, to dream big and to never give up.”

Why Gratitude can be so Powerful

We have been looking at the importance of gratitude as a key to overall happiness in life (see previous post). We have also pointed out how psychologists have estimated that life circumstances only account for about 10% of a person’s overall level of happiness (see the happiness formula at Why I Am Working at Becoming a Happier Person).

HappinessAccording to psychologists, 90% of your overall level of happiness has to do with who you are and what you do. Intuitively we know life will always have its ups and downs and so it is dangerous to depend on your circumstances for happiness. And yet that is our natural default way of thinking. We need to intentionally change that.

Instead your relationships and your life practices are going to be the fuel for how you feel, not what is going on around you.

Therefore, no matter what the circumstances are, we need to be practising gratitude to fill the gap between what is happening around us and how we internally feel. (See also Which Way Are You Looking? Part 1 and Part 2). The reason is that even if things are apparently  going well in our lives we can still find ourselves unhappy.

This also explains why you can find unhappy people in what appear to be the best of circumstances.

The importance of gratitude in becoming a genuinely happier person

For much of my life I have been a ‘glass half-empty’ negative kind of person. I am not proud of that. Given a choice I will tend to find my mind drifting towards the worst case scenario. When they were younger some of my children gave me the nickname “Pudleglum”. 

HappinessPuddleglum is a fictional character from C.S. Lewis’ children’s novel, “The Silver Chair”. He is caricature of pessimissim and a bastion of gloomy fortitude.  (see post What Are The Forms of Major Depressive Disorder? and my own personal struggle with depressive thinking at the post Just As I Am).

However, over the years I have learnt there are certain habits and choices I can make that can profoundly influence my state of mind on a moment-by-moment basis. One of the most foundational is the cultivation of an attitude of gratitude.  I share my experience with you here for you to see if there is anything that resonates with you and you feel you can apply in your own life.

In November 2008 I went to hear a lecture by the psychologist Tal Ben-Sahar at an elite private school called Wellington College. In many ways that evening was a life-defining moment for me. At that evening I was challenged by Tal Ben-Sahar keeping a daily journal every night for several years. In that journal he recorded at least 3 things that he was grateful for. I was so inspired that evening I made a decision, with the help of God’s grace, to do that as well.

Why I am working on becoming a happier person

We are use to the idea of training our physical bodies to become physically fit. There are distinct things we can do to become a stronger and healthier person- eating the right foods, exercising regularly and consistently are the obvious things that come to mind. By applying the Law of Process I can make huge changes to my physical health. That is certainly well established and uncontroversial. But can I actually train myself to be an overall happier person? Shawn Achor, a teacher of positive psychology at Harvard would give an emphatic yes. If you have not yet seen this entertaining 12 minute video (introduced in the last post) I would encourage you to do so.

In all my training to become a psychiatrist I do not recall a single lecture or class on dealing with the positive in life rather than the negative. To illustrate this, according to Martin Seligman between 1967 to 2000 there were the following number of psychological abstracts on the following subjects:

What do you think makes you happy?

The 12 minute video below is a talk given by Sean Achor, who is an American educator, author and speaker. It is both entertaining and funny while at the same time challenges our assumptions as to what are the factors that can truly make us happy.

One of Achor’s main points is the importance of mindset to increasing our potential for happiness, productivity, creativity and energy. This flies in the face of  much of formal education which seeks to focus on what is called “the cult of the average”. 

What is the most complex object in the universe?

You can make a pretty strong case for saying that the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. 

Human brain imageIt contains 100 billion nerve cells (called neurones). Each of these neurones contains a vast electrochemical complex and powerful micro-data-processing system. As complex as each cell is it would fit on the head of a pin!

In the last 150 days of intra-uterine life, the brain is apparently developing neurones at the rate of 580,000 a minute! Each neurone connects to another neurone through anywhere between 1,000 to 10,000 synapses.

New brain connections are created every time you form a memory.

You can even make a case for saying that the number of potential  inter-neuronal connections in one human brain is significantly  more than the number of atoms in the known universe (see Wonder Filled Bold Humility part 2).

More than 650 people attempted to set a new Guinness world record on 22 February 2014 when they created the largest image of a brain made out of people in Liverpool’s University Square.

The participants donned ponchos of different colours to represent parts of the brain (red for the frontal lobe, blue for the parietal lobe, orange for the occipital lobe, green for the temporal lobe, yellow for the cerebellum, purple for the brainstem and spinal cord). The record attempt was led by Tom Solomon, head of Liverpool University’s Institute of Infection and Global Health, in aid of World Encephalitis Day.

Here are some interesting facts about your brain: