April 30, 2020
50 min read
Who We Become When We’re Lonely & The Rituals That Will Save Us
This is Unseen Unknown, I’m Jasmine Bina. Loneliness has been an epidemic across developed nations around the world well before COVID-19 forced us to socially isolate even further. Loneliness unravels the fabric of society. It makes us anxious. It makes us more susceptible to being taken advantage of. And if you’re lonely long enough, it can make you physically ill. In today’s episode, we’re going to explore how loneliness has become part of our identities and how it’s affected our behaviors and beliefs of the world around us. But our conversation actually starts with the first part of our identities that is often affected by loneliness and isolation, and that is our rituals.
Hi, I’m Tom from Milton Keynes in the UK. I live with my fiancé, Emily, and we’ve been isolating together for over a month now. I’ve been furloughed, which in the UK is where it’s a government scheme to pay 80% of salaries to help businesses, but I’m not allowed to work for about a month.
Hi, I’m a Aton Kaspi from Tel Aviv, Israel and life has really changed for me since COVID-19. Israel has taken this crisis very seriously. And as a result, everything ground to an almost complete stop. Rituals have completely disappeared from my life, so much so that right now it’s difficult to remember how things were only a year ago.
Hi, my name is Annie Chen and I’m from Los Angeles, California. One of my new rituals is streaming workouts and I do them every morning during when I would normally be commuting, which I think is a pretty awesome trade off.
Our rituals have completely changed, as has everyone else’s. For example, we get up later because there’s no rush hour and there’s generally less rush and stress in the mornings.
On Fridays, I take a break from the nonstop kitchen madness and order in, and on weekends I really try to devote more to self-improvement and learnings.
This is the first time in my life to have celebrated the religious holiday of Passover apart from my family and friends. In two days, I will celebrate Independence Day in the same fashion.
If rituals and traditions are the glue that keeps us together and protects us from devolving into loneliness, then it’s important to understand how they’re created and what makes them work, how they frame our perceptions of things like time and change and meaning. We’re going to talk to three people, a thought leader, a brand founder, and a researcher, all of whose work has significantly impacted our perceptions of loneliness today and will help us understand how loneliness actually reveals something much deeper about our culture.
It was a wonderful, wonderful way to grow up, but the shortcoming of science as a philosophy is it doesn’t have culture. I mean, it does in a way, but it doesn’t have holidays and it doesn’t have recipes, and it doesn’t have these things that sort of get passed down through the generations in family settings.
This is Sasha Sagan. If her name sounds familiar, that’s because she’s the daughter of astronomer and educator, Carl Sagan and writer and producer Ann Druyan. She grew up in a secular household, watching her parents collaborate on dozens of scientific essays, books and the original Cosmos TV series, which spurred a mainstream fascination with the universe in the 1980s, and was the most widely watched series in the history of American public television. Sasha was raised with a sense of wonder and awe for what can be found in the observable world and has written about her experiences over the years, most recently in her book, For Small Creatures Such As We. She believes in every ritual, there is a code and in that code a way to bring us closer to one another.
Our ancestors were Jews, and even though we don’t have the same theology, we adopted some of the rhythm of life that says, “Okay, in the springtime you do this and in the winter you do this.” And the way that those two elements of life can be intertwined and the ways that they’re sometimes in conflict and sometimes not became really interesting to me. And when I was 14, my dad died, and then there became sort of another large question about, well, what do you do with mortality and loss and grief in this framework? And that really became one of the big philosophical questions of my life. And eventually, many years later, led me to start writing about it, and at first it was an essays and then eventually it became my book called For Small Creatures Such As We.
I think to really put into perspective what you just described… And you’ve mentioned that your upbringing was secular, but not cynical.
There was love, optimism, and wonder, and appreciation and gratitude for the natural world.
Exactly, that’s absolutely right.
And if you really stop to consider the natural world, it can be almost too much, it can floor you. And that’s what I want to talk about, the second half of that line, that your book title came from, tell us about that. Tell us the whole story behind it, because I think that’s really where this whole conversation starts.
So the title of my book comes from a line in Contact. Originally, my parents wanted the story that later became the novel and movie, Contact. They saw it originally as a film, but it took a really, really long time to make, 18 years actually from the time that they first conceived of it to when it actually premiered. And during that time, they tried it out as a novel. And my parents worked together on everything it was the collaboration and not the line that the title of my book comes from is, “For small creatures such as we, the vastness is bearable only through love.” And it’s actually my mom who wrote those words.
And I think, as a species have gone from seeing ourselves as the center of the universe, as though this planet was the focal point of everything that ever was and slowly zoomed out to the solar system and the Milky Way galaxy, and the greater universe, and realize that we are on a tiny out of the way planet in an enormous, mind-boggling vastness, the existential crisis really sets in and it’s hard not to sort of have that sense of almost panic at the just huge grandeur and vastness of which we are such a tiny, tiny part.
And I think it’s hard for us sometimes, and once we look at ourselves that way, we have to ask ourselves, well, If all this wasn’t made just for us, and we’re not the focal point, what do we have? And I think the answer that that can be found in that line, and then the philosophy that my parents instilled in me is the idea, well, we have one another. And even if it’s for the blink of an eye, on a pale blue dot, in the middle of nowhere, we’re here right now together, and we’re sharing this little lifeboat. And I think that is really powerful and it can be really reassuring and meaningful, even though it’s not the largess that other philosophies might give our species.
You said this line in the past, “Science isn’t thought of as romantic, but it should be.” And it’s the idea that science is so much more than science. You can find a sense of love and romance, and all those other very human things that are oftentimes explained and accommodated foreign religion, but not so much in scientific study. So you mentioned the togetherness piece, which is what this conversation is about. So your book is so profound because it really talks about how to create rituals and traditions that can help us grow. And I wanted to talk to you because right now I feel like that’s especially hard for people in a time of isolation and loneliness and crisis, and we’re all feeling very vulnerable, even though there are so many calls for togetherness and for Zoom videos, and virtual birthday parties, and all the commercials about, “Hey, we’re in this together.”
But I feel like that problem of feeling isolated, it has to start with yourself. The togetherness has to come from you first, and that’s why I wanted to talk to you. So tell us, first of all, how can tradition combat loneliness for those that are isolated or for people who have lost their sense of identity because they’ve lost their jobs, or just in general have felt that their lives have been turned upside down?
Oh yeah. I mean, this time presents so many conundrums and has changed so much of our ideas of ourselves. And I think one of the things that we keep coming up against is this idea of, well, what day is it? And time blending together in this way that we’ve lost track of the things that separate time into little chunks, days of the week feel the same because we’re doing the same things over and over again, we’re not going anywhere, we’re not seeing different people. And I think, especially if you’re not working or your schedule has changed or you’re working less, then the weekends and the week days start to blend together, it’s very confusing and it can be very jarring. And I think that we crave this feeling of actually physically being together, and I mean, FaceTime and all that stuff has been great, but it’s not the same as being at a party or at a dinner.
And I think that one of the things that we have to create for ourselves in this very difficult time is the sense of rhythm. And I really think that that is so much of what ritual is about, is to give us a sense of rhythm over the course of the year, over the course of a day, over the course of a week and over the course of our lives. And I think that even the really small things that are like, okay, you got up and you make a cup of coffee and you do a YouTube exercise video or whatever it is, those things giving us a framework is really powerful.
And it does something else too, I mean, the idea of a ritual that is a rite of passage, even a very small one, is this idea that there’s a threshold and you’re one way before, and then you pass through this threshold and then something’s different. A marriage would be a very classic idea of that, right? You’re two to people, you go through the ritual of marriage and then you are a married couple and you’ve transformed in this way, through this ritual. But I think even the small rituals of, I’m going to wake up and do this thing, and my day is starting or at the end of the day, okay, it’s six o’clock, I am now changing from my day pajamas into my evening pajamas or whatever it is, where we have this idea of, okay, you’re still moving forward, you’re still going through these thresholds, these changes, these rituals that even the very small ones are rites of passage, and I think it’s really helpful for the really personal stuff.
In terms of the group dynamics that we’re missing, I think so much of religion and other organizations is the desire to be part of a group. This is how we have evolved, and everybody doesn’t feel this way, and there’s definitely people who are introverts and loners and that’s totally fine, but on a large scale, there is an evolutionary advantage to liking being in a group, working together, wanting to be a member of a club. And sometimes that goes really awry because sometimes our desire to be accepted makes us, over the course of human history, do terrible things, but sometimes it brings us together because it’s such a deep craving and we can do wonderful things with it.
And I think that a lot of what religion offers is that feeling of this is your little tribe. And I think a lot of people I’ve known in my life who maybe are not a hundred percent on the theology are like, “But I love going to this place of worship every week. I love being a part of this group, this is my second family.” And I think losing that in-person element right now is really, really difficult for a lot of people and is making this experience doubly difficult. I mean, and then with a third layer is this lack of funerals and things like that, that are such a necessary element to dealing with so much loss that people are experiencing and not having that, it’s really, really a terrible combination of issues that are a really hard time.
But what I think this little pause in society does give us is a moment to step back and think about what our values really are, and what are the rituals, and what are the events, and rites of passage and holidays that are really meaningful to us and are the ones that feel like they are representing what we truly believe or think rather than the things that we go through the motions, because we feel obliged, because right now there’s no obligation to do the things that people feel like, “Oh, well, so-and-so will be disappointed if I don’t do X, Y, and Z.” This is the moment where we can really reassess so that when things returned to whatever normal they eventually come back to or go forward to, we can really have a set of perhaps new, perhaps old, perhaps a combination of the things that we want to make really special for our families.
It’s so interesting that you say that because I felt like one of the themes that comes up in your work over and over again, is this idea of pausing in the rituals that you describe, and there’s one in particular that I want to talk about, the weekly ritual.
And it’s this idea that… You described the purpose of the weekly ritual, which every religion has that weekly ritual, you have the Sunday service or the Friday night Shabbat celebration, or whatever it is, and it’s about marking the transition from work to rest and to help us internalize the passage of time, which is especially interesting right now, because without the ritual of work, time is kind of a blur for a lot of people, like you’ve described, and it works on different levels, but let’s look at it on a very literal level, this idea of really marking, okay, you’re not working anymore, you’re resting now.
I personally have found that that’s disappeared for me because I’m not maintaining my daily rituals around when I work and when I rest, or when I’m with my children, or when I’m with my partner, when I’m consuming media. So I’m finding myself working later and later into the night, and I can say yes, I feel like I’ve lost track of time. There’s a lot of reasons to lose track of time right now, but that’s, I think the big one. How can people create weekly rituals that help them still draw the line between work and rest and marking that passage of time in a meaningful way, even though you may feel guilty about not working? Which I hear from a lot of people, or it’s hard to even know when you’re supposed to be working or what you’re supposed to be working on.
Right. Right. It is so hard. And especially for those of us with kids and two working parents, it’s like, well, if one person can be not working, then the other person is like, “Oh, I ought to be working.” And then both partners and the children aren’t all together at the same time, because I’ve found when my husband’s not working over the weekend, I’m like, “Oh, this is the time that I should really buckle down because he can watch our daughter.” And I think all of that stuff has been really hard to manage, and the feeling of, well, if I don’t have to get up so early… I mean, with kids, you always do. But for people who are like, “Well, if I don’t have to get up to be somewhere tomorrow, I can stay up later and later and later.” And it’s so hard to not creep into like a nocturnal existence.
But I think that the things that you create right now, even if it’s something very small, it will become such a source of relief in this situation, especially the break from work. So as I said, it’s been really hard because my husband works a regular job and I’m writing and doing stuff like that. And so it is hard to manage the time when he’s not working, and making sure that there are moments where the three of us are together. So what we’ve started doing is there’s a national park that’s like 20 minutes away, all the facilities and stuff are closed, of course, but the trails are still open. We hardly see anyone else there, it’s very easy to keep six feet away from people. And we’ve just made the decision that every weekend, whichever day is nicer weather, we will go there, the three of us, and take a long walk outside in the forest.
And it’s been so special and such a central part of our lives right now and what we look forward to, and our daughter’s two and a half and what she talks about to the point where she said the other day, “When everything goes back to normal, can we still go to the forest?” And I, at first was like, well, I can’t believe I’ve been depriving her of this experience, I mean, we live in the middle of Boston and we do a lot of activities, but we’re not in the woods all that often. And it’s clearly so meaningful to her, but it’s also just this thing that we discovered that we wouldn’t have probably otherwise done, at least not on a regular schedule.
And so I think the things like that, that you discover that maybe you wouldn’t have done otherwise, even things that are like, okay, well, we’re going to have this particular meal this day of the week, or we’re going to do board games, something like that, where you have a night where you do that, or something out of the ordinary on a regular schedule, for your family together to have that moment. I think when we look back at this time for all the really painful, really difficult, heart breaking elements of this moment, I think that the new rituals that we create for ourselves, especially if we can find a way to keep them going, will be a little Ray of sunshine for families and for individuals, anyone who’s looking to pull something positive out of this heart-wrenching moment.
I love that you say that. So I’ve been talking to people about the rituals that they’ve created in anticipation of this episode, because I wanted to get a feel for how people are approaching this. I know for me and my husband, even though I’ve kind of given myself a blanket excuse that it’s quarantine, there are no rules, if I feel like you’re not sticking to a schedule. There is one thing we always do every day, and that is we go and take our twins to a patch of grass in our complex, and when we spend two hours in the sun every day from 4:00 to 6:00, and it wasn’t until I read something that you had written that I realized that this was so much more than just giving the kids a chance to be outside and giving us a chance to stop working and start relaxing.
You wrote in your book, and I’m going to quote it, you said, “Time is an elusive concept, it’s passing constantly, it’s so hard to feel.” And you seem to argue that it’s really important that we find ways to feel that passage of time or else we won’t be able to appreciate the everyday wonders and sanctity of things that make life meaningful, like a friendship let’s say, or watching your kids grow, or the love of a family, or even feeling yourself grow. That’s what these weekly rituals, that originally our religions have afforded us, but it could also be like you’ve described like, even a weekly happy hour with your coworkers or a weekly cycling class or something like that, it’s that they force you, or at least give you the opportunity to reflect, and as you say, check in with your beliefs, your community and yourself to actually measure and appreciate what’s changed.
Yes. And there’s something about the week, there are daily rituals, there are monthly rituals. There are of course, many, many annual rituals. There are things that we do every four years, like elections and the Olympics and things like that, but there’s something about once a week because every day the change is… Even if you do something everyday, first of all, it’s very time-consuming depending what it is, but also it’s too small an amount of time to really see those changes. It’s like with your own children, seeing them growing, it’s just all of a sudden, you turn around one day and you’re like, “Where did this kid come from? I had a baby.”
You don’t perceive it in the same way you do when you don’t see a friend for a years, and then you see there a little one, and you’re like, “Wait a second.” But there’s something about once a week that lets you measure something, and the week is not an innately astronomical or biological event, it divides evenly into our months, which are loosely based on the lunar cycle. So maybe there’s something there, but throughout time there have been other… Weeks aren’t always seven days in every culture that ever created a calendar, it could be eight days, it could be 10 days, whatever, but there’s something about just that kind of chunk of time that allows you some kind of reflection and some kind of break. So much of the traditionally religious, weekly events are about, okay, this is the day of rest, or this is the moment where we’re stopping the work of the week to transition into this other thing.
And you know that Friday night feeling, not… I was going to say, “Not in a Jewish way,” but in a Jewish way too. But that Friday night feeling of like, okay, the week is done and we’re now going to do this other thing, it’s very hard right now to have that sense of like, oh, I’m going to go out tonight or I’m going to whatever, watch a movie, or just break from the feeling of, okay, tomorrow we got to do this thing. Tomorrow, this is happening. Tomorrow, that’s happening. And I think that if we can…
This is happening tomorrow, that’s happening. And I think that if we can try to create those divisions and maybe it’s not the normal times of the week that it has been because everything is so upside down right now. But if we can have those moments, I think there’s something really valuable in that. And we have so many rituals that we don’t recognize as rituals. And if you go to the same yoga class… I mean, yoga is such an interesting example because it does come from a religious and philosophical tradition, but has taken on this secular life of its own and mindfulness and meditation and all this stuff that has this relationship to a religious tradition. But is its own modern thing now in a lot of ways and is very secular in a lot of ways, but still gives us that sense of this pursuit of peace and this pursuit of understanding ourselves and our world more deeply. I think is really powerful and it’s really interesting how that has taken on a life of its own and how it is often a weekly marker.
That brings me to my next question. I was considering the rituals that we create for ourselves. And I think I know the answer. I do believe that even if you have religion or faith or community, it’s still important to create your own rituals just because they add dimension to your life. And if you look at something like Burning Man, for example. It’s such an identity marker for people, my husband jokes, that you can usually walk into a party and you’ll know, within the first three minutes, who’s a burner and who isn’t. That’s how much people want to just proclaim that they are part of this movement and this group of people. And those kinds of rituals really work. There are people that have to go every year. And then there’s another kind that it’s surprising. I don’t know if you’ve heard of secular congregations, like Sunday Assembly and Oasis?
Right. They were born out of the fact that people who leave their religious communities or maybe just feel indifferent to religion, but they still feel there’s a hole in their lives. They want to have a sense of togetherness and rally around a sense of something bigger than themselves, but it may not be a God. And they start out strong, but they tend to Peter out. And there’s different reasons given for that, but it’s hard to get people to meet every week and to volunteer their time and their resources and their energy and their attention when you take something like a God out of the equation. And I don’t know if you have a comment on that, but my real bigger question is, what actually makes a traditional ritual actually stick? If you are looking to create one for yourself.
It’s such a good question. And it’s true when something’s new, it’s so hard to not feel a little bit contrived, and it’s so hard… when there’s not the pressure of some, somebody very powerful who created the universe is going to be mad at me if I don’t show up. When there’s not that pressure, it’s a lot easier to let things fall by the wayside. I think the thing, and I’ve said this before. The thing that I admire most about organized religion, Christianity in particular is the social pressure to do good, works of charity, being a central part of the goal of what the community comes together to create in many cases. And that’s something that I wish was a bigger part of secular life. And I think that’s something that does get people to show up.
Fundraisers and volunteering and things like that when it’s not just about ourselves, but about how we can make the society closer to how we wish it could be. Especially for those of us who do not believe that there is a karmic safety net, the good guys will get their reward and the bad guys will get their comeuppance. If you don’t think that then I think it’s on us to make the world a little bit more fair. But I think that the way that traditions really work and really stick in many cases and this is true of every modern religion is that it’s built a top the ruins of something slightly different, which was built to top to something else. And I think that the way things transform over time and the way that sometimes it’s totally appropriation and sometimes it’s the way that a new change, new power comes in and wants to help unwilling converts, make things a little bit more easy.
There are many incarnations of this, but so many of the most popular traditions and rituals and holidays in the world central to major religions have history that takes them back to earlier religions, to polytheism to other kinds of philosophies. And I think that, that really tends to make things stick. And I think the other thing is for every religion and every philosophy and every worldview that survives, several thousand years, there are dozens that just fall away and that’s normal.
But I think that there’s something about feeling connected to your ancestors and feeling like you are part of a lineage, even if you’re changing it, even if you’re adapting it to your modern worldview, that just makes it a little bit easier to commit to. And I think the other element is that when we peel back all the specifics, when we peel back, the lore and the mythology and the theology of any one tradition. When you get back far enough, there is something there that is tangible. And in my position is that it’s a scientific phenomenon. The solstices and equinoxes, the biological changes within each of us, that these are the signposts that are evidence-based and real. And we can study and measure that all of our rituals in one way or another, or nearly many of our rituals I should say are in one way or another built a top.
Yeah. It’s funny. It makes me think of a story that you had described. I think it was at one of your Google talk discussions where you talked about how there is a story that your family’s traditions and approach have been based on. And I think it was with your grandfather after he came back from university.
Yes. My great grandparents were immigrants from Eastern Europe. They were Orthodox Jews and they came to the United States and settled in New York. And they were absolutely devout to the point where, my great-grandmother, if a dairy fork touched a piece of meat, the fork had to be buried in the backyard for a year. I mean, they were very, very religious really. And they were very poor. And my great grandfather when they couldn’t pay the Jews for the synagogue, he volunteered as a night watchman so that they could, stay, be part of the synagogue. And they had their kids. My great aunts were born in Europe, but my grandfather was born in New York. And he went to college and as it commonly happens, became a little skeptical and more cosmopolitan and the philosophy that they had raised him with stopped adding up for him.
And one day he came home, as I write about in the book and he found his father praying davening and he waited for him to finish. And you can just imagine that feeling of having that knot in your stomach and getting up the nerve to say something really difficult. And he said, “I have to talk to you about something. I’m not going to go to shool anymore. I’m not going to keep kosher. I’m not going to do all of these rituals because I don’t believe. I don’t believe in God.” And his father looked up at him and said, “the only sin would be to pretend.” And that just really… that’s a story that came down through the generations to me. And it really was… it’s such a position of such moral clarity to me is and this idea that this is not something that can be forced. Belief or lack of belief.
And, and the people I have known in my life, who I see as true believers, truly devout, I think, are not threatened by the skepticism of others. And I think it’s when you’re afraid that the asking of questions is going to elicit your own doubt, that it becomes… that censorship comes into play and you try to force your beliefs on others, but I don’t know, I thought that was just a beautiful, profound reaction to someone you love coming to you and saying, look, I don’t see this the way you see it. I don’t feel it. And the idea that faking is more dishonest and worse than going along with it to not upset, the Apple cut, I think is a real deep wisdom.
You’re so right. And I want to say two things. This observation you have of, when religious people are confronted by maybe a non-religious person like in the case of your ancestors and the fact that it doesn’t shake them in their own beliefs, there’s a real beauty to that. And also something else that’s really beautiful about your story is that it’s not like that event caused a discontinuation of the story of your family. It wasn’t a break. It was an evolution of one branch of a larger family. And I hope when people listen to this, there’s value for this, for people who are religious or not religious. And that really both sides of the equation are about building beautiful traditions and honoring something that you feel is worth honoring in your life and enriching the life of your own. Considering so much everything that has happened, are you seeing any good examples of new rituals and maybe, they’re group rituals, individual rituals, maybe rituals in the kinds of stories our culture tells itself or anything that you can think of? Anything that you’re finding interesting?
Oh yeah. Well, I mean, as a person who is really interested in our relationship with science, this is such a moment where critical thinking there’s so much information and misinformation out there and there is information coming from people who have spent their entire lives studying how viruses spread and studying epidemiology and studying, these very complex ideas and then there’s information coming from people who have no expertise on the subject. And I think it’s shedding such a interesting clear light on our relationship with science. And I just, I don’t know. I think it’s related to what you were just asking me, but it’s this moment where I think if we instilled critical thinking in children from a very early age, if that was a part of curriculum for fifth graders.
How do you know when something’s true? How can you question something until you can verify? Who can you trust? What sources are trustworthy? And how can you ask questions to suss out reality from snake oil salesman ship? I think that if that was taught to very young children, we would be so much more prepared for something like this. And I wonder sometimes if the reason that it’s not is because the adults don’t want to face our own difficult questions and they’re worried children are going to… Given those tools we’re going to say, well then wait a second, what about this? And what about what you said last week about what happens when you die? Or where babies come from? Or whatever else. Right. And so I think that’s been really interesting because I do think of questioning as a ritual. And it’s one of the things I feel most fondly about Judaism is that there is such a tradition in many cases, not all of celebrating the asking of questions.
That’s one thing that’s wrapped up in this strange time. But I also think as much as technology is a double-edged sword and as much as it’s sometimes the bane of our existence, it also allows for traditions, but also a more traditional lifestyle in certain ways. I give this example sometimes, but I have my same best girlfriends that I grew up with in Ithica, New York. And we live all over the country from each other. And for most of history of pre-Industrial Revolution, we would have lived in our village together and lived out our lives together and our children would be friends and that would be normal. And then post-Industrial Revolution if we moved away, we would be gone. And we would maybe see each other again, maybe not maybe send letters, but not be together.
And now just recently, it’s because of technology. We can both each go do our own thing in our own new place and be together and be together, not just when something happens and you have to write a letter or call, but in the everyday ness of it. But even still, even though we all send texts and videos of our kids and stuff all the time until this happened, we didn’t really start having five way video chats. Like we were face to face through the computer or the phone until this happened. And my husband also grew up in Ithica and he still has his same buddies and they’re doing the same thing. And I think that there are a lot of ways in which the combination of technology and isolation is bringing us together, not just with the people who are in our immediate area, but the people who mean the most to us, wherever they are on earth.
And the other night, my husband caught up with a couple of guys he worked with when we lived in London 10 years ago and they had a little video chat, happy hour with them. And hadn’t done that in all these years. And we’d been back every couple of years and seen them, but no one had made the effort to do this kind of thing. And I think that that and I’m noticing it’s for a lot of people, it’s on a weekly schedule where it’s like, okay, Fridays, Saturdays, can you do this at this time? And everyone is trying to figure out the time zone differences and make sure that there’s a point in the day when everyone can get on. But I think that is something that is really interesting and I’ll be very curious to see if it lasts, when things go back to normal. If we’ll still carry on these visits with people who live far away, but who we love and miss and want to feel close to, even when we’re not totally isolated from the people outside of our households.
You’re listening to a call I’m having through the app, Dialup. People all over the world are creating new rituals of connection through technology right now, and Dialup a free app on iOS and Android is one of the foremost apps giving us the chance to do that. What’s unique about Dialup, however, is how it works in connecting strangers. You log in and choose different lines to join, which are basically just topics of discussion that happened at a certain time every day. The topics have prompts like, read a poem to each other, watch the full moon together, describe your breakfast or of course the obligatory quarantine chat. Then Dialup, randomly connects you with another person in the world to talk.
The prompts start simple, but soon the conversations get deep. My conversation with Ananda quickly came to be about cultural family values. I spoke with a grad student in India the day before about international politics. Before that I spoke with people in places like New Zealand, France and Albuquerque about everything from quarantine fashion, to the ache of feeling your life path diverged away from a childhood friend. And these conversations weren’t short either. Everyone I spoke to said the same thing. Dialup has become a new ritual that’s helped them stay grounded in a time of social distancing. I spoke with the co-founder of Dialup Danielle Baskin about how she created the app and the totally unexpected and wondrous ways a simple product has grown to be so much more.
How did you come up with the idea for a Dialup? I mean, it seems like a perfectly timed app, but I know this has been around for a while. What was the original impetus behind this? Why were you interested in creating something like Dialup?
Yeah we’ve had Dialup around for a year, but actually Max and I, Max is the co-creator of Dialup. We have been randomly connected on the phone for three years and I mean that a bot calls us at random times and connects us. We set this up pretty quickly after meeting each other, but Max and I are both really interested in voice and phones and he actually was working on a software because he had a project in 2012, connecting people in the middle of the night to discuss their dreams. Years later, he was trying to rewrite the call software and I met him and was like, “Oh my God, this is amazing. But why just dreams? Why not connect friends? Why not connect people during the day?” And I just thought of all these possibilities for voice communication. We started just automating calls between us and then added friends and then turned it into this public app where strangers could meet each other.
The thing about Dialup is it really forces you to be super vulnerable. And I know people including myself who won’t even pick up phone calls from their friends, because we just don’t do the phone, if it’s not a text. I understand why people might be open to it now, because they’re opting into it. But why do you feel like with your original experiments with your friends, which led to the development of this app, people were so surprised by the magic of it?
Yeah. I mean, there’s a phenomenon that Robert Hopper wrote about in a book called Power Hegemony. Power Hegemony is this experience that happens on a phone where if you’re calling someone you’re the one who needs something or wants something. And so you’re interrupting someone. And so there’s a power imbalance on a traditional phone call. And I think also people have this fear from robocallers or just the fact that no one calls, unless it’s an emergency that, if your phone rings there’s a lot of anxiety to pick up. There’s also a lot of anxiety to call because you’re afraid that you’re seeming as though you want something, but maybe you don’t, maybe you just want to catch up. And there’s so many people just in my contacts list that I would love to talk to. It’d be wonderful if I ran into them, but I’m not going to call them because I don’t feel like we’re close enough, I don’t know. What if they’re busy? What if they reject my call?
And so I think our solution is, you just have an app that calls you. There’s this external force that’s matching you on the phone. It removes all power imbalances and anxiety about calling someone.
So it basically lifts the emotional burden on both sides of what it means and all of the subtexts around what it means to have a phone call with somebody today. Okay. Very cool. You guys have blown up obviously since the crisis started, how has Dialup evolved and changed? And also your user base, how has that changed as well?
Yeah, I mean, for the last year we’ve been quiet and running different experiments. We only had 3000 people using the app up until the middle of March. And it’s people who found it on Twitter and there wasn’t much press about it and it was people that I knew that told other people. It felt like a community that knew each other in a way, when everyone started going into lockdown, we decided to create a quarantine specific topic called quarantine chat. And it was pick up the phone and talk to someone else who’s stuck at home. And this story resonated with people. It was also, we wanted to do this to simulate what it would be like to go outside and have a random conversation with a barista. If you’re stuck at home, you’re not going to meet anyone new, so we thought our app was perfect for it and we launched this, but I think that that story resonated with people and so this got a lot of press.
And what happened was it appeared… I mean, it spread all over the world because just people would read about it and one article and then share it on their Facebook in Ghana and then someone in the Netherlands would write about it. And then it appeared on local news. The variety of people on the app is pretty fascinating. You never know who will be on the other end. It’s always a surprise person, different ages and locations all over the world. It’s in 183 countries now.
Yes. I had just had a Dialup call this morning with somebody in India and we talked about breakfast. It was very interesting. Thus, the app has really surprised me in that way. Do you find that the user base has shifted towards maybe people who are alone? It can be hard to make Dialup work unless you’re signed up to a bunch of channels, which I am, but life still happens and I’d say life is even more messy now because there’s just so much mixed into, just the every day. There aren’t structured times for certain things. Who are the users? You’re like, “what do they look like?”
So who are the users here? What do they look?
I mean, it’s totally mixed, but I think that the majority of people who are able to pick up are people who are living alone, just because, if you’re in the middle of a conversation with someone you live with, you’re not going to be able to pick up the phone. I mean, it’s a design of our app to only call once or twice a day.
So you can’t choose, I want to call now I’m available. And so I think it’s generally someone who is able to pick up the phone, because they’re not engaged in the conversation at home.
You mentioned friendships too, are people making friendships because you kind of reach a point at the end of the call where it’s like, are we going to keep talking? Should we exchange information or was this just a nice moment?
There’s so many friendships that have developed, which has been surprising. I don’t even know. I know that people send us emails to describe the person that they met and say, oh, we’re staying in touch now. Thank you so much for introducing me to this person. So definitely heard about it and also read about it through Twitter and people have blogged about it.
I mean, a few people have started quarantine chat blogs, where they write about all their calls. So I read those and people are definitely staying in touch. I think it’s so dependent on your particular dynamic. Sometimes you’ll have a 10 minute call. Sometimes you’ll have a two hour long call. We can see the call times. And so I think the longest call has been six hours and 17 minutes.
Which basically is just you hung out on the phone the entire day. Yeah. I mean, you have to develop some sort of bond with them, even if I have an hour long conversation with someone, I do sort of consider them a friend just because you cover a lot in an hour. We’re actually building a feature to stay in touch with people that you’ve talked to previously because right now everyone just sort of disappears.
And there’s a lot of pressure, like sometimes the calls are only 20 minutes and it’s a lot to be like, I think I want to stay in touch. It kind of is a lot for a conversation like that. Although it seems like if both sides are kind of signing up to be vulnerable, like we said, are you finding people are more open to talking about things and doing things like sharing private information that they wouldn’t normally do because of the way this app kind of puts you in a situation?
I mean, I think because it’s voice and it’s just one-on-one you, someone’s listening to you and you know nothing about them, there’s totally a lot of vulnerability that happens. On the app you don’t have to provide context for who you are and tell your life story, but you could just talk about whatever’s on your mind.
Whatever energy and whatever thing you’re feeling before going into the conversation, you could just make part of the conversation. And I think potentially it’s because you’re not distracted with eye contact and you don’t have a face in front of you. It’s more comfortable to share vulnerable stories.
So I’ve read a lot about heart to heart conversations and it’s pretty incredible that you would immediately tell a stranger that you just broke up with your fiance, or you’re telling the story about finding out who your birth father is, and just all these interesting life stories that you might not even tell your friends.
What’s the craziest story you’ve heard besides the six hour conversation, which I think is pretty good?
I sort of run the missed connections. So two people are having a conversation, they’re in the middle of it, they get disconnected, one or both of them will email me and ask and they don’t know anything about the person they talked to, but details. Sometimes they even forget their name.
They’re like, oh, woman in Maine who lives on an island and works at a bookshop. Can you find her? And if I ask your username, I could figure out who your partner was, but I don’t even have their email address. So, I have to send a push notification to their phone and try to reconnect them.
And I don’t reconnect everyone. There has to be a good story, but what’s pretty cool is that people have been finding each other that are both searching for each other. Actually the woman who was looking for this other lady in Maine found her before I was able to reconnect them just by searching every island and finding, looking at a list of employees. Simultaneously, the other person was searching for her through Craigslist missed connections in Oregon.
That is fascinating. You’ve created something really incredible here that is actually compelling people after a one or two hour phone call to literally search for each other and spend time trying to find one another, sight unseen, just based on a conversation, which usually starts with a pretty basic prompt, like, read a poem to each other or describe the full moon and stuff like that, whatever the channels are.
And I’ve noticed you’re a prolific creator. And it seems like if you look at the projects that you’ve created, like LineCon or the Hold Music Awards, or the fact that you hold funerals for expired domain names, which I want you to describe all of these things for people, but it seems to me like you have a passion for making seemingly fleeting moments of time and our lives actually matter.
That’s an interesting way to put it. I guess to me, these moments do matter so they don’t seem seemingly fleeting. Well, I think a goal of a lot of my projects is to get people to talk about things they don’t normally talk about. For example, the experience of your domain expiring. There’s very intense stories behind every domain name.
Maybe it’s a project you had with a friend or a blog you’ve kept for 10 years. And when you get a notification from your domain registrar like, you have five days to renew in all caps and it’s red, it’s just very cold. And so in your mind, you’re like, oh, but should I renew it? This project meant so much to me, but there’s no venue for you to talk about that. And that’s also a strange conversation topic to bring up.
So having a dedicated event where there’s a microphone and you go up and talk about your domain is an event that I’ve done in San Francisco. Similarly, the experience of waiting in a line is usually sort of an annoying, frustrating, potentially solitary thing. And so LineCon is a place for people to share their line waiting stories and hang out in lines and learn about line related topics and sort of transform the line waiting experience, which results in people that are in the line, just attending a conference suddenly, they didn’t expect it.
And then a few people have found us in LineCon. I mean, we started as the first time we ever did this in 2016, it started as a group of 12 people that showed up and the line actually picked up other people in waiting in the lines and they joined us for a few more lines. One person found us in the morning and went to all the lines with us till 5:00 PM. I didn’t have anything else to do today, this seems cool.
Wow. Your work has a way of bringing people together. I really love that. So, I’m sure you’ve thought about this a lot yourself, is this kind of habit of connecting with strangers and having these really great discussions with people and everything that Dialup affords, you think this is a new habit that’s going to stick with people? Is it changing them enough that they’ll continue to after the virus passes? Or do you think that we’re still kind of just in a novel period and it’s yet to be seen?
I mean, I think what’s happening now because all of our communications are virtual, even with people that you used to hang out with in reality or not in the physical world, I don’t know where reality is, I think what’s happening is that there’s kind of a blurry line between stranger and friend, right?
Like, my internet friendships feel just as real as my physical friendships now because everything is virtual. And I think a result that’s happening from this period of time is actual connections are forming through the internet versus, interactions on social media are typically not that in depth.
Maybe you have some friends on Twitter, but you’re both just kind of trying to be clever with each other and not actually having a long conversation. You might not actually know each other. I think what I’ve noticed is I’m in longer DM threads in Twitter and I also am using the app and, hopping on the phone with people and I am developing all these relationships through the internet that sort of, I feel early 2000s internet friendships that sort of disappeared in the last 20 years.
I think that that habit might stick because there’s so much value in connecting with people outside of just, convenience and habits and whoever’s near you.
And the early 2000 things that you mentioned, there’s definitely a sense of nostalgia here. I would say even the aesthetic, was there any thinking about the UX and the actual visual look of the app?
Yeah. I mean, I think, talking on the phone is something that people did in the late ’90s and for many years in the 1900s. But I used to love talking on the phone and the surprise of just someone calling my family’s house and not knowing who it was. And this was before there were automated robocallers and that was sort of just the way to communicate and the way to hang out with friends.
As a kid, I would just, at 9:00 PM, couldn’t leave my home, but I could just call anyone and we could hang out on the phone. And then that sort of, disappeared when we started getting used to image and text based communication virtually, but with Dialup, I mean, I think we wanted to evoke sort of the past of talking on the phone, even though we’ve redesigned how it works and it’s not a regular phone call, we wanted to evoke that feeling of getting a surprise phone call and also sort of evoke early internet because I think the internet before websites had the like button and everything was sort of a popularity contest and competitive and focused on, having a quick one-liner joke.
In chat rooms, people used to get into in depth conversations and you weren’t really that self-conscious of your brand and competing for attention. You would just kind of talk and, talk about anything and be in these long chats in AOL. And so we wanted to sort of evoke that time of just intimate one-on-ones, but not the sort of vanity contest that the internet is like now. So, that’s our aesthetic choices. It’s called Dialup and then we just have a lot of sort of retro imagery. We have floppy disks and modems and all that.
You totally just took me down memory lane. I think I had forgotten what it felt like to be in a chatroom. And I was obsessed with chatrooms. I remember I would go into music chat rooms to talk about the bands I was following as a teenager and I would sneak out of my bedroom and go to the computer room and turn it on. And I was supposed to be asleep and I would get into big trouble.
But I would sign into chat rooms to talk about whatever band and we would get into deep discussions and there was such a beautiful innocence. And also it was very self-expressive and it did feel magical, magical in a way that I think social media has kind of lost, or maybe you could say even hijacked. And I wonder if that’s what makes Dialup so unique and special.
There are a lot of apps out there right now that are helping people connect. But why do you think Dialup has really captured such a wide audience of avid users when it really could have been anybody, but you guys seem to be the one that’s kind of rising to the top? Why do you think that is?
I mean, it’s a totally different feeling than the adrenaline and excitement you get from being on Twitter is sort of like, oh, these little bursts of dopamine when someone likes your tweets or you’re laughing or finding things clever. I think the feeling of being on a Dialup call feels transformative in some way, after every conversation, a conversation that’s long and I feel like I click with the person.
I feel like my perspective has shifted on something or I learned a lot about another place or another person or a book recommendation, or all these things kind of shift. And I’ve had to tell a story and verbalize it. And that’s also a different exchange of energy. I think there’s also, the internet can feel deeply isolating. I’ve been to Zoom parties where there’s 15 people on a Zoom call.
And sometimes there’s no chance you get to talk or just the etiquette is all strange. You don’t want to interrupt someone or you just feel very passive. Also, the internet is lonely, the aspect where you tweet and no one likes your tweet. And that feels really sad. I mean, there isn’t really the experience of feeling sad on our app because anyone you talk to is like, they’ve picked up the phone too, and also wants to talk to someone.
Both of you said, yes, I want to have the conversation. Both of you are listening to each other, you have each other’s attention and there isn’t this feeling of being left out or being, you don’t feel like, oh, I’m not clever enough. Or, oh, there’s no chance for me to talk or I’m outside of something. So I think, just knowing that the other person there is there to listen to you and it’s just the two of you is sort of a totally different feeling and something that people are actually craving.
So have you found that considering what is happening with COVID and this bubbling up conversation about loneliness and what isolation actually does to people and loneliness was a problem before COVID even happened, which is just compounded now, how has that kind of changed the approach to how you guys talk about the app or anything that you’re doing with its design or the UX?
And we’re intentionally not using the word loneliness or feel less alone with our app. I mean, I think people are writing about it that way, but we want the language behind it to seem fun and talk about specific topics and not directly addressing mental health, because I think a lot of people don’t want to admit that they’re lonely or just reject the idea of needing a mental health app.
I mean, I like to think that Dialup is just secretly a mental health app. And I also think the focus of it is not like, you’re lonely, talk to another lonely person. It’s more like, hey, did you just read a book? Talk to someone else about this book and having that focus sort of makes that feel exciting. I think there’s issues if the app is discussing how you feel alone. The conversations are much less interesting if it’s like, discuss the last time you went hiking or there’s specific stories, then that’s a more engaging way to have a conversation.
Sometimes creating an experience of sincere connection, whether that’s within a brand, a product or just in our own lives, requires us to dismantle our notions of what it means to connect in the first place. Even rethinking something as basic as a phone call, a chance encounter, a hello can lead to new bridges between people.
And if there’s ever a time for us to explore new formats for that kind of connection, it’s now. People are expressing a new level of openness and they’re willing to allow brands to try new things, to push us a little further, if it means helping us get closer. Which brings us to the third part of our discussion. Rituals create continuity, connections give us a reason to move forward.
But what about loneliness? How does loneliness manifest itself over the longterm? And what do we know about loneliness that can help us explain what will happen after COVID-19 has passed? I asked Cassie Killam this question. She’s a social scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and has worked with the World Economic Forum and Google Life Sciences to address the loneliness epidemic.
Her research has advanced our understanding of social health at community and population levels. And she has a unique insight to how loneliness can actually pivot our lives in surprising and not always negative directions.
Long before the Corona virus struck, there was a huge body of literature around this topic. In fact, there’s been decades of research and different studies that have shown that our social relationships play a huge role in both our physical and mental health. And conversely, loneliness has a really detrimental effect. So there’s everything from, if you do not have close connections, you’re more susceptible to catching a cold, all the way to things much more severe like long-term depression, cardiovascular disease, and even premature deaths.
So there’s been some really alarming studies that have shown that if you are lonely you’re as likely to, or you have as higher risk of dying as things like smoking or being obese or being physically inactive. So it’s really incredible the amount of data that’s on this. And I kind of joke that there are very few things that scientists agree on all the time, but this is one of the things that is consistently a finding that really social connection makes such a huge impact in our physical and mental health and loneliness can be really problematic. And some of the reasons that we’re seeing for this underlying mechanism is one, there’s this notion of a stress buffering effect.
So essentially when you are lonely, you don’t feel like you have close connections. It triggers a stress response in your body, which can cause too, inflammation and weakened immune system. And in turn, as we know those things lead to disease and illness. And there’s been some really interesting research, actually, a study came out recently in MIT showing that loneliness triggers the same brain regions as physical pain.
So there’s literally this reaction in our bodies that’s absorbing this loneliness and it’s causing all sorts of long-term effects. Another kind of reason for this connection that people point to is that when you have close social connections, that capital brings you information and resources and different social norms. So if I have friends who are able to tell me where there’s a testing site that I can go get tested for coronavirus for free, or if all my friends exercise all the time and it creates a social norm where I feel like I have to do that as well, those are the kinds of things where our relationships benefit us in a much more kind of tangible ways.
That’s really interesting. I think we all kind of passively through different campaigns and the research that we see passively as consumers understand that loneliness can actually kill you or harm your health, but A, you don’t think about the second order effects of the fact that it actually just changes your world too. It makes your world smaller. It makes you less informed. It makes you less likely to understand social norms that may actually protect you in the long-term, things like that.
We’re obviously in a prolonged state of isolation right now. And like you said, this was a problem well before COVID even hit. And more than that, it’s not just loneliness that some people are probably experiencing, it’s uncertainty and fear and vulnerability. And I would say even people who maybe felt super connected before, there’s still got to be some loneliness creeping in.
I mean, I’m seeing this among my network where even though you have digital ways of communicating and people check in on each other physical isolation, it does bring on some mental sense of isolation as well. So what do you think this is going to do? Is this going to have a long-term effect on us? Or do you feel like how resilient are people? What can we expect from this?
That’s a great question. Well, I think two things. On one hand, I’m definitely concerned. I share what you’re expressing that there’s definitely a risk of exacerbating existing mental health and other issues, right? There’s a chance that this could exacerbate loneliness, that more people could become lonely or that people who were lonely before will experience that in a much deeper way.
There’s also things like addiction or depression or things like that, that I definitely am concerned that those might worsen. And that long-term damage, I mean, that’s not even talking about the economic toll and the disparities and the access to healthcare coverage, and all those kinds of things. I mean, just focusing on kind of the psychological and emotional impact. I definitely think there’s a risk and I’m going to be paying close attention to the research that comes out.
On the other hand, I am cautiously optimistic. I think to your point, humans are very resilient. We’ve seen this at every stage of humanity and throughout history. And I am optimistic that this could bring us together. I think I’m seeing much greater awareness about the fact that relationships are really important to our health and to our wellbeing and to our sense of joy and fulfillment.
And I’m seeing a deeper appreciation among many people around that. I’m also seeing people reaching out to neighbors for the first time or to old friends who they might have lost touch with. And those kinds of actions and behaviors I think are really powerful collectively. I’m also seeing a lot of innovation in this space.
So some of these things are signals to me that there could be really positive outcomes from all of this. And my hope is that when we look back on this period, of course, we’re going to remember how difficult it was and how many lives were lost, I also hope that we will be able to say that it galvanized us and that we made different improvements to our culture and to our society as a result. I think humanity’s absolutely resilient. All the research suggests that, and I am definitely cautiously optimistic that in some ways this will strengthen our social health.
I think cautiously optimistic is the word. I don’t know. I feel like Americans are creatures of habit. We had a wealth of evidence to show us that loneliness was a true epidemic. It’s crazy to me that loneliness increases risk factors as much as, or I think I even read more than things like smoking, but you don’t really see too much cultural change around it. I was going to ask you why this epidemic even occurred beforehand, but I think the bigger question is what we’re talking about …
It even occurred beforehand, but I think the bigger question is what we’re talking about here, is it actually going to be top of mind after this is over as well? And I think it depends on how long this lasts too. I think right now we’re feeling the initial effects, like job loss, uncertainty, and fear, a lot of changes in our routines and habits and in our daily lives. But the longer that this lasts, I think the more of a chance there is that we’re going to come out of this changed people with changed priorities. Not that I want this to last longer at all.
No, I can certainly speak to that. I mean, I think you’re absolutely right that this idea of habit building is really important, right? And I think if it were to end today, maybe we would just return back to our normal lives, but it’s looking increasingly like that’s not going to be the case and we are going to be dealing with this for many more months to come. And I think as horrible as that is, it does mean that the habits we’re developing right now around the ways that we connect with people, the relationships that we’re nurturing in different ways. Those habits could become really ingrained. And I think that’s where we can kind of see this as an opportunity to practice better habits, right? Better habits with regards to how we interact with social media and how we use technology. Better habits with regards to staying in touch with loved ones and prioritizing human connection as an imperative part of our lives.
So I do think you’re absolutely right. And I’m interested to see if those do last, but you’re also right that this has been an issue long before the pandemic hit. I mean, I talk about that in my recent article about how one of the studies that came out in January before this was getting as much attention as it is now found that 79% of Gen Zers are lonely on a regular basis, 71% of millennials, 50% of baby boomers. I mean, that’s a huge proportion of the population that feels lonely and chronic loneliness we know takes such a huge toll. And so I think it’s interesting to think about what were the cultural factors that were going on before Corona virus that led to this. And there’s quite a few, I mean, I wish there was just one because if there’s just one cause then there’s one straightforward solution, but that’s definitely not the case.
So one of the reasons that people point toward is overuse of technology, right? I mentioned this before that people often rely on social media as a substitute rather than a compliment for human connection. So we stroll through our social media feeds and we don’t actually engage in meaningful ways. And it’s easy to kind of feel saturated or full in some superficial way, which is such a different experience than when we spend time together in person. So this is an interesting thing to think about. Some of the research that’s coming out about this is quite mixed actually. So there’s certainly been some findings that spending a lot of time on social media can put you at risk for depression or things like that. But there’s also findings showing the opposite. There’s studies that have come out saying that people who have a healthy, emotional relationship with their technology and really see it as a tool to connect with people that they are actually better off and happier when they use it to do that.
And I think what this tells me is that, it’s complicated, right? It’s how you use technology and social media that matters. But certainly that’s one of the factors that has led to loneliness before the Coronavirus. A second factor is different trends and how we live, right? So it’s quite normal now, especially in the millennials to move around really often, I’ve lived in, I think, nine or 10 cities at this point throughout my lifetime. People are much more transient. They move around, which means that you go to a place and you develop some friendships and then you leave and it’s harder to sustain those. And similarly, there are other trends in how we live. So there’s kind of the social norm in different urban areas or cities to not even know your neighbors. And we’re seeing that change now with coronavirus and people reaching out to help one another.
But that was very much the social norm before. Similarly, it’s very common to live alone. I think more people live alone in apartments or homes than have ever done so in history before. And that’s where it becomes important to think about the difference between isolation and loneliness, right? Just because you live alone, doesn’t mean you’re going to feel lonely, but it certainly can be a risk factor. And then there are many other factors that lead to loneliness before Coronavirus.
There’s the way that our cities and apartment buildings are physically designed. There’s the amount of time we spend on work that needs little time for being with loved ones, there’s social anxiety or things like that, that prevent us from engaging in kind of a free way. There’s so many different factors. And I think all of that, to me, it says that this is really complex. It’s really nuanced. There are many different reasons that people feel lonely. And that means that there are many different ways that we need to support those people and different solutions that need to be built. And now the Coronavirus is kind of an added on element to all of that.
You bring up so many good points here, and there are a couple that made me think. You know, this idea of cities actually not being built in a way that promotes connection or community in a way that would combat loneliness. I know there was a really influential book called going solo that was written by, I believe it was a researcher at NYU talking about how more and more people were putting off marriage or were living alone later in life. That research became, I believe the basis for a lot of city planning in New York and zoning and permitting for living units that accommodated just one person. And it’s interesting because when you say it’s complex, yes, there are a lot of different factors, but at the same time, each one of those factors goes back. If you want to change it, you have to go back so many different steps before you find the root of the problem.
Another example of that is when you talk about transients and people moving around a lot. On our last episode, we were talking with Rory Sutherland and he was talking about how we don’t realize it. But when you sign up for a graduate degree, you’re signing up to move because you need to work to pay off that debt. And so you’re going to have to go from wherever you are to some sort of city center. And the chances are, especially with the way work is changing. You’re going to have to move more than once to justify that decision that you made so many years ago. And then that brings up even bigger questions about, how do we change the norms around education and what it means to get a degree. So it’s complex at least on two dimensions that you talk about. I think that’s fascinating, but when you start to talk about technology, I know that you’re right.
There are some technologies that I’ve seen reports about, mostly kind of AI tech that provides some sort of companionship to senior citizens and people who are in nursing homes or people who are in hospitals. I’ve seen that kind of tech proven to actually improve moods and help people heal faster where they feel like they’re connecting to an avatar or something like that. But it’s weird because the conventional advice has always been, there’s no replacement for human to human interaction, but now we don’t have that. But you described that there is a good way to use technology.
I think you’ve talked about this in the past. You’ve mentioned that even little changes, like instead of liking somebody’s post, actually send them a small note that says why you liked that post or actually communicate with them. And that’s the problem with social life, I feel like it lets you connect or be present in somebody’s world without forcing you to communicate with them. What do you think of that? You don’t have to agree with me. That’s just something I kind of spit balled right now as I was talking. But, what do you think draws the line between technology that helps and technology that looks like it would help, but it doesn’t really?
It’s such a good question. I think we’re still figuring this out collectively. I think what inspires me is seeing technology used to connect people who wouldn’t otherwise connect. For example, I used to do a lot of research in the mental health space and there are tons of support groups online for people who have different illnesses or rare diseases or things like that, or new moms or you name it. There’s some sort of community for you online. And I love seeing examples like that, where someone in the middle of nowhere America can connect around a shared experience that they have with someone growing up in a completely different environment. So those kinds of things inspire me. But, I also think you’re touching on this sector that is really emerging. And it’s one that I would identify as kind of social wellness startups, right? And we’re seeing tons of companies and brands take this on and start to think about how we can relate to technology and use it as a tool to connect with one another that isn’t through likes and follows and those kinds of more superficial interactions.
And I think it’s been really interesting to see how some of these are getting attention now with the Coronavirus, but they were before too. And, you know, platforms like Zoom and Skype and FaceTime and the ones that we’re all using all the time now weren’t designed for what we’re doing now, right? They weren’t designed to host weddings or birthday parties or bar mitzvahs or any of these kinds of really meaningful gatherings. It’s actually very basic functionality. And now that user’s needs have changed. I think brands need to respond to that and we need to get way better at designing platforms and tools that enable people to connect in the good ways, rather than the bad ways like you’re talking about.
And I’m seeing people approach this from all different ways. So there are startups where the goal is to make new friends. So there’s one, I mean, I could list so many here. I probably shouldn’t. There’s Hey! VINA, there’s We3, there’s Panion, there’s Friended. There’s tons, just with the goal of making new friends. And then there’s ones with the goal of communicating with your loved ones or your neighbors in really meaningful ways. And some of those are Nextdoor, which I love some of the stuff they’ve been doing during the pandemic. There’s also smaller ones like Cocoon
Wait, are you talking about Nextdoor, the neighborhood app?
You know, Nextdoor is also a bit of a cesspool though. I don’t know. Nextdoor shows. I’ve seen a lot of hate on Nextdoor where neighbors are just terrible people to each other. It’s great that they’re doing things to connect people, but every time I’m on there to talk about something, there’s no way to not get trolled by somebody.
What’s so interesting is it’s mirroring people, right? It’s a pool and people are going to be the way that they are and some people are wonderful and I’ve seen as, I’m sure you have many examples of people connecting in great ways through Nextdoor and other platforms. And also there are people who would be better if they didn’t engage. At least there’s the option, right? You can reach out on those kinds of platforms if you do need help from a neighbor. And I think there are many stories of that going well.
That’s true. Actually I did. We’ve had some package theft and I’ve noticed when I started talking about it on Nextdoor, we were able to band together and actually effect some change in our community because of it. But at the same time, I’ve deleted posts because people just went bat shit crazy.
We need to teach empathy and compassion, emotional intelligence. That’s just a whole different issue.
Right. There is something that I’ve read in your work that I think is so interesting. And I want to give enough time to talk about this. And that is the fact that you’ve mentioned, and I’m going to quote you here. You said, “no one is exempt from suffering”. And I think people understand that right now, everybody is suffering in some ways. And we all know about post-traumatic stress. And I think people are starting to consider, if we consider this a traumatic event, what will be the post-traumatic result of it? You know? And that’s one thing, but you talk about something called post-traumatic growth that’s been researched and there’s evidence for the fact that there’s more than one way to actually internalize what trauma actually is and how it affects your life afterwards. And I would love it if you could describe that for us.
Absolutely. Yeah. So this was something I researched five years ago now, because at that time I was going through some things in my own personal life. Some of my loved ones were going through some challenging times. And it seemed like in the news, all I could see, I mean, I guess this is always true that time I was really struck by some of the shootings and different things that I was seeing on the news all the time. And I was seeking answers. I wanted to know, there must be research on how we make sense of this kind of experience and how we can draw strength from it. And my background, I started out studying positive psychology, which is this field that says mental health is not just the absence of illness. It’s also the presence of wellness and you need to study and help people build up those assets and those resources.
So I started digging into the literature on this idea of post-traumatic growth. And this is the notion that more than just being resilient through really difficult times or through adversity, people can actually emerge stronger and happier and healthier in certain ways following adversity. And this seems counterintuitive. It seems crazy, but actually a lot of the data shows that by actively searching for good, in a terrible experience, people can actually use adversity as a catalyst for growth and for development and for a different level of psychological functioning. And this isn’t to say that we should diminish or disregard suffering or anything like that. I mean, absolutely we all go through horrible things and we need to give ourselves time to mourn that and really feel that, but the research on post-traumatic growth shows that in addition, there are ways that you can grow in meaningful ways.
And so there were five elements that I outlined in the article you’re referencing, and these are kind of signals of post-traumatic growth. And I find that really helpful to think about because they point toward ways that we can think about our experiences and grow from them. So the first is around personal strength. This is the idea that when you go through something terrible and you get through it, you realize how awesome you are and how powerful you are and how you can be resilient despite really challenging things. And that gives you this gives you the sense of feeling much stronger. So that’s the first way. The second is relationships, right? So through adversity and suffering, we bond with other people, whether it’s deepening our relationships with the people we go through that experience with or connecting with completely new people.
And I think we’re really seeing this in the context of Coronavirus, because we are all collectively going through this shared filed experience and we’re supporting one another in new ways. And so that’s such an important part of healing and, just this idea of strengthening our relationships. I mean, suffering can give us empathy and it can give us compassion. And right now we’re all experiencing loneliness to some extent, perhaps for the first time, which gives us empathy for people who may experience that chronically even outside of a pandemic. So it’s that second one of relationships I think is really important. The third signal of post-traumatic growth is life appreciation. So this is the idea that when you go through something rough, you value the good things in your life that much more, and you might have even a renewed sense of motivation to make the most out of your life.
So that can manifest as gratitude, as savoring or being mindful of the pleasures and joys in each day. So the sense of greater life appreciation, I think is something that perhaps many of us are going through right now or recognizing how much we appreciate our friends and family. We appreciate nature in any way. We appreciate our health, if we’re lucky enough to have it in a new way. So that’s really important one. And then the fourth is around beliefs, right? So whether that’s religious beliefs or spiritual beliefs or how you make meaning out of different experiences, those can be either reinforced and become stronger or actually changed through adversity and suffering. So you think about someone who is very religious and who derives meaning about the relationship with God, through going through a really challenging experience or conversely someone who loses their faith in God, after going through something horrific, so fourth, is beliefs.
What’s important about this one is that it’s not necessarily about having beliefs. It’s about reassessing them and becoming more resolute in what your beliefs are.
Exactly more resolute or shifting entirely that is lasting. And that can, can be beneficial in a way.
Yeah. And then the fifth and last one is around new possibilities. So this idea that when we go through really challenging times, we kind of have a moment where we reassess our lives. We consider a new career paths or new places that we might want to live or new hobbies, or we really re-envision what we want our life to look like. And I think, again, that’s quite relevant to this pandemic. People are thinking about, do they want to keep living in cities or would they rather be somewhere with more trees or, what are the kinds of careers that they want to dedicate themselves to when this is over? So I think there, again, it’s really relevant.
So yeah, the bottom line on this research on post-traumatic growth is really that, we can turn suffering and challenges into personal development and use them in ways that help counteract the stress. And it’s not to say it’s easy. It’s not to say that we shouldn’t feel negative emotions or that it reflects poorly on you if you go a different route and feel tremendous stress and grief from this, that’s so valid, that’s such a human experience that we all share. But I think it gives me hope and optimism seeing that there are ways that we can transform some of these experiences into benefits that are long lasting,
And these five, that you describe your personal strengths, relationships, gratitude, beliefs, and new possibilities. It feels like it cuts both ways. So when you look at people who have post-traumatic growth, they exemplify these five things. But if you feel like you are experiencing post-traumatic stress and want to see if you can change it to growth, you can use these five things as a framework for getting there.
I’m not a scientist or a researcher, but I would say even just focusing on one or two may be helpful. And I think what’s interesting about these five is if you look at the market for wellness technology solutions or products, right now, a lot of products seem to focus on one of these five somewhere, which is interesting to me, you know, maybe there’s more of a macro view where there’s a way to incorporate all five of them. But it’s interesting that there is probably a specific set of solutions for each one of these things, if you should need it.
And I feel like, correct me if I’m wrong. When I look at these five, I think you’ve even said this in your writing. Collectively, what it’s really saying is it’s about deriving, meaning from the experience. So you don’t have to believe that it happened for a reason, but you could ascribe a meaning to it and live into that meaning.
Yeah, exactly. And I think that’s something that I first learned reading Viktor Frankl and his book Man’s Search for Meaning, he was a, I believe a psychiatrist who lived through the Holocaust. And that was his main message that the people who were able to get through that absolutely horrific time were the ones who A were lucky or B were able to create their own sense of meaning. And hold on to that sense of purpose through the horrific circumstances that they were going through. So you’re absolutely right. It’s not to say that there’s some innate meaning or purpose for suffering. I definitely would not argue that, but we can create our own sense of meaning and decide what is the message that we want to take from getting experience.
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