Sometimes you come across a piece of information that just blows you away. Robert Putnam, in his book “Bowling Alone,” says that if you are not in a group now and you join one, you will cut your chance of dying this year by 50 percent! Why? Because social ties are fundamental.
Now, I know I’ve said this about social ties before in this column — many times — but I don’t think people really get it. We feel that there are lots of things more important.
I know I grew up focusing on achievement, getting more done. “Work harder! Be more efficient!” was always in the back of my mind. I tried to strip my life of things that got in the way. Some of it was good. I rarely went shopping, except for the most essential things. I hardly watched TV, only PBS. I spent as little time as possible on makeup and image. My goal was to just “pass.”
But I also scrimped on time spent with others. Just hanging out didn’t seem as important as reading a book or writing something. But now I know that hanging out would have been time well spent because social ties are the most important element in health, happiness, well-being and longevity.
One of the results of ignoring social ties is that our communication skills have suffered. We think we’re supposed to win when we’re really supposed to care. We try to impress instead of connect. So there’s just too much animosity and poor communication.
As an educator, I’m most concerned with giving people the skills to talk with each other. There are four conversation skills we need to learn: to be proactive, positive, collaborative and egalitarian.
You need to learn to be shameless. Talk with everyone, everywhere, all the time, about anything.
You be the one who says hello, who introduces yourself at a party, who turns and starts a conversation at the bus stop. Yes, even bus stops!
Casual conversation not only boosts your morale, it creates a community where you feel you belong, where there’s ease in speaking up. It’s good for the citizen and good for the democracy.
I hate mentioning the word “positive” because it sounds like we just want people to go around with a smiley face, ignoring all the problems and injustices. But it’s become pretty clear that you don’t change things by complaining all the time.
John Gottman of the University of Washington, an expert on relationships, says that we need to avoid a “crabby habit of mind.” It’s easy to get started complaining because there are so many things wrong. But I’ve learned to say to my husband, when he starts on one of his familiar rants, “Rant No. 24! Duly noted! No need to continue!”
Instead of talking about what’s wrong — which we all know anyway — tell stories about what’s going right, about people tackling the problems. It’s inspiring and more interesting, and you won’t turn into an old crank.
The most basic skill we need to learn is to work together. Conversation is a perfect place to practice this. Just remember that conversation is a barn-raising, not a battle.
When you have a good conversation, you affirm what the other person says; you listen with fascinated interest; and you respond with something like, “I know what you mean!” “I agree!” “That’s an interesting point!”
Inequality undermines social cohesion. Yes, we need to eliminate inequality on a societal scale. But we also need to create opportunities where people can experience being equal, places where we don’t show deference or subservience, where we don’t put someone else down.
So have lots potlucks. Or garden together.! Or sing together.
In fact, if you’re an activist or in an organization, give people the opportunity to practice all these social skills: being proactive, positive, collaborative and equal. Set up lots of events, and always make sure that people get a chance to talk together and have convivial, congenial conversations!
And, remember, make sure you’re in a group yourself! You’ll not only probably live longer, you’ll be happier. It doesn’t matter if it’s the Sierra Club, a turtle group or a ukulele group — anything will do. Just make sure there’s good conversation.
CECILE ANDREWS is the author of “Less is More,” “Slow is Beautiful” and “Circle of Simplicity.” Watch for her forthcoming book “Living Room Revolution: A Handbook for Conversation, Community and the Common Good.” She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.