In his book The Art of Loving, Eric Fromm wrote that “the deepest need of man is to overcome his separateness, to leave the prison of his aloneness.” In the Bible, after forming Adam from the dust of the ground and breathing into his nostrils the breath of life, God declares that something is missing: “It is not good for the man to be alone.”
A number of scientific studies verify that a sense of connection and belonging are crucial for humans to develop, function, and flourish. For instance, The Bucharest Early Intervention Project (BEIP) followed 136 of the tens of thousands of Romanian babies who were abandoned and orphaned as a result of the birth control ban during the regime of Communist dictator Nicolae Ceauşescu. The children were randomized to foster care or the institutional care of an orphanage. Researchers at Harvard University, the University of Maryland and Tulane University have published over 50 papers that show the orphans who remained in institutions have significantly more behavioral and neurological deficits than those who went to families.
A recent study used magnetic resonance (MRI) to scan the brains of 74 of the Bucharest children, now ages 8 to 11, and found that brains of children who had remained in institutions had less white matter than orphans who were placed in foster care or children living with their own families.
Family, workplaces, and spiritual communities are some of the places where we form the relationships that give coherence and meaning to our lives. With illness, the infirmities of age, and hospitalizations, people are often removed from these sources of community. For instance, an analysis of the Coping with Cancer Study found a significant decrease in attendance of religious services after individuals received their cancer diagnosis. This suggests patients’ ties to their spiritual communities decreased when support was most needed.
In my own practice, I sometimes see older people suffering in loneliness. Their family members seem too busy with their own lives to visit. Many of their friends have died or are incapacitated. To get out into the world requires driving and getting on the road with younger, faster drivers is an anxiety-provoking ordeal.
We often conceive of health care as consisting of doctors and nurses, medicines and surgeries, hospitals and clinics. But, health or well-being is a holistic concept. It involves, among other things, the state of a person’s mind, body, relationships, finances, and spirituality.
Accordingly, one of the most important ways a society can nourish the health of its citizens is fostering the creation of relationships and authentic communities. It is especially important to help people at risk for becoming isolated — those with sickness, infirmity, and disabilities — find the human connection we all need.
James Marroquin is an internal medicine physician who blogs at his self-titled site, James Marroquin.