Book Review: The Village Effect: why face to face contact matters by Susan Pinker

Watching this powerful video made by Steve Cutts for the song ‘Are you lost in the world like me?’ reminded me of how much I was impacted by reading The Village Effect by Susan Pinker earlier this year.

Pinker makes one point. Yes, only the one point! But she makes it really effectively and what makes her book worth reading is the huge amount of fascinating and well-researched evidence that she uses to back up her point. She discusses how social bonds will alter the outcome of serious diseases, improve our mental well-being and alter the lives of our children.

Her point is this: we would all be better off emotionally, physically, psychologically and in just about ever other way if we simply increased the amount of face-to-face interaction we have regularly with the people we love.

Loneliness, exacerbated by the modern tendency to only interact via social media, texts or emails, is literally a killer. If we meet friends regularly to drink, hang out, knit, exercise, discuss books, eat, or whatever, we will lower our cortisol and blood pressure levels, we will live longer and the effect can be more marked than taking regular medication or quitting smoking. Incidentally out of  ‘seven billion people in the world, six billion think religion helps them to live a long, meaningful life’ and they are are on to something. Attending a religious service at least once a week hugely increases your longevity. (Yay! what about us ‘professionals’ who go 4 or 5 times?)

Some of the stories and data that she shares are literally jaw-dropping: how much you can alter the outcome for your teenage daughter by simply ensuring you eat a main meal with her daily and converse. We instinctively feel that that would be a good thing to do but Pinker has collated the research and, if she is right, then its a VERY good and powerful thing to do. And yet, it is also simple and achievable. In a chapter called ‘Teens and Screens’she tells the story of an ordinary young teenager called Allison who sent or received 27,000 texts a month, often 900 a day, keeping around 7 conversations going at a time – that’s a full time job!! How the heck did she fit in eating, sleeping and studying whilst managing this  ‘tsunami of texts’? Okay, so it turns out Allison was at the extreme end of text use, Pinker informs us that in 2012 4,000 texts a month was the average for teenage girls in the States. Even so, that still works out at 6-7 every waking hour. And texts are so ‘bare’: no eye contact, no tone of voice, no softening of message with emotion, no irony. For young people with notoriously less than adequate social skills and often with a skewed, paranoid perspective on life its not hard to see why texts can be so brutal.

I have changed my life on the basis of reading this book (which is not quite the same as saying that my life has changed entirely due to reading this book but it’s close). But I have made a concerted effort to increase the amount of face to face contact I have with those people who I love and those whose presence in my life I value deeply. I have also tried to replace digital contact with human contact wherever reasonable and practical.  I have to say though, it’s not as easy as it sounds. If you are introverted vicar (as I am) and you only have one day off a week (as I do) it feels hugely difficult to drag yourself out on your one day off to see a friend. Because the job involves so much face to face contact for so much of the day, for me and my introverted kin, our instinct is to pull up the social drawbridge and go for a long walk with the dog.  I know it’s good for me to see friends regularly but it’s also really important to have some solitary time too, so finding time for both is constant challenge.

Of all the images in the video above the one I find the  most tragic is of the young girl in her bedroom snapping ‘happy selfies’ in a drab and desperate bedroom. It brought back a vivid memory from a month ago: whilst sitting reading and enjoying the sunshine on a very crowded Italian beach surrounded by happy family groups, couples and cousins, kids and grannies. I observed a young Japanese woman who came to the beach all on her own, took out her towel and then her phone and then her selfie stick. For the next hour, all alone in the midst of that mad crowd of connected people, all she did was pose and take selfies of herself ‘having a good time at the beach’ but she was so clearly not having a good time, she was having a lonely time.  I found myself thinking ‘ I hope to goodness you at least have someone who loves you, a granny, a mum, a lover. Someone who would genuinely want to see even just a few of the 500 + photos you have taken of yourself this afternoon’. She didn’t connect to anyone on the beach.  Even the ‘selfie stick’ (a purchase I steadfastly refuse to make) has robbed us of that simple moment of human trust when we used to hand our camera over to a stranger and say ‘would you mind taking our photo?’.

It’s a desperately sad video. The opening image of being a tiny little person in a very big world was the one with which I personally most identified. Simply spending a day in London, gives me ‘face exhaustion’! But even so, I ‘m glad that  I can’t agree with the sentiment of the singer: I don’t feel lost in the world: I know I’m known, I know I’m loved and not by just anybody (and  certainly not by anyone who’d be interested in 500 selfie photos) but by the one who created the stars and knows them by name, the God who says he knows how many hairs are on my head, the one who formed me in my mother’s womb. He has ‘all of the days of my life written in his book before one of them came to be’ (Psalm 139). And I trust that I’m known and loved by many friends but was challenged by this book to make sure I nurture these friendships face to face.

So I must get out more –  Gotta dash, I’m going to see a friend. I don’t know if I’ll live any longer for it but I do want to live better.





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