Humans need to be social. At least, that is what research conducted in a 2004 study by Marilynn Brewer and published in Personality and Social Psychology Review suggests. Our survival apparently depends on a mutualistic relationship with others, and our ability to interact well in a social group is highly valued as an important skill that is necessary to succeed in today’s society. As humans, we typically enjoy feeling a sense of community and being involved with other people. We enjoy cooperating with others for the promise that they will cooperate with us. Conversely, we fear exclusion from social groups. In this way, being socially connected to others is good for both our psychological and physical well-being.
Could this intrinsic need to thrive socially be what makes the use of online social networks so popular? One would think that being plugged into an online social network allows one to gain this human necessity of belonging to a group. With millions of users to interact with at your fingertips, how could you not feel social when belonging to a social network? Multiple modes of technological communication further facilitate human-to-human interaction that has almost entirely replaced face-to-face communication. After all, online social networks provide a quick and easy way for people to share ideas and to receive feedback on these ideas from others. It is likewise just as easy to feel excluded if you are not participating in a social network.
Interestingly enough, trends of depression and social isolation increase the more involved people are in social networks. In a 2006 study published in the International Journal of Nursing Studies, Kim et al. that depression and suicidal ideology was most prevalent among adolescents identified as having an “internet addiction”. Technological advancements have changed our lives so dramatically that we actually have smaller social groups and an overall greater distrust of other people in general. In an increasingly technology dependent world, how then do we fulfill our primitive social needs? The answer, perhaps, lies in meditation.
The idea that we could increase our social connectedness by isolating ourselves and meditating seems somewhat counterintuitive, but that is precisely what is shown in a study published by Emotion and conducted by Stanford University researchers Hutcherson, Seppala, and Gross in 2008. By using a specific kind of meditation, loving-kindness meditation, subjects who engaged in the guided meditation showed greater measureable feelings of positivity towards others, regardless if they had met them before or not. In short, loving-kindness meditation is a specific kind of meditation in which participants focus on expanding feelings of affection and kindness towards other people. Like most forms of meditation, participants begin by becoming aware of their breathing and then concentrating on an already existing feeling of compassion that they have towards someone in their life, such as a child or close family member. Subsequently, the participants focus on transmitting these positive feelings towards another person or even an imagined person. In comparison to the observations from a control group that did not participate in the guided loving-kindness meditation, results from the study show that even after just seven minutes of meditation, feelings of positivity towards others and overall social connectedness substantially increased. While it is clear that more research should be done to understand the physiological effects of the meditation on the brain and why it changes our behavior so drastically, it is certainly a promising piece of evidence that could even perhaps be used to develop social skills of those who have difficulty in social situations.
Indeed loving-kindness meditation poses great promise for the future. As neural mechanisms become better known, we can expect to better understand the physiological mechanisms that meditation induces. While the use of loving-kindness meditation may not replace online social networks altogether as a means to promote social connectedness, greater awareness of its abilities could potentially provide an escape from social isolation in an increasingly technology-obsessed world.