The Importance of Connectedness in Later Life
“I am because we are.” is a standard interpretation of the idea of ubuntu, an African philosophy of connectedness and sharing which links and defines all people. In more individualistic Western societies, we can value personal achievement and expression so highly that it’s easy to forget the pressing, ineliminable need for socialisation with others, not as recreation or distraction but as a basic aspect of our humanity.
Human minds are not built to work in isolation, but specialised over millions of years to function as connected nodes in a network of humanity. This network both receives (e.g. when we share our successes and celebrate with friends, multiplying the satisfaction we feel) and delivers (e.g. as we learn and relearn etiquette and ethics throughout our lives in response to a changing social consensus). As we get older, it’s common for us to spend less time socialising, but the need does not diminish and the value of connectedness is undeniable.
One of the reasons connectedness is so important is its stabilising effect on our minds. Every single one of us has experienced the stress of having to deal with people we’d rather never have met, but equally all of us have experienced the sense of reassurance which comes from ‘talking to someone.’ The person we talk to often doesn’t need to have anything helpful to say, or even any meaningful contribution whatsoever; the platitudes we so often hear in this situation have become hackneyed simply due to their undeniably truthful nature, and being reminded that others live lives very similar to our own, weighted with the same challenges and buoyed by the same pleasures, can be a critical part of avoiding stress and maintaining a healthy approach.
Another point of interest is the part of ourselves which only exists in combination with another human mind. The emotions which surround our opinions, or our compulsion to behave with decorum and adhere to a code of ethics… these factors partially define who we are, but start and end with other people. As social beings, humans diminish without company not necessarily due to loneliness but simply due to a lack of opportunity to exercise those parts of ourselves which are meaningless in the absence of others.
But there is also a simpler, more present factor of which all of us are aware: enjoyment. Good social interactions provoke a powerful emotional response; dopamine is released in our brains, generating a feeling of mental and physical contentment. Most of us do not regularly take ourselves into demanding situations which stretch our capacities, even to a comfortable extent, and thus most of the pleasurable challenge we experience in our lives ultimately comes from other people. Almost everything which must be studied and considered to be understood has, at the very least, been first revealed and presented by others, and so through our connectedness we wind up experiencing personal growth whether we intend to or not.
Even something as simple as an involved conversation on expansive or opaque themes can help us to access that state termed by psychologists as ‘flow’ but more colloquially known as ‘the zone,’ in which all of our attention is brought to bear on one matter and we are filled with energy and the sheer joy of using our minds. There is no more important relationship than the one each of us has with ourselves, but to truly be ourselves, we must reach out.