By Dr Ashley Humphrey
The prospect of transitioning completely out of a state of lockdown would undoubtedly be a very welcome one to all Victorians right now. For many, life void of the restrictions put in place to combat the spread of COVID-19 circa March of this year now seems like an eternity ago.
This was, of course, a time when the dregs of Australia’s warmer months allowed for countless large-scale events and gatherings to thrive right across the country, with masses also poised to begin their annual pilgrimage to football stadiums across the nation as the country’s various football seasons were set to commence. Such an active events scene outwardly portrays the image of a socially engaged nation, justifying our self-classification as a country of people who enjoy doing life together.
Semblances of this title are indeed very true, with Australians well renowned for their eager willingness to flock to big events and embrace a good time. And yet despite this propensity to congregate socially in the external, there exists a mounting array of research on social trends in Australia that paint a rather different picture about our true social orientations.
A range of cross-cultural data has shown that Australians are today less engaged in community life than ever before, and also more likely to adopt ‘individualistic’ social values when compared to generations past. Individualistic values refer to a preference for independence, pursuing one’s own personal goals above the needs of a community, and maintaining relationships with others when the costs do not outweigh the benefits.
Indeed, there are many advantages to living in a society where such values prevail, which include the freedoms we have to organise our lives in any way we like, to pursue our own personal goals and to construct our own social environment.
Recent findings, however, indicate that socially orienting oneself in such a way may actually comprise a range of subtle detriments as well that can be harmful to our psychological wellbeing. For instance, researchers have challenged the individualistic movement we see in developed countries like Australia, for the role it has played in damaging people’s connections to their communities, social cohesion, and the overall strength of one’s social support networks.
Further, research theorises that the hierarchical and competitive ethos that have become embryonic of an individualistic society have also contributed to a culture of self-promotion, narcissistic tendencies and heightened self-sufficiency.
And yet, such realities are somewhat covered up in Australian culture by the fact that we appear in the external very active in social life, as evidenced by our enthusiasm for major events, such as live music, festivals, and sporting events.
The research would suggest that our propensity to turn out to these events acts in part as a façade to the fact we are less socially engaged with one and other than ever before. The outcomes of this might suit a person just fine, they can drift through life spending time with select groups of people, only if and when they may feel like it. However, research shows us that only tapping into social networks when we feel we need a ‘social hit’, can be very problematic.
American social neuroscientist John Cacioppo, for example, has argued that much like hunger, feelings of loneliness signals a threat to our wellbeing, born out of an evolutionary need not to be excluded from our group or tribe.
Amid the highly unusual social climate we find ourselves in at present, there exists the opportunity for many to reflect on their social behaviours and subsequently rethink their lives for the better. Within this notion, along with the fact we have been starved of an array of normal social activities for the greater part of 2020 now, there are some enduring lessons from this period that if implemented throughout our society would allow for an improvement in our collective mental health.
The restrictions put in place as part of COVID-19 has forced us to remove from community life and find other ways to connect. As these restrictions are slowly peeled back, we have an opportunity to better use the immense freedoms we ordinarily have and take for granted, to better engage with the lives of our communities and our broader social networks more generally.
As the poet Alexander Pope wrote in An Essay on Man, ‘True self-love and social love are the same’, suggesting that serving society is another way to serve the individual. By giving time to other people, our communities and those closest to us, we not only benefit them, but we benefit ourselves. Such a practice enables one to think beyond themselves, and in turn, lighten whatever psychological burdens they may be carrying – even if just for a period of time.
If we as a society are going to move forward towards better mental health outcomes beyond the cessation of the Covid-19 pandemic, we need to find a way to re-connect with this ancient wisdom, by better engaging with our communities and the people around us.
As the cliché message posted on countless sporting locker rooms around the globe correctly states, we are indeed stronger together.
Dr Ashley Humphrey is a Psychology Lecturer in the School of Science, Psychology and Sport