Things worsened. Dave Cummings, Ph.D., PLNU professor of biology, struggled to hold any food down, his body shaking, weak, and aching, head pounding. He could barely walk without the help of his wife. As a biologist — a man of science, empiricism, and reason — none of it made sense. He had taken a series of medical tests, all of which had come back negative for anything. He had even been told by one doctor that he was “the healthiest sick man” he knew. His body, for reasons beyond explanation, was shutting down. Was he dying?
Eventually, Cummings was diagnosed with Generalized Anxiety Disorder (GAD). Although, in his particular case, the anxiety and chronic stress had been accumulating unchecked for so long that it manifested in painful and debilitating flu-like symptoms. A cursory glance at his life during that time, in retrospect, should have made it obvious. As a professor, he was contending with a host of obligations to teach, mentor, research, and serve on committees. And on top of all this, as a father and husband he still had his family, home, and church lives to manage.
After the revelatory diagnosis, he started the slow crawl toward recovery and healing. Although the journey required him to rely on several tools — medicine, therapy, a change in living habits, his faith — he had one major advantage that, sadly, many in his position don’t.
He wasn’t alone.
“Because I had such a great community around me — a non-judgmental and supportive community, whether individuals could empathize directly or not, they at least attempted to understand,” Cummings shared.
In other words, Cummings was grafted onto an authentic community. This proved to be a critical piece among several other necessary pieces that helped him overcome his debilitating illness, and it’s something that continues to play a major role in his life, preventing him from slipping back into that cavern of anxiety and depression.
Yet, what does ‘community’ really mean? The term is bandied about often these days with minimal reflection it seems — especially when paired with other terms: “online community,” “church community,” or “campus community.” Yet, in the midst of hearing about the importance of community why are there still so many who feel lonely? Do the “communities” we find ourselves a part of represent the type of relationships that not only helped save Cummings, but entail the type necessary for our biological, social, civic, and spiritual thriving?
Listen Now: Check out the Viewpoint podcast episode on this same topic if you want to hear PLNU professors share their insight on complex questions around loneliness, isolation, community, and connection.
Created for Connection
As a professor of biology, Cummings harbors crucial insights about the nature of and need for human interaction. He cited cases where babies were fed, clothed, and cleaned, but that’s it. Other than the minimal human contact that resulted during these necessary activities to address their physical needs, the babies were left unattended. The result? Many of them died. And the ones that didn’t had serious and debilitating developmental issues. Even though they were given all “necessary” sustenance to survive via food and shelter, the lack of human contact literally killed many of them.
“There is something about physical contact with other people that is necessary to thrive, especially in the earliest years,” Cummings said.
A New York Times article details how, according to one study, rats that were licked and groomed by their mothers, when they grew up, did much better navigating mazes than rats that didn’t receive the same maternal affection. But they didn’t just have a better sense of direction, they also tended to be more social and curious, and even lived longer.
“There is something about physical contact with other people that is necessary to thrive, especially in the earliest years.”
The article then turns an eye to the effect — or lack thereof — of parental contact with young children. Although, instead of licking, the contact in question is hugging and kissing. The article continues:
“One University of Minnesota study that began in the 1970s followed 267 children of first-time low-income mothers for nearly four decades. It found that whether a child received supportive parenting in the first few years of life was at least as good a predictor as I.Q. of whether he or she would graduate from high school.”
From the start, human contact and relationships appear to be extremely important. Still, as we age, though we may not literally die from a dearth of “kissing and hugging,” there remain major benefits to close social interactions. Cummings pointed to a hormone called oxytocin, which works at the level of our endocrine system.
“Oxytocin is a small neural hormone and is involved in helping manage various aspects of our nervous system. What data have shown is that oxytocin is released with close physical contact — hugging, kissing, cuddling — but it also serves to draw us to physical contact and is therefore self-serving,” Cummings shared. “One of the many things it has been shown to do is to calm the nerves, lowering levels of anxiety and depression. Not only does this happen in the short term, but it also has long term effects. People who have lots of healthy physical contact tend to have a higher threshold for stressors and are less likely to deal with anxiety and depression.”
Yet, there is more than just a biological effect that occurs in the presence of other people — it also has positive psychological benefits that make us feel better.
Our limbic system is designed to respond to and regulate our emotional life based on the information our amygdala — an almond-sized part of our brain — receives from our senses, which intermingles with our memories and attempts to assess a stress level. When we detect a threat, whether real or perceived, our brain signals a series of physical changes — increased heart rate, slowed digestion, dilated pupils — which we then feel as stress, anxiety, or fear. The point of this physical change is to alert us to danger and prepare us for flight or fight.
“Researchers agree that one of the most important factors in our ability to be resilient toward stressors is our sense of our resources, and one of the most important resources are the human resources we have available to us.”
“A situation that makes us think about or remember peaceful thoughts, which can happen when we’re sitting with a friend, can actually communicate to our limbic system that the threat level is lower since we feel more supported by the presence of another person,” Cummings shared. “Researchers agree that one of the most important factors in our ability to be resilient toward stressors is our sense of resources, and one of the most important resources are the human resources we have available to us.”
The Lonely “We”
What happens when we don’t have these types of relationships in our lives?
A New York Times article highlights the growing epidemic of social isolation. According to the article, since the 1980s, the “the percentage of American adults who say they’re lonely has doubled from 20 percent to 40 percent.” The article states:
“Individuals with less social connection have disrupted sleep patterns, altered immune systems, more inflammation, and higher levels of stress hormones. One recent study found that isolation increases the risk of heart disease by 29 percent and stroke by 32 percent.”
Additionally, the article mentions how loneliness can accelerate cognitive decline and increase the risk of death in older adults. In fact, programs have sprung up in England in which volunteers actively engage older citizens living alone through weekly phone calls and other practices to help meet an aging population susceptible to loneliness.
Kris Lambert, Ph.D., is a PLNU professor of nursing who has conducted much research on mental illness, an area where loneliness can play a major factor. She clarified that loneliness is different than being — or living — alone. Being alone is an objective detail regarding someone’s physical state, which does not automatically imply the person is lonely. Loneliness, on the other hand, is the subjective feeling of being isolated from meaningful and loving relationships. An article in The Atlantic reveals that there are many single people who are not lonely, often due to the fact that they regularly see friends and neighbors and have strong social ties. On the other hand, there are many married people who, while not objectively isolated, experience feelings of tremendous loneliness.
Lambert explained that it has to do with relationships of “quality versus quantity.” This is primarily where the emergence of digitally mediated relationships — via smartphones and social media — can become problematic.
Dan Jenkins, Ph.D., the program director for PLNU’s Master of Arts in Clinical Counseling program, likens engaging in online relationships to playing with “counterfeit money.”
“You can play with it and have some fun with it, like monopoly money,” Jenkins said. “But, ultimately, when you invest it, it won’t work.”
He believes the reason many of us our hooked to our phones and social media is because we’re “starving for relationships and are in a state of need.” But this doesn’t allow for the substantial social bonding that can only happen face-to-face.
“You can tell someone all you want that they’re a good person, that you like them, but the words alone don’t do the trick,” Jenkins said. “You have to demonstrate it by taking the time to really be with them at that empathic, understanding level, and that’s what I would say 80 percent of counseling really is no matter what your theory is for why people change. And this can’t really happen online.”
Cummings’ own review of studies regarding the psychological impact of visually interpreting others’ facial emotions, and hearing their actual voice, sheds light on this notion.
“I think that the biological and psychological benefits of community might therefore be undermined by removing face-to-face interaction,” Cummings said. “Engaging with people in ways other than face-to-face might not have the same neurological impact.”
While we might all agree that real relationship are better than mediated ones — even though these “lesser” forms of relationships aren’t bad in and of themselves — why don’t many of us act as if they are?
“How many people are going to tell you they’re lonely?” Lambert asked. “Because admitting that seems to mean that no one likes them.”
“How many people are going to tell you they’re lonely?”
If we’re afraid of the social stigma of admitting our loneliness, then we’ll continue to pretend we’re not lonely while suffering interiorly. But this feeling of loneliness is not an indication of our inherent dysfunction or defectiveness, but rather a signal for our health.
“Loneliness is also a protective thing because it signals to us that something is not OK and we have to change something,” Lambert explained. “It’s important to look at it from a biological perspective, as something like thirst or hunger, that we can do something about to satisfy as opposed to just a feeling that can’t be changed.”
But admitting that we’re actually lonely to others still requires intention and vulnerability. It’s easier, instead, to connect to others in less substantial and more tenuous ways online, which can give off the appearance of social health while covering loneliness.
“The primary issue is that people are not seeking out other people in real life,” Jenkins said, echoing that substituting social media, text, and email for face-to-face relationships comes at a great cost. “It’s in the presence of other people where you get confirmation that you’re OK, from other people whom you trust and believe. If you only have online, or even in-person acquaintances, you can start to believe all sorts of horrible thoughts about yourself that cycle in your mind that would normally be disqualified by people who care about you.”
The Shift in American Communities
Marc J. Dunkelman, a journalist and research fellow at Brown University, wrote a book called The Vanishing Neighbor: The Transformation of American Community. In it, he cites anthropologist and Oxford professor Robin Dunbar’s, Ph.D., research that human beings throughout history and across cultures have always formed three types of communities. Dunkelman uses the term “ring” to describe these three types of community. The first ring, referred to as a “band,” contains close family and friends, typically entailing about 35 to 50 people. Naturally, this would include your spouse, children, parents, close extended family, and good friends. The second ring, referred to as a “village,” contains 100 to 200 people. This would be made up of individuals with whom your friendly and familiar but not intimate, such as a neighbor or coworker. And, finally, the third ring, referred to as a “tribe,” contains roughly 500 to 2,000 people. This would entail “transactional” relationships, such as your barber, hairdresser, or car mechanic, or someone you engage with online exclusively around a shared topic of interest (a Facebook fan group for the San Diego Padres, an online community of gamers, etc.).
Dunkelman’s thesis is both intriguing and revelatory: due to this shift in our living arrangements and the emergence of certain technologies, we are less likely to encounter people who would have traditionally made up the second ring of relationships. To give only one example, instead of riding the bus to work in the company of others living in our area — our neighbors — we can cheaply call an Uber. Or for those of us still taking the bus, now we can pass the time texting close friends (a first ring connection) or Tweeting an online acquaintance (a third ring connection) instead of interacting with the people in our shared physical space whom we might otherwise see every single day.
While Dunkelman remains somewhat objective, noting some of the benefits of this shift in our communal structures, he does draws our attention primarily to the drawbacks. For one, our lack of exposure to diverse types of people and relationships that typically constituted the second ring for much of the history of our country — relationships formed from PTA or neighborhood community groups, frequent visits to family-owned local markets, summer block parties, etc. — diminishes our exposure to diverse viewpoints. Today, we can much more easily avoid someone with rival political or religious views, but in the past it was more common for people of differing views — both republicans and democrats, working class and middle class folks, etc. — to interact. Dunkelman posits that this might explain why our political system has become increasingly gridlocked in the last few decades, because we haven’t learned to compromise through the forced need to interact with diverse others.
Jimiliz Valiente-Neighbours, Ph.D., PLNU professor of sociology, agrees. She called to mind the work of the sociologist Émile Durkheim and his work on solidarity.
“Durkheim’s greatest concern was with the rise of industrialization since the mid-18th century. He wondered how we were going to get along with each other if what we had before was mechanical solidarity,” Valiente-Neighbours said.
Mechanical solidarity refers to solidarity based on likeness — being from the same tribe or village and therefore sharing the same traditions, religious practices, and rituals.
“People were leaving their kin and small-knit communities to head toward the cities to work for wages,” Valiente-Neighbours explained. “They were confronting people who were very different from them, with different traditions and practices. Durkheim was concerned that this would cause us to fall apart as a society. His solution, and what he hoped for, was the formation of organic solidarity, which is between people who are different but who would depend on each other and form a collective conscience.”
A “collective conscience” corresponds to the phenomenon that occurs when people of divergent social and traditional backgrounds come together to form a consistent way of life — the collaborative production of a shared culture. This, in fact, is what happened.
“But now, if the new norm is to not talk to each other, then we might not be able to form this collective conscience, which leads to organic solidarity,” Valiente-Neighbours said.
However, Valiente-Neighbours acknowledged that there are some types of new communities still being formed, but not without major problems.
“One modern impediment to community building is that we are re-segregating in various ways, and not necessarily only in explicitly racial ways, but the impact of it is racial. For example, gentrification is pushing certain populations out of urban areas,” said Valiente-Neighbours.
“One modern impediment to community building is that we are re-segregating in various ways, and not necessarily only in explicitly racial ways, but the impact of it is racial.
As more and more full time jobs become located in urban areas, young middle-class Americans are moving to these spaces, driving up housing prices in a gentrifying effect that pushes current residents, many of whom are minorities and of lower income, away because they can no longer afford housing.
“These young people are poorer than their Baby Boomer parents and are therefore moving into the city for jobs and often renting. So while the intent is not explicitly racial, because the lower income minorities are often pushed out due to the rising costs we are seeing a type of resegregation,” Valiente-Neighbours said.
Yet, she brings up one factor that could potentially reverse this trend: an effort to be more environmentally sustainable.
“If there is a big shift in people’s thinking about the environment, then I think it might bring us closer together,” Valiente-Neighbours explained. “For one, more people might start living in co-op houses because they can’t afford housing and/or because they want to be more environmentally friendly.”
This would require a reversal of the American notion of independence.
Our norm here unfortunately isn’t the most sustainable.
“The American ideal is to leave home and strike it on your own. But in the Philippines, where I grew up, that isn’t the case,” Valiente-Neighbours said. “We live in multigenerational houses. We don’t have nuclear households. It isn’t the norm there. Our norm here unfortunately isn’t the most sustainable.”
Community as Cliché
It’s possible, though, that many of us still feel that we’re doing just fine — that we have communities and relationships in all of the three rings — resulting in a combination of family, online, and even church communities. Cummings cautions, however, that even the word “community” can be poorly understood. Especially in the case of our “band,” or close relationships, the mere association with several people, whether online or in person, bereft of deep connections, doesn’t constitute the type of community that actually helps people thrive. It can be especially difficult for Christians to see that the community they have at church — though perhaps beneficial in helping them worship God — doesn’t automatically correlate to authentic community.
“There is a difference between sitting in church surrounded by people we really know and people we merely recognize,” Cummings said. “We can be in a form of community that lacks connection. We don’t need a million relationships, but we need at least one, preferably a few, in which we feel safe.”
But this is hard, and Cummings has experience working on this issue with others in his own church community and beyond. As someone who has been open and vulnerable about his struggles with anxiety and depression for the purposes of helping others, he encounters many who struggle with their own issues, including loneliness. Unfortunately, though, the way toward establishing a community that can help foster healing is often resisted.
People ask me, ‘Shouldn’t God be enough?’
“One of the excuses I get about establishing community is, ‘It’s not for me,’ or ‘I’m an introvert.’ Many find excuses to not find real community,” Cummings shared. “Others will tell me that their faith life is between them and God, or that they don’t need other people because they have God. People ask me, ‘Shouldn’t God be enough?’”
“Chapter after chapter in the New Testament depicts trials and obstacles, and in just about every case the solution comes from our relationship with other people, either in the command to be the solution for someone else, carrying their burdens or mourning with those who mourn for example, or seeking out what we’re going to need through wise counsel, seeking out to have people pray for us,” Cummings said. “In Scripture, it’s clear to me that God’s plan is for us to be in relationship with one another.”
The call to be in community often comes off as a cliché, but perhaps that’s because the word has lost its authentic meaning — to be connected with people in deep, vulnerable, and loving ways. Even Jesus chose to surround himself with a community of disciples. If the Son of God demonstrated the importance and necessity of community with his very life, then perhaps it can serve as a reminder for us to not only seek genuine communities of our own — which requires a willingness to be vulnerable — but to invite others into our own communities as well.