One of my favourite things about home, India, is the wonderful and truly unusual levels of acceptance and invitation that permeate the culture. Relationships shift from acquaintanceship to family in a matter of exchanges. You may be introduced to someone this week, and three meetings later you’ll be exchanging Diwali gifts for the rest of your lives, dancing at each other’s weddings, and even grieving losses together. Like any family, this amount of cohesion can be chaotic and intrusive, but it’s also supportive and wholesome. Imagine slowly taking a bite of your favourite home cooked meal...that’s what it feels like, almost all the time.
As inherent social creatures, it’s easy to understand why collectivist cultures like mine can serve as a protective factor. For those that follow Yale Professor Laurie Santos (and if you don’t, please do. Check out her podcast, The Happiness Lab) you may be aware that a major mistake people consistently make is thinking solitude will make them feel good. In reality, however, research shows that being with other people almost always makes us feel better. Loneliness impedes psychological happiness, and physically, it’s been proven to have similar health effects as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. As stress levels increase (or a global pandemic breaks out) and work becomes more isolated globally, our levels of loneliness are set to keep increasing. The population at risk of feeling and enduring the effects of isolation the most, unfortunately, is adolescents and young adults.
Why adolescents? Well, as an oversimplified explanation, if you take a look at an adolescent brain, you will notice it’s about halfway done with its development towards maturity. One of the developed/developing parts of their brains includes the nucleus accumbens (NAcc), otherwise known as the reward center, which is hooked up to learning and stress pathways. Since the control center part of an adolescent brain is still underdeveloped, rewarding experiences, like chatting with some friends during recess, lights up the NAcc like a firework display. A socially isolating environment, however, will still light up the NAcc, but as part of a stress pathway instead. Our bodies can endure average levels of stress relatively well, but prolonged isolation is catastrophic for adolescents and their “under construction” brains. In addition, individuals cognitively experience the pain of losing something twice as powerfully as gaining something (loss aversion bias)--so while a chat with friends can look like a firework display, isolation looks more like a miniature bomb of floating cortisol neurotransmitters.
At THS, some of our students arrive from past experiences of bullying and isolation from their previous environments. Others have arrived because of an international move, or in search of a better educational fit. Whatever the reason, being a new student is challenging, and the experience goes one of two ways. THS, however, is one of the very few communities I have observed that encompasses individuals like family rapidly. Whether it's a result of lived experience or a heightened empathic attunement, the faculty and student body readily accepts students, which offers many the rare opportunity to rewrite their narratives. During my checkins, students have relayed experiences of melting into groups since joining THS, which for many has been a novel experience. That’s not to say every single student has found their niche, but others who have found it more challenging don’t demonstrate levels of anxiety and resistance one would expect. Instead, they confidently work with me to develop relationships (yay, growth mindset!).
It is reassuring to be a part of a space that strives to expand norms and include all. We may be unaware of it, but each interaction ignites a protective spark in students who may need it the most.