The Project Nof1 Interview Series on Healthy Aging Protocols explores the many different ways people choose to practice healthy aging. While many doctors and longevity researchers disagree on the best approach to healthy aging, there are a few things they unanimously agree on and one of those things is – relationships and community.
In May 2023 Dr. Vivek Murthy, the US Surgeon General, sounded the alarm on the public health crisis of loneliness and social isolation and released a report on this epidemic. A few months later in December 2023 the World Health Organization has labeled this situation a global public health crisis and created a new Commission on Social Connection to investigate it.
As I continue the interview series on healthy aging protocols in 2024 I thought it would be important to include a set of interviews focused on this topic and hear from people who actively cultivate the antidote to loneliness and social isolation – “meaningful human connection”. The series will include people who are actively creating gatherings on this topic and others who seem to have always had it figured out.
In my research to prepare for this set of interviews I started to reflect on where I derived meaningful human connection and my own approach to cultivating, nourishing, building and maintaining meaningful human connection.
These are the ingredients I found that give me meaningful human connection:
Bearing witness to the life of someone else and them to mine: I have found that it is not just the big moments such as a big achievement or an important milestone that is meaningful to share with others, but that the people I hold dear and have meaning in my life are people who have been witness to all the little moments in between, as I have for them. The bathroom renovation, the job interviews, the new appliance, the vacation plans, food pictures, being on the other end of calls and texts during triumphs and tribulations etc. I have found the exchange of moments like these to be an important ingredient with meaningful human connection; and that these create opportunities to see and be seen by others. In other words, to bear witness to each other’s lives.
Showing Up: When discussing how to maintain friendships, Michelle Obama said that it is important to show up “whether that’s for a birthday, a quick catch-up after work, or a major milestone.” I have found this to be true coupled with a bit of Shrek wisdom about the many layers we have and combined with relationship therapist Esther Perel’s “it takes time for people to reveal themselves to you.” Many meaningful human connections are a result of time spent getting to know and appreciate the other person and having had a chance to peel back a few layers. However the most challenging part I have found about showing up is that our worlds have become increasingly mediated by algorithms, an endless schedule, and social media providing what loneliness researcher Monika Jiang describes as “superficial relationships” which are in essence diluting meaningful connection and creating a false sense of connection. Another challenge has been the covid pandemic creating strain on people’s emotional states as well as job shifts and moves to different places which can change the nature of relationships. Speaking with technology expert Pablo Breuer, he shared that showing up involves “finding” time and “making” time which are two different things. He explains that finding time is slotting someone into a convenient place in your schedule without changing your plans. While making time is opening up your schedule to make someone a priority within your schedule. In an era of time scarcity, showing up becomes harder when people can’t or are unwilling to find or make time for others. However, I have found that both finding time and making time are important to showing up.
Discovering, learning and experiencing together: Learning is such a fundamental aspect of being human and when we get to share and discover new things with others it creates opportunities to experience new knowledge and awe together. I have found that it is a great way to create new memories and learn more about other people as well and share new perspectives that hadn’t been previously shared. This is particularly powerful when the learning is about a topic that is of mutual interest. Which is compatible to the next observation I made in how I have experienced meaningful human connection.
Growth compatibility: Everyone is in their own state of growth and on their own journey. I don’t see this state of growth as two dimensional but across a 3D axis with multiple directions. As I have found myself in new life stages or new growth paths, that growth journey itself has created new moments of meaningful human connection with people I already knew and also new people. Being on the same wavelength to appreciate the moment of growth has been incredibly powerful and a way I have had very meaningful human connection across generations with some who were experiencing something similar, and some who had already been in my shoes.
Communication style synergy: There has been a lot of research into the different “love languages” and how the incompatibility of how one expresses their love can lead to the demise of a romantic relationship. Having lived in several countries and worked on many projects around the world, I have found communication style to be of comparable importance across every type of relationship and I think with meaningful human connection there is something to pull from both sides: the communication style and the expression of love or appreciation. I find it is easier to feel seen, heard and appreciated when the communication style is similar.
Revisiting the “Time-Space Compression”
My approach to hold the space for meaningful human connection includes sending texts, having catch up calls, sending hand written letters and intentional trips to hang out. But what I have discovered preparing for this set of interviews is that my post covid world has changed me and my social interactions in ways that have reduced the amount of meaningful human connection despite my best efforts; and that life seemed to just be moving faster.
Investigating further, I realize that this sense of things moving faster has been going on for several decades and our technological advancements play a key role. In the 1980s this concept was first labeled as the “Time-Space Compression” which is based on the idea that the world is getting metaphorically smaller due to faster transportation systems and new forms of communication. This can be seen in the diagram below:
A decade later others continued to reflect and build on the Time-Space Compression questioning if “human geography is at the end of time?” and how these advances have changed our sense of time and space. Today we take for granted that we can talk to anyone instantaneously and through real time video, anywhere around the world. That we can hop on a plane and be in another part of the world for a wedding, conference, retreat, concert or any other reason.
This time and space compression is a part of our daily lives for better, and for worse as every aspect of our lives also benefits from this technological advancement which leads us to an endless stream of messages, emails, posts, DMs, and demand on our mind and time across every single medium we access from every part of our lives from friendships, to hobbies, to professional engagements and government related items. Not to mention the thousands of ads we are exposed to every single day.
Where does that leave us cognitively? I would hypothesize that the continued time-space compression due to the ongoing acceleration of technological advancements creates less time in absolute minutes, but also in moments of pause in our heads. My observations about COVID making things faster are compatible with this continued inertia forward as the pandemic marked an important moment of rapid change in the way we work, when masses in the labor market adopted remote work technologies and policies which have changed work culture but also social culture. Pre-COVID, one would have had to justify why they wanted to do a virtual meeting instead of in person, now the opposite is true – one would have to justify why a meeting merited the physical presence of attendees. This also has led to back-to-back zoom calls and less mental space as well as ‘zoom fatigue’ reducing productivity and increasing a sense of disconnection.
In Pursuit of Meaningful Human Connection
I didn’t realize my thought exercise on meaningful human connection would bring me to reflect on the centuries of technological progress and how this advancement has improved our material and health quality of life but that it also is playing a role in how we engage with meaning in our lives.
I know that the rapid means of communication which compress our sense of time will require me to be more conscious about how I create time and hold space for meaningful human connection. It will require me to be more intentional about how I cultivate, build, nourish and maintain meaningful human connection in my life. This 2024 I plan to create, design and experiment with more intentional approaches and I hope that through this interview series I will get ideas from other people’s approaches to this important aspect of a healthy aging protocol.
The Project Nof1 Interview series on Healthy Aging Protocols is curated by Lydia Kostopoulos
and is meant to showcase stories of different approaches, perspectives and practices
in healthy aging protocols.