The extension of human life is a scientific pursuit present throughout human history. Since the advent of modern-day medicine, physicians and researchers have collaborated to find ways to prolong human life expectancy. Currently, we have treatments for most of the maladies that reduce the human lifespan, and an increasing number of researchers hypothesize that gene therapy will eventually prolong the human lifespan indefinitely. The curriculum in schools reflects this fascination humans have with longevity. From a young age, students are taught that exercise, diet, and lifestyle choices, such as consuming alcohol and drugs, are the most significant determinants of mortality.
While I have always accepted these theories, a few weeks ago, in my abnormal psychology class, I began questioning longevity, and more importantly, the human experience. While exercise, diet, and lifestyle choices correlate with better health outcomes, my professor introduced studies demonstrating how social integration and connection outperformed all other well-known factors in improving longevity and health.
During this transition from in-person to remote learning and work, self-care has become an omnipresent phrase on social media platforms and conversations. When students describe feeling overwhelmed and exhausted by online instruction, the first recommendation is to practice self-care. The self-care prescribed often encompasses sleeping, exercising, listening to music, and going out for a walk. Very rarely are you encouraged to connect with other individuals.
At its roots, this advice reflects the age-old adage: only you can make yourself happy. While this advice may seem innocuous, it reflects the individualistic nature of our society. As a society, we put so much emphasis on what the individual can do. Self-worth has become deeply intertwined with an individual’s grades and accolades. As University of Toronto students, we are continually working toward graduate school. This leads us to view our peers as competition for lucrative and limited placements rather than resources of comfort and reprieve from the hustle and bustle of university.
The pandemic has shown me that people’s infrastructures are fragile and easily thrown into disarray. In less than six months, the world has become almost unrecognizable. The only things that remain constant are empathy, love, gratitude, and compassion. All of which are intangible but are linked by one fundamental thing: human connection.
As humans, we strive to feel connected, and the human body has been designed to express this irrepressible desire.Studies have shown that the pituitary gland releases oxytocin when people are stressed. Oxytocin is a hormone that encourages us to seek out people to bond with. Furthermore, in times of stress, oxytocin acts as an anti-inflammatory, causing the dilation of blood cells. This hormone can also improve heart health by regenerating heart cells.
Thus, while self-care is important, it might not rejuvenate the individual in the way that community connection can. As a community, particularly during this period of isolation, we need to re-envision community care. I used to laugh to myself about how UTM students were so focused on school that they never attended community events. However, now I realize how detrimental that was to our community. As a peer advisor at the International Education Centre at UTM, I have hosted many events to connect students. Still, I have been the only person in the room on numerous occasions. Many departments have also attested to low turnout rates at in-person events.
Unfortunately, this lack of engagement and attendance has transferred to online events. Students may feel unmotivated to attend virtual events after a long day of learning and working in front of a screen. Yet now more than ever, the importance of these opportunities cannot be understated. Many courses this semester are asynchronous, meaning we cannot connect in real-time. Even in synchronous lectures, chat functions are sometimes disabled, which further amplifies the feeling of isolation. Attending online activities hosted by student groups allows you to meet people and engage with them in real-time. In fact, some studies have shown that online social interactions are associated with reduced mortality.
The U of T community has become complacent with the individualistic nature of our campus. We blame our institution, but our aggregated attitudes are what make up the U of T community. Thus, it is ultimately up to us to affect change in campus culture. Even though we are currently physically dispersed across space and time, the collection of our thoughts and experiences are what continue to make up U of T.
We need to learn to find solace and comfort in each other. We need to realize that self-care will never be enough if we neglect community care.