We all need the love, security, comfort and support of others – the odd hermit or religious recluse excepted perhaps. Close relationships with family and friends are essential for optimal health and well-being. Without them, we can be in big trouble. In fact, social isolation or loneliness is potentially more damaging to our wellness than chronic stress, which is better known to be a health risk-factor.
If you actually measure stress, using our best available instruments, says Steve Cole, it can’t hold a candle to social isolation. Social isolation is the best-established, most robust social or psychological risk factor for disease out there. Nothing can compete.
Cole, a distinguished psychology professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, bases this conclusion on 20 years of painstaking research into the way environmental factors, including our states of mind, affect the genes that regulate our immune system. Genes are bundles of chemicals that tell the cells of our bodies how to behave. But genes work only when they are switched on or “expressed”. This means that anything that affects the expression of genes can change or obstruct the work the gene should be doing. When going about their business as they should, the 200 or so genes controlling our immune system work in a controlled way – destroying bacteria, viruses and rogue cells without creating problems for the rest of our bodies.
What Steve Cole has discovered is that loneliness, even more than stress, disrupts the expression of genes associated with immune function, thereby lowering our defences against a range of diseases. Thus anything that promotes social connectedness and reduces social isolation is clearly good for our health.
And this is where nature fits into the picture:
Nature is excellent for bringing people together because she is a great hostess. She provides all manner of settings where people can gather, chat and have fun together. More than that, she creates a distinctive form of social chemistry that makes it easier for people to socialise, form friendships and even find romance.
It is usual for people to discover that, when sharing activities in nature – gardening, undertaking a landcare project, hiking and the like – what they have in common matters far more than what makes them different. Differences in socio-economic status, cultural background, education, age and temperament, which separate and divide in the wider society, are irrelevant. This is because nature is impartial. Nature is the great leveller, the great disregarder of social status and pretensions. In natural settings people are freer to be themselves and more able to be accepting of others and to relate empathically and generously. A sense of companionship can develop remarkably quickly among people sharing an activity in nature.
In Claim Your Wildness, I describe how this happened for a woman on a canoe trip shared with several other women she had not previously met. This is her reflection on the experience:
The strongest part, the thing that I remember the most is just the interaction with all the other women which to me was equally important as being in this beautiful setting. You know, the natural setting was a wonderful place, but it was the interaction with all of these women that was truly inspirational to me. I have just never encountered that kind of cooperation in such a gentle manner. Maybe, it was the place, the setting itself washed away all the other stuff, all the artificial barriers that get in the way of first just being comfortable with yourself and then being with a group of people you haven’t met before.
It is sad that this woman had to wait until her forties before discovering just how unstinting and unconditional kindness can be. But we can be glad that she did not miss out altogether, thanks to her companions and the power of shared wilderness experiences to foster empathy and caring behaviour.