I want to talk about loneliness today. One of the most important aspects of a learning environment is the social context, and it often goes unmeasured or unmentioned. Certainly, as educators or students, we know from experience the benefits of social cohesion and collaboration. Many schools and classrooms pride themselves on fostering a sense of community and there has been increased attention towards remedying bullying across the country. Yet I’ll be honest: it took reading the two papers I’m going to summarize and synthesize today for me to really recognize the huge impact that social belonging has on not just education, but health and happiness on both global and biological levels.
This first article entitled The Social Life of Genes deserves a better synopsis (it’s LONG but worth the read!), but to be brief: through a series of studies, the author demonstrate that loneliness changes gene expression, therefore having impacts on your health at a fundamental biological level. Genes actually function as if on “dimmer switches” and at a given time, different tiny amounts of your 22,000 genes are active in a given cell. One’s social environment has a powerful effect: “…who you hung out with and how they behaved, in short, could dramatically affect which of your genes spoke up and which stayed quiet—and thus change who you were.” In fact, social isolation is perhaps the strongest influence on one’s immune system. For example, closeted gay men, with or without HIV, get sick more than openly gay men. Women’s social stress can predict their gene expression 6 months later.
But importantly, we each live in a subjective reality. Studies of poverty-stricken children show that they have weaker immune responses than well-off kids. However, their perceptions of threat in social situations accounted for almost all of the influence of poverty. The main driver of these children’s poor immune responses was not poverty, but “whether the child saw the social world as scary.” In fact, the take-home that this article provides is:
That’s a really important part of this: To an extent that immunologists and psychologists rarely appreciate, we are architects of our own experience. Your subjective experience carries more power than your objective situation. If you feel like you’re alone even when you’re in a room filled with the people closest to you, you’re going to have problems. If you feel like you’re well supported even though there’s nobody else in sight; if you carry relationships in your head; if you come at the world with a sense that people care about you, that you’re valuable, that you’re okay; then your body is going to act as if you’re okay—even if you’re wrong about all that.
Now how does this translate to education?
In a 2011 article published in SCIENCE (a very prestigious journal), the authors were interesting in how “social belonging” – the feeling of having positive relationships with others – could impact both academic and health outcomes, specifically for African-American students. First year college students participated in an ONE HOUR intervention program where they were taught that social adversity at college is a shared experience that is short-lived. They internalized the message by writing essays and then reading them aloud to video cameras as speeches for future students (this sort of method is done a lot and is shown to deeply affect people’s beliefs and attitudes). The intervention was designed to teach students to attribute loneliness and adversity as part of adjusting to college rather than to blame themselves, and to position themselves as “benefactors” rather than “beneficiaries”. Importantly, when asked in later years, subjects remembered very little about the intervention and only 14% thought it had any effect on their college experience.
The results of this one-hour intervention are astounding. Academically, there is a “minority gap” seen between African American and White students in college. Yet in this study, while the GPAs of African Americans in the control group flatlined across college, the GPAs of African Americans in the intervention increased over time. In fact, for African Americans in the intervention, the gap between them and their White counterparts closed by 79% by senior year. The intervention also TRIPLED the percentage of African American students in the top 25% of the class.
So how did this work? From survey data, African Americans in the intervention group looked very similar to White students in both the intervention or control groups. Their feelings of belonging were robust; they were able to handle day-to-day adversity without it affecting them. They felt more stability and certainty about belonging at school and experienced less self-doubt and perception of racial stereotyping than their African American counterparts who did not receive the intervention. Even further, African American students who had this one hour intervention reported being healthier and visiting the doctor less than those who didn’t have the intervention, and they scored higher on a scale of happiness. This all came out of one hour that most of these students barely remembered.
For me, the take-homes are these: 1) subjective feelings of belonging can be strengthened through teaching and 2) even a short lesson can have wide-reaching deeply-impactful effects. When we talk about character education, we should be thinking about studies like this these. Look at how important one’s perception of their social world is. Look at how malleable it is. Look at what one hour could potentially do to strengthen minority or marginalized students’ character skills. Look at how these skills translate into very measurable and real differences in their lives. Look at how important the feeling of belonging to a community can truly be.