The key to a meaningful life is a sense of belonging

“Plays Well with Others: The Surprising Science Behind Why Everything You Know About Relationships Is (Mostly) Wrong” by Eric Barker

Sigmund Freud once said, “Love and work are the cornerstones of our humanness.” While Eric Barker’s first book was about work, where he tests out all the theories and common beliefs about work and whether the maxims of success were all true, in this second book Barker explores and tests out the myths and science of the other half of Freud’s statement: on relationship.

In his signature style, the book mix hard science and wide range of psychological findings with humor, a laid back tone of writing, and amusing stories to illustrate the points, which makes reading it feels like we’re on a holiday with a funny but wise friend.

Stories such as the tale involving a genius horse, a Korean War hero who fought against hundreds of enemies alone, the girl who broke Casanova’s heart, the love story between a Japanese man with his anime pillow, lonely Frankenstein’s monster, a story about a leper colony, the search for an alien frequency, the invention and marketing of Viagra, a made up disease to protect jews in Rome from Nazi, a case of severe picnic deprivation, and the real life case of amnesia and love like in the 50 First Date movie.

The book also provides tips and tools for a good relationship, such as the danger of making assumptions and instead we should always clarify, how to ask questions to figure out whether someone is lying or not, tools – like active listening, mirroring, labelling – that would make Chris Voss proud, understanding our primordial need to make sense of our surrounding (hence how people can get duped by the likes of astrology or Tarot card), or the important concept of emotional contagion where when we feel excited we tend to associate it with what’s around us, even if they are not directly responsible.

Now, there are so many notes taken from this book, but in a nutshell it gives an insight into human relationship as a whole. And if we only learn one thing from the book, it’s probably this: “What predicts how meaningful we perceive life to be? [A] 2013 study found a very robust and clear answer to that question: a sense of belonging.”

Indeed a sense of belonging gives us a feeling of meaning in life, because as Barker said “it’s why our species’ superpower is cooperation. It’s what we saw with drug addiction hijacking the social reward pathways of the human brain. It’s what we saw with the placebo effect curing ills by telling your body someone cares.” Oh yes, research found that the placebo effect have an active ingredient after all: human beings caring for one another, which was brilliantly illustrated in great length in the book.

Moreover, the book addresses misleading or incomplete statistics such as the claim that married people are happier, while in truth people who are in a happy marriage are happier but so do people who are happily single. Meanwhile people in a bad marriage are worst off, the same with single miserable people.

Another statistic shows the minimum requirement ratio between positive and negative experience for a relationship to work out. For example, friendships need an 8:1 positive to negative ratio, marriages 5:1 positive to negative ratio, where couples who headed for a divorce typically have a ratio of 0.8 positives for every 1 negative. And with your mother in law? The number is 1000:1. HA! Surely it’s an over exaggeration? But hey if the science says so.

And then there’s the big one, the topic of loneliness epidemic. “Loneliness is a subjective feeling”, Barker wrote, “it’s not necessarily about physical isolation. We’ve all felt it: lonely in a crowd.” Indeed, loneliness isn’t actually about being physically alone, but instead it’s more about not having a feeling of meaningful connection.

And we can trace this phenomenon back to the 19th century, where the term loneliness did not actually exist. So what happened? In the 1800s a new concept emerged alongside other social narratives such as the idea of marriage for love, and it can be summed up in one word: individualism. It is not a coincidence that the term “individualism” was first appeared in the 1830s, about the same time that loneliness began to appear. As Barker remarks, “We went from seeing life as ensemble drama to a one-man show. We went from a default “someone cares” to “no one cares.””

And it gets trickier. Psychologists call it parasocial relationship. It is a concept created in 1956 to describe the pseudo-relationships people would have with TV characters, because according to researchers Cohen and Metzger “television represents the perfect guest—one who comes and leaves at our whim.” And the statistics back this up. Between 1985 and 1994 there was a 45% drop in involvement in community organizations, 43% drop in time spent on family dinner, 35% drop on activities where people invite friends over, in fact virtually all forms of togetherness became less common over the last quarter of the 20th century, and the primary culprit is television.

And the introduction of the internet and the rise of smart phones make it even worst. Meaningful human contact now largely replaced by online interactions that are fundamentally different in some ways. Most significantly, it eliminates the body language and human expressions that serve as a feedback loop for the things we said.

The ease of having “online friends” also makes people more likely to be selective over engaging with online behaviour, where they can just tune out when they don’t feel like responding, a behaviour that could carry over offline into the real world. Hence the resulting younger generation with severe lack of empathy, because they never learn how to develop their empathy that can only be learned from trials and errors from physical human connection.

Barker remarked, “add in the hypercompetitive atmosphere and inflated expectations of success, borne of celebrity ‘reality shows,’ and you have a social environment that works against slowing down and listening to someone who needs a bit of sympathy.” So what happens in a world that is lack on empathy and instead focuses on status and so little on care? We become depressed.

But luckily, the cure for this is quite straight forward. Barker noted over a camping experiment, “In only five days in a sleepaway camp without their phones, empathy levels come back up. How does this happen? The campers talk to each other.” Indeed, go offline and interact with each other. Or as Barker would suggest, we can join the Amish community. As he explains, the Amish “don’t eschew technology because they’re Luddites. They do adopt some of it, like tractors. How do they decide what gets approved and what doesn’t? By the effect it has on the closeness of the community. Tractors help you grow crops. Sounds good. But cars let people live farther apart. No bueno.”

Now, we don’t need to literally join the Amish community but we can certainly learn from them. Because, “[w]hen we’re in a community, we get high on our own supply, but when there is no community, we must get our supply elsewhere.”

And as it turns out we cannot discount the huge effect of what having a physical community can give us. When Paula Klemm and Thomas Hardie studied online cancer support groups, they discovered that 92% of the participants were depressed, but when they studied physical cancer support groups? The depression goes down to zero percent. They report: “Traditional cancer support groups can help people cope with their cancer, but the efficacy of Internet cancer support groups . . . remains to be proven.”

Indeed, while it is relatively easy to replace face-to-face contact with online interaction, it doesn’t have the same effects on us. This is backed by psychologist Thomas Pollet who found that “spending more time on IM or [social networking sites] did not increase the emotional closeness of relationships.”

All of these come back nicely to the main point of the book: the sense of belonging. Us humans tend to maintain the sense of belonging through stories, with the primary purpose wasn’t necessarily truth but unity. As Barker remarks, “[j]ust like your body accepts a fake story in the placebo effect. The acupuncture doesn’t help, but the care it delivers is a clear signal of belonging, and that’s what’s important.”

Barker then continues, “How do we maintain belonging when our stories are mutually exclusive? The solution is simple: more stories. We can always create another story to unite us in a new way. We do it now. You may not be my family, but you are my friend. You may not be my religion, but we are part of the same nation. We may not have any of these in common, but we may both be Star Wars fans. New stories can unite us when the old ones fail to.”

This, in the end, is our human story. A story about community, togetherness and belonging. We might not be the strongest or the quickest animal on Earth, but we’re the most cooperative with each other. As Dutch historian Rutger Bregman puts it, “If Neanderthals were a super-fast computer, we were an old-fashioned PC—with wi-fi. We were slower, but better connected.”

And this can be evident in the unlikeliest circumstances, where in the most difficult situations where survivorship is at stake – like during war or disaster – humans tend to go back to our default settings and help each other more.