Why We Thrive on Connection

Dec 12, 2023 | Blog, Guest Blog

Guest blog by NED Ambassador Hugh Mackay AO

42,000 years ago, a cataclysmic climatic event wiped out four of the five species of humans that had been roaming Earth for the previous 2-300,000 years.

Why was homo sapiens the only one to survive?

According to a group of British and German archaeologists, it was because we were the only species to have formed ourselves into mutually supportive communities and made ourselves emotionally vulnerable to each other. Archaeologists now talk of “survival of the kindest”.

In other words, we became – and are – a social species; hopeless in isolation; at our worst when we’re being individualistic; utterly dependent on families, neighbourhoods, friendship circles – groups and communities of all kinds – to nurture and sustain us and to give us that all-important sense of belonging that is so fundamental to our mental and emotional health.

It’s in our DNA! Neuroscientists tell us they can find the co-operative centre in the human brain. We’re built for kindness, compassion, and mutual respect as a result of our evolution into a co-operative species. That’s our true nature.

Exercising our capacity for kindness, for instance, is not dependent on whether we like or agree with someone, or even on whether we know them. Being members of a co-operative species means it’s simply in our nature to show kindness (though we don’t always do it): we don’t check whether people are worthy of our kindness or compassion – we just give it because it’s in our nature to do so. (Kindness is the only form of human love that doesn’t depend on affection – it’s not an emotional response; it’s simply a human response.)

If that’s our nature, what went wrong?

Here we are in 2023, members of a social species, living in a society where our No.1 public health issue is social isolation. How did that happen?

We are born to connect, to co-operate and to show kindness towards each other, yet the social trends that have been reshaping us over the past 30 or 40 years have been pushing us in the opposite direction. Far from becoming more socially cohesive, we have actually been becoming more socially fragmented. Far from becoming more conscious of our interdependence and interconnectedness, we have become more defiant about our sense of independence, our individual differences, and our uniqueness.

A quick reminder of some of those trends:

  • the fastest-growing household type is the single-person household, and our households are shrinking to the point where more than 25 percent of Australian households now contain only one person. Not all solo householders are lonely or socially isolated, of course, but the risk of increased social isolation is heightened by this trend;
  • between 35 and 40 percent of contemporary marriages will end in divorce, with socially disruptive consequences for the couples, their families and social circles;
  • the falling birthrate means the ‘social lubricant’ effect of kids in a neighbourhood is in shorter supply than ever: relative to total population, we are currently producing our smallest-ever generation of children (often preferring pets to children – there are currently 25 million humans and 28 million pets in Australia);
  • we’re more mobile than ever, moving house on average once every six years, and more mobile in another sense, too: with almost universal car ownership, there’s been a dramatic reduction in suburban footpath traffic that encourages incidental neighbourly encounters;
  • we’re busier than ever, having elevated busyness to the status of a social virtue – though busyness is the great enemy of social cohesion;
  • the information technology revolution has had a paradoxical effect – making us more ‘connected’ than ever before, but also making it easier for us to stay apart, and to sacrifice too much face-to-face time in favour of screen time (‘connected but lonely’ is a phenomenon now observable in heavy users of social media: the 18-24-year-olds now report the highest rate of loneliness in the country).

Notice that none of these things were done to us by some malevolent external force: these are our trends; these are changes that have resulted for the choices we ourselves have been making about how we would live our loves – choices almost certainly made without any real appreciation of their long-term consequences for society as a whole.

There are other trends, of course, not on that list: the decline of religion (with its emphasis on local faith communities), the increasing casualisation of work, the increase in high-rise living, etc. But even that short list is enough to alert us to the cumulative effect of such trends: more fragmentation, less cohesion, more social isolation. And because we belong to a social species, these trends are producing the predictable effect: the rise of the Me Culture (exemplified in our current obsession with ‘personal identity’) and the three epidemics that would inevitably follow the atomisation of a society: loneliness, anxiety, depression. As The State of the Nation report shows, 32 percent of Australian adults report feeling lonely – rising to 38 percent for those ‘connected but lonely 18-24-year-olds).

And then along comes 2020. Unprecedented fires, floods, and the COVID-19 pandemic. (Also unprecedented use of the word ‘unprecedented’.) Those crises and catastrophes did what crises always do – they remind us what it means to be human. They remind us of the need to co-operate, to show kindness (including to total strangers), to make personal sacrifices for the common good, and to pay renewed attention to our immediate local neighbourhood – especially those neighbours who may be particularly vulnerable to the effects of social isolation.

The question is: will these effects last? Will the lessons nature has taught us (yet again) stick? Th early signs are discouraging: research by Melbourne’s Scanlon Foundation shows that the long-term decline in social cohesion and a sense of belonging to the local neighbourhood was reversed during COVID but has already reverted to its previous downward trajectory.

Perhaps the previous 28 years of uninterrupted economic growth was bad for our resilience; perhaps, unlike previous generations, we’d had it too easy for too long, so we found it difficult to sustain our more selfless, neighbourly behaviour.

It would be a tragedy if we failed to learn the lessons such crises teach us! If we want to remember them, and put them into practice, it’s up to us as individuals – in our families and households, in our local neighbourhoods, in our workplaces … wherever we are.

If we dare to dream of a better world – a better society – a better neighbourhood – a place where people are kinder, more compassionate, more tolerant, more inclusive, more respectful, less cynical, less violent, then there’s only one way to make it happen. If enough of us live as if it’s that kind of society, that’s the kind of society it will become.

*This blog reflects the key points of Hugh Mackay’s speech at the State of the Nation – Ending Loneliness Together, Parliament House, Monday 7 August 2023.

Neighbours Every Day Ambassador Hugh Mackay AO is one of Australia’s best known social researchers and the author of twenty-three books – fifteen in the fields of social psychology and ethics, and nine novels. Hugh’s book, ‘The Art of Belonging’, explores the reasons why some communities thrive, and others break down, and explains how community engagement enriches us all. His book ‘The Kindness Revolution’ looks at how we can restore hope, rebuild trust, and inspire optimism. In this blog Hugh challenges us to dream of a better world.