We need to recognize our need for others

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October 17, 2013

10:48 PM

17th century poet John Donne wrote, “No man is an island.” Over 300 years later, we are continuously striving for just that: to be completely autonomous and self-reliant. Especially as students at the College of William and Mary, we take pride in our self-sufficiency, independence and solo accomplishments.

I am one of the stubborn, proud islands; at least, I thought I was. I didn’t like the idea of relying on other people, burdening them with my needs.

Yet during a lecture in my social psychology class, I was reminded of how much I depend on people without even realizing it, and how my benefitting from interactions is not necessarily a burden to others.

Our professor began by stating that humans are a group species “fundamentally dependent on other people.” While skeptical initially, I became convinced during the discussion that interdependence is ingrained in human nature, and that it is nothing to be ashamed of.

We discussed a 2006 study by psychological researchers James A. Coan, Hillary S. Schaefer and Richard J. Davidson that examined the impact of holding someone’s hand when anticipating a painful procedure. The study found that holding another person’s hand prior to the procedure — even the hand of a stranger — correlates with less activation to threat on the part of the patient (shown using fMRI brain scans) compared to the control patient. The experimental group experienced a calming effect where the control patients did not.

It amazed me that a gesture as seemingly small as holding a hand can have such a significant effect on someone in distress.

I recalled how actions of people I love have improved my mental well-being. During a particularly busy or hectic week, I have found that eating dinner with a friend, laughing with a housemate at a funny YouTube video, or Skyping my parents brightens my outlook and energizes me. After engaging positively with my loved ones, the stressors I am experiencing feel less intense, leaving me feeling rejuvenated, centered and ready to work through the tasks at hand.

When we perform acts of kindness, we often think in terms of a dichotomized giver/receiver relationship. Yet when discussing the expression of gratitude, I realized how mutually beneficial human interaction often is. Psychologist Martin Seligman found that participants who each wrote a letter of gratitude and delivered it to someone who they had never properly thanked experienced both immediate and long lasting increases in happiness scores. Compared to other positive psychological interventions employed in the study, this one — writing and delivering letters of gratitude — had the longest-lived benefits for the participants, lasting for a whole month afterwards. The people giving thanks positively impacted not only those they were thanking, but also their own mental well-being.

We often don’t want to admit our reliance on other people, perhaps because we fear it will make us feel weak or needy. This should not be so. Our ability to help and be helped by other humans is not something to be ashamed of, but something to celebrate. “Man,” John Locke wrote, is “a sociable creature, made … with an inclination, and under a necessity to have fellowship with those of [his] own kind.” You have immeasurable power to positively affect and be affected by those around you through even the simplest acts of fellowship.

We are not islands independent from one another. We make up a beautiful archipelago: distinctly individual, yet sharing the same human experience. Our interdependence can co-exist with our independence without eclipsing it. Our mutually beneficial, interdependent interactions with others are a large part of what makes us human. Especially in a community as tightly knit as ours, we need look no further than our dorms, our organizations, our friends and ourselves for an invaluable and plentiful health resource: the power of people.

Email Andrea Aron-Schiavone at acaronschiavon@email.wm.edu.

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  • Andrea Aron-Schiavone