Connectedness makes us healthier and happier

Lighthouse column
By: Angela Ponivas Special to The News Messenger
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My husband asked me, “What are you going to write about this month?” I replied, “I’d like to write about the importance of connectedness.” I chose this subject because research shows that the healthiest, happiest people are those who are connected to others. Yet I had a recent conversation with an elderly gentleman who stated, “My generation is not comfortable admitting anything is wrong and is not comfortable asking for help. Very often, if problems exist, they will tend to isolate.” I am not sure that this is a generational factor alone. It may also be a cultural factor. My husband encouraged me to go on-line to read about a recent guest on “The Oprah Show.” The guest’s name is Tom Shadyac, a Hollywood director with a multimillion dollar career. He had directed blockbuster films like “Bruce Almighty” and “The Nutty Professor.” Tom was living the good life in a 17,000-square-foot mansion. He had fancy cars, the luxury of flying in private jets, invitations to extravagant parties and more. It was a life many people dream about. Despite these many luxuries, Tom said something just didn't feel right. "I was standing in the house that my culture had taught me was a measure of the good life," and yet, "I was struck with one very clear, very strange feeling: I was no happier." Tom said he had been feeling a sense of emptiness for quite a while after a traumatic bike accident in 2007 left him with excruciating post-concussion syndrome. After several months of what he described as "torture," Tom began to welcome death. "Facing my own death brought an instant sense of clarity and purpose," Tom said. "If I was, indeed, going to die, I asked myself, ‘What did I want to say before I went?’ It became very simple and very clear. I wanted to tell people what I had come to know. And what I had come to know was that the world I was living in was a lie." Five months after his accident, Tom began filming “I Am,” a documentary that seeks to get to the bottom of two burning questions: What's wrong with our world and what can we do about it? Tom said that part of what's wrong with our world — and the lie that he was living — is our culture's definition of success. "(We have) a very extrinsic model of success. You have to have a certain job status, a certain amount of wealth. ... I think true success is intrinsic. ... It's love. It's kindness. It's community." To find out why the world is the way it is, Tom explored the readings of scientists, philosophers, poets and thought leaders. What he discovered revolves around three key concepts: 1. It is scientifically proven that the entire human race is connected. 2. It is human nature to be cooperative rather than competitive. 3. "There's one fundamental law that all of nature obeys that mankind breaks every day. Now, this is a law that's evolved over billions of years and the law is this: Nothing in nature takes more than it needs." For purposes of this article, we will focus on discoveries one and two. A big revelation identified in Tom’s documentary is that our culture is wrongly built around the idea of competition. People want to set themselves apart as being the strongest, fastest, smartest and the list goes on. Therefore, it is not surprising that people would not want to admit they have needs because that would demonstrate weakness in our competitive world. Though our culture may be built around competition, Tom’s documentary strives to answer the question of whether its competition or cooperation that is the essential nature of humans. "If you talk to people in aboriginal or indigenous cultures, you find the highest societal value is cooperation. And competition is a very low value. And competition beyond certain boundaries is considered mental illness," said author Thom Hartmann. "You look at our culture, and cooperation is considered a relatively low value. And competition is considered the highest value. We celebrate the most powerful competitors." But is competition the true essence of human nature? Scientists decided to test this hypothesis and found that it is not. "What (scientists) found was that democracy was being played out literally every day by ... animals.” Thom recalls his own experiences of going scuba diving and seeing schools of fish dart around as a collective group, and also remembers watching flocks of birds in his backyard fly together and change directions suddenly while still remaining together. "How did they know?" Thom asks. "Well, it turns out, when you do the slow-motion photography, they're all voting literally with every wing beat or with every gill beat. They're voting hundreds of times a minute. And (the scientists) said, ‘We found this from insects all the way up to primates.’ The basis of nature is cooperation and democracy. It's in our DNA." That science is rooted in something called the vagus nerve, a bundle of nerves that triggers strong emotions within our bodies. "If we show people images in the lab that are classic sources of wanting to connect, the vagus nerve fires," explains professor Dacher Keltner. "It's when your chest kind of expands and you tear up. And you get this big rush." I look forward to viewing the documentary, “I Am,” as I think it will provide other interesting observations about culture and humanity. In the end, what rings true to me is that there is so much joy, happiness and fulfillment derived from true connectedness with one another, with nature, with our community and with our world. At the Lighthouse, one of our main goals is to bring community together and improve connectedness. There was no better example of this than at our most recent fundraiser, The Celebrity Waiter Luncheon. We had 180 members of the community from all walks of life come together for one purpose, to help our fellow man. For me, it was awe inspiring, joyous and it made me feel so connected to this community. For this, I am so grateful and I want to encourage those who read this article to not isolate when things get challenging. We were created to connect and cooperate, not compete. And there truly are people in this community who care and who want to connect with you, Lighthouse staff included. Angela Ponivas is the Lighthouse Counseling & Family Resource Center’s executive director. Her phone is 645-3300 and Web site is The Lighthouse is at 427 A Street, Suite 400.