“Connection—the ability to feel connected—is neurobiologically how we are wired. It’s why we’re here.”
– Brené Brown, PhD
When I was in high school, I usually spent my lunch hour in one of two places: the music wing or the Theory Center, which was a tiny room in between my physics and chemistry classrooms (it sounds way more high tech than it actually is, I assure you. Only one of the five computers in there worked). At the time, and even until very recently, I described this habit pretty negatively to myself: I need to practice or do work – I can’t socialize in the cafeteria. Or I don’t have even friends to socialize with in the cafeteria. Or I am a nerd. Or high school is just a mean place to be endured and I am surviving.
But during these lunch hours, I usually didn’t practice and if I did homework, it was busy work because I was talking with the other people who came for the same sense of belonging that I did. Of course, I did not use this positive and normalizing language of connection, belonging and community before this year. What I did know before this year was that in the band room, or the Theory Center, or the many other places to which I have returned over the years, is where someone would ask where I had been if I hadn’t been there the day before.
I am deeply grateful for the opportunity to have served this past year as the Americorps VISTA with Growing Up Healthy. It was a year of digging deep into building community and social connectedness. Seeing, on the ground, how this connectedness and sense of belonging so strongly impacts health and wellbeing has changed how I map my past, engage with the present and anticipate my future, both personally and professionally. We are, truly, wired to connect.
What I know now about my high school lunch periods is that I sought out positive connection in those places because it is so vital to health and wellbeing. Social support and perception of connectedness cannot be taken for granted. Social isolation is a potent and growing physical and mental health risk. Like other health risks, it disproportionately affects elderly, low-income, and minority populations. Furthermore, these groups are also the fastest growing populations in the United States. The concept of social connectedness seems simple, but its absence is a growing public health issue.
I don’t mean to make gross exaggerations or black and white claims that positive relationships or a sense of belonging make or break a person. But I do strongly believe that we underestimate their impact on our physical and mental health, general wellbeing and success in life. Several studies have shown perceived social support to very positively influence health outcomes. More anecdotally, I don’t think anyone can recall a success in their life where some level of social support – be it one person or many – didn’t play a role.
The exciting piece of this work is that building connectedness doesn’t have to be expensive. Where positive social connections happen has surprisingly less to do with place or ‘external environment’ than it does the quality of social support and perceived connectedness experienced at a certain place. (Really, the band room floor wasn’t the most comfortable for eating compared to the cafeteria tables). I’ve seen neighbors regularly gather in a local park every week on a Sunday evening. It is the people and conversation that are important – community centers are little more than buildings if there is not very intentional work to make it a welcoming, inclusive and supportive venue.
Rice County is so fortunate to have the Growing Up Healthy Initiative in the community. This is a unique network of people is tasked solely to build connections within and between groups of people and organizations, to make the entire community more welcoming and welcomed, supporting and supported. I am looking forward to seeing GUH grow in the coming years, both in terms of its grassroots and organizational reach. Building these social connections – and not just in “band room” pockets but across geographic, cultural, social and economic groups – will lead to a healthy, resilient, and thriving Rice County community.
So as a few “see you later” words, I encourage you to reflect, as I have done over this past year, about the social connections in your own life: Where do you find a sense of connection and belonging? What are the places you go back to? What does it feel like? What are you doing to open up yourself and your community for this protecting and empowering connections?