Many millennia before Mark Zuckerberg coined the term “social network”, early humans thrived on the power of connectedness.
As hunter-gatherers, we roamed the plains in small bands of people. Group living offered a competitive advantage in a dangerous world.
Nowadays, thankfully, we no longer have to scour the turf warily for that saber-toothed cat (well, not unless you’re thinking of your boss – and that’s a whole other story).
But our primal behaviour of yesteryear set in motion the mechanics of a deep-rooted reward system. From an evolutionary standpoint, we are happiest in the company of others.
Here’s why we need to re-tap the power of relationships: especially with people we don’t know.
Great connections rock our world
Having good relationships with your neighbours and loved ones outweighs the impact of genes, social class and IQ on overall life satisfaction.
It’s as powerful as not smoking when it comes to predicting life outcomes. Conversely, being isolated causes stress, cognitive decline and early death (a little bleak but there’s the truth of it).
Before you rush to break your winter hibernation habit, however, it’s worth considering that any interaction at any point in life can be rewarding.
You don’t have to be Cher from Clueless to reap the bounties of a well-oiled social circle. Even if you see yourself as a quite a shy person, you’ll surprise yourself with how hard-wired this pleasure response can be – and how easy it is to realise.
Even little interactions with strangers count
Social connections are more than just an adaptive need, driven by the survival of the fittest. They also trigger a chemical reaction in the brain.
This leads to feelings of trust and connectedness that are deeply soothing. It’s a response that drives our desire for further connection and cooperation.
It’s ironic, then, that modern life seems to have sabotaged this process. We gravitate towards city living, with busy and demanding lifestyles that leave little room for other people – especially those we don’t know.
Nicholas Epley and Juliana Schroeder, behavioural scientists at the University of Chicago, have found that we routinely underestimate the satisfaction of speaking to strangers.
Their research shows that when commuters spoke to each other on their morning journey into work, it had a positive impact on wellbeing for all involved.
Connecting with others, even on an incidental basis, can make us far happier than we realise. And it’s hardly surprising, when you consider what’s happening behind the scenes.
We need people more as we get older
So, people make us happier; and we also need them more as we get older. That’s because – as studies show – as we age, whether or not we have a romantic partner becomes less relevant to how lonely we feel.
Again, this isn’t such as shocker when you think that early humans evolved in groups. It was only much later – around 35 million years, in fact – that we started to live in pairs.
But our tendency towards the collective is a bit of an inconvenient truth. First, because as we get older, our social circles narrow: we prune off the flakers and shakers for quality pals. But we also become tunnel-visioned in the process.
And this tendency is made worse by the fact that many of us are pairing off in our 30s and beyond. Romantic relationships can fracture our social ties, meaning we become insular and inward-looking (a finding that also explains why single people are more sociable than those in relationships).
Whether or not we’re living with a significant other, we need people beyond that. They are our life source; something that becomes more, not less, vital as we get older. But we don’t always recognise that reality.
Travelling reverses the disconnect of a modern age
So by now, we can appreciate that we’ve got ourselves into a bit of a fix on the topic of people.
Being connected makes us happy and healthy. It gets oxytocin on the brew and fire up the brain’s reward system. As we age, and our lives become more complicated and demanding, community matters more.
So why is it that we tend to retreat? We hurl ourselves headlong into working long hours, and any time leftover is spent salvaging that one, central relationship. No-one else gets a chance.
My friends: group travel is the answer here. When you hop on-board a group trip, you push yourself out of the trap you didn’t even realise you were in. Suddenly, your world becomes larger and you start re-tapping the lifeline of making new friends.
If you’re in a long-term relationship, group travel is your cue to look up and around once again. And if you’re not, you remind yourself of the freedom that comes from seeing beyond the people you know.
Either way, group travel carves out space for everyday interactions, and also the time for deep, meaningful connections.
It’s the wake-up call we all need that shows that – beyond the frantic, bleep-driven hum of everyday life – it’s community that matters most of all. But you cannot know until you go. Now, where in the world is calling you?
Images: Unsplash, Flash Pack