While we are living in a time that seems like we have more differences among us than similarities, there is at least one thing that we all have in common – the deep need for social connection.
Feeling like we belong, that we are seen and understood, that we are not alone is part of our DNA. Our wellbeing – physical as well as mental – is wrapped up in our bonds with others.
Quoting neuroscientist, Matthew Lieberman in an article in Scientific American: “Across many studies of mammals, from the smallest rodents all the way to us humans, the data suggests that we are profoundly shaped by our social environment and that we suffer greatly when our social bonds are threatened or severed.”
“During the pandemic, as our get-togethers have moved online, many people have struggled with feelings of loneliness,” said Brittiney Poffley, general manager at the YMCA of Eastern Ontario in Kingston. “When we have checked-in with our members during pandemic closures we have heard how difficult isolation has been for them. Our seniors especially appreciate our calls and have told us how anxious they are to return to the Y and their friends here.”
Montreal-based developmental psychologist Susan Pinker said in a recent Maclean’s article that, “In-person contact is essential for touch or non-verbal communication, that little pat on the arm [is important].”
There is some stigma associated with being alone in this era of perfectly curated images on social media channels. These illusions of perfect, happy lives can make it hard for someone to admit to feeling lonely and getting help even when the stakes of not doing so are so high.
The Canadian Mental Health Association says that: “Social connection can lower anxiety and depression, help us regulate our emotions, lead to higher self-esteem and empathy, and actually improve our immune systems. By neglecting our need to connect, we put our health at risk.”
There are numerous studies that support this in finding that isolation may be more damaging to human health than smoking, obesity or inactivity as a mortality risk.
“Full social participation is such a fundamental human need that research since the 1900s has found the lack of social connections increases the odds of death by at least 50 per cent (Yang et al, 2016). When [various] assessments of social relationships were considered, the odds of mortality increased by 91 per cent among the socially isolated. The magnitude of this effect is comparable to that of smoking and exceeds those of many other known risk factors of mortality, such as obesity or physical inactivity.” 
Understanding the needs for connection, is an important underpinning of the YMCA’s philosophy.
“Our staff try to go the extra mile to make people feel welcome and to provide support,” Poffley said. “Our members tell us they feel they aren’t just coming to a fitness centre, but that our staff really care about them. It’s true that we get to know people and will often reach out if we haven’t seen someone in a while. We hope everyone feels like they belong here, that we offer a safe, respectful and inclusive space.”
Y members often refer to the friendships they have made at the Y. As one example, after every class, one group meets for coffee and once a month for breakfast. They keep track of each other as well. Two members of the group are no longer able to drive so others have stepped in to pick them up and bring them to class and coffee group.
Although personal connections and developing friendships may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking about the YMCA, it is something that many members have missed during the pandemic and are looking forward to as Covid mandates ease.
As for the Y, it places great importance on social connections.As Poffley says, “We know it not only makes us happier, but helps us to live longer, healthier lives!”