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Learning to Love Well: Create a House of Belonging

Episode #25


In this episode, we’re turning to our fifth lesson of loving well, which is about the power of belonging. This lesson may be the easiest to sell. We all want to belong, and we always have. Even the introverts and self-proclaimed lone wolves, we want a pack of other introverts and lone wolves to call on, even if just to complain about extroverts or social butterflies.


Watch this episode on YouTube.


Key Takeaways:

  • We may lose brain cells as we age, but that's not the end of the story. Neurogenesis is on our side and we can support that process of new cell growth. 
  • New cells need connections to grow. Humans need connections as well. 
  • Harry Harlow's unethical experiments... demonstrating that humans NEED connection and support for development.
  • No matter how old you are, social connections and support are essential for more optimal resilience and mental health.
  •  How many "close friends" does research suggest you need for optimal wellbeing? Just 3-5. Significant others count here, close family members... essentially, 3-5 people who you feel you could lean on in a crisis. 
  • In line with that ideal number of close friends, there are max loads for friendships beyond that small circle of close friends (don't let social media trick you into thinking more is better).
  • Build your house of belonging, your circle of close friends, as carefully as you would build your dream house.


Links Mentioned:


Full Transcript

Episode 25

Welcome to Joy Lab!: [00:00:00] Welcome to the joy lab podcast, where we help you uncover and foster your most joyful self. Your hosts, Dr. Henry Emmons and Dr. Aimee Prasek, bring you the ideal mix of soulful and scientifically sound tools to spark your joy, even when it feels dark. When you're ready to experiment with more joy, combine this podcast with the full Joy Lab program over at JoyLab.coach.

Henry: Hello. I'm Henry Emmons.

Aimee: And I'm Aimee Prasek. So welcome to Joy Lab, where we infuse science with soul to help you uncover joy. To do that, we focus on our elements of joy, the positive inner states and emotions that become the building blocks for a joyful life. In this episode, we're turning to our fifth lesson of loving well, which is about the power of belonging. Certainly, this lesson holds on its own, but, it might be helpful to scoot back to the other [00:01:00] lessons if you haven't listened to those. You can do that after this one. I think this lesson, perhaps, maybe the easiest to sell though. We all want to belong and we always have, even the introverts and self-proclaimed lone wolves.

We want a pack of other introverts and lone wolves to call on even if, just to complain about extroverts or social butterflies. We're just tribal creatures. We want to affiliate, we want to be part of something larger than ourselves. It is woven into our biology.

Henry: Oh, I agree. And I'll share a really cool example of that.

Aimee: Hm.

Henry: So I think we all know that we lose brain cells as we age, right?

Aimee: Yeah, I'm done. We always hear that, yes.

Henry: Some of us faster than others. So neurons die off just in the course of normal living. There are some things we can do by the way, to slow that down with really good lifestyles, [00:02:00] things like diet, exercise, sleep, reducing stress, but it's still going to happen.

It's just in the nature of things to decline with time. But that's not the end of the story. We also have stem cells in our brains and they are able to create brand new brain cells to replace some of those neurons that we're losing. And that is called neurogenesis. It is a super important thing for keeping our brains working well, our memory good, and cognition good as we age. So every one of us wants to be really, really good at neurogenesis. It's that important. And I think it's useful to remind us that this process does not end when we turn 25 and the brain is [00:03:00] supposedly all done developing. Neurogenesis goes on throughout our lifetimes. Here's the thing that I find so interesting about it. When a new brain cell is born from a stem cell, in order to survive, it has to reach out and connect with other neurons. They have to sync up, so to speak, and takes a lot of these connections. In order to survive. If there aren't enough of them, the new cell just shrivels up and dies.

Aimee: That's such a great metaphor for us human beings. I'm thinking of Harry Harlow's research on love and attachment. His sort of famous, and I'd say extremely unethical studies with rhesus monkeys. I'd also say on ethical because we didn't need controlled studies to understand how terrible outcomes are when we are isolated or even worse, [00:04:00] abused.

Nonetheless, I'll note a bit of one of his key studies and then I want to maybe say something about the irony of the end of his life. There's the hook, cliffhanger for this episode. Stay with us. So maybe some of you already know this study, but Harlow essentially took baby monkeys away from their mothers, just a few hours after birth and then made them choose between two mothers he had made. One was made of soft blankets, but gave the monkeys no food. And the other was made of wire cold, hard wire, but had milk for them.

And Harlow found that those babies spent way more time with the blanketed, foodless, mama compared to the wire one. So Harlow's conclusion was that we really need affection.

We need comforting touch and support to cultivate relationships. And Harlow also found that when the cloth mom [00:05:00] was present, in an unfamiliar place, the baby monkeys would explore. And if the cloth mom was removed, the babies would freeze, crouch, or they'd cry or scream.

They just couldn't move. This suggested that support, presence, and loving connection was essential for behavioral and biological development, you know, for exploration and for growth. Here's the irony though about Harlow and his research-

The rumors in the research world where that Harlow was a nightmare to work with and nobody could stand them. and when his wife died in 1971, he became even more vicious. Here's a comment that Harlow made to an interviewer in 1974. "The only thing I care about is whether the monkeys will turn out a property.

I can publish. I don't have any love for them. Never have. I really don't like animals. I despise cats. I hate dogs. How could you like a monkey?" [00:06:00] Sounds like a great guy, right? Red flag. Umm, so, so anyway, he also, after his wife died, um, really began isolating himself. He started to drink heavily. He cut off from his kids and then he died in 1981.

And when I learned more about Harlow, I just couldn't shake that the last decade of his life reads like the last paragraph from one of his "pit of despair" studies, as he called them. Um, you know, he put himself in isolation and without any help out, since he'd cut off from everyone, he continued to spiral down. Or shrivel up and die

as we talked about with the, um, neurons. Sorry, it's not funny. But it's very interesting, to just think about how that power of connection to keep us not just surviving, but to thrive. And, [00:07:00] we are like those baby monkeys. It doesn't matter how old you are. Throughout our lives, we absolutely need those connections.

Henry: Yeah. I used to run a program called Resilience Training, in order to work and help people with long-standing problems with depression, help them recover from that. And we did a lot of work on lifestyle in that program. There are things like diet and exercise. But the heart of the program was really an eight-week course where we essentially taught people good, really useful accessible skills. Mental and emotional skills that were all based on mindfulness practice. So in doing that program for years, with literally hundreds of participants, we'd often see people who actually turned the corner on depression. Even people who had had problems that had gone on for years and [00:08:00] hadn't responded to other treatments.

So there were two things that really stood out with those folks. One of them was self-acceptance. Really, really learning to accept yourself as you are. And we talked about that in a recent podcast. I think it was podcast number 21.

And we're going to go into it actually in a different way next month when we shift our focus to compassion, because there's so much great research on self-compassion.

So self-acceptance, or self-compassion, that was one of the key factors. But the other one was to create a stronger sense of connection. Because the, problem with depression and even anxiety for so many people is this illusion of separation. That's, that's kind of my term for it, but it's this belief that we are separate, [00:09:00] isolated beings. So the counter to that, the solution, so to speak, is to build a house of belonging.

Aimee: Yeah, let's start building. I love that idea. So that phrase comes from a poem by David White called the house of belonging. Here are a few lines from the end of that poem, uh, taking a few liberties to cut some pieces out, so please head to the show notes where we'll link to the full poem. Here's a bit:

"This is the bright home in which I live. This is where I ask my friends to come. This is where I want to love all the things it has taken me so long to learn to love. There is no house, like the house of belonging."

Henry: I think that's just beautiful.

Aimee: Yeah.

Henry: And it reminds me so much of when [00:10:00] our family, built a timber frame cabin a few years ago. So timber framing for those of you who don't know it, it's, it's like what you see with an old fashioned barn raising. Kind of like how the, the Amish do it. So you put the posts in the beams together, first on the ground, then you raise up the entire wall and have to hold it in place somehow until you get the connecting beams put in place. So it's, it's that kind of thing where you're creating the structure with these posts and beams. But before raising the walls, you have to cut the timbers to fit together without using any hardware, no nails or screws or anything. So, like I said, it's, it's old fashioned. But it's really, really cool and really fun. So if you're building a whole barn or even if you're building kind [00:11:00] of a modest sized cabin, this is a ton of work. It's way more work than I could do by myself, or than I, my wife and I could do with our two sons. So

we invited our friends and some of them invited their friends. And by the end of this two weeks, we had two weeks at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais with two instructors. And by the end of that two weeks, we had people literally coming in off the street asking if they could help, because we were clearly having so much fun. Yeah. So, you know, it was just, People who really wanted to share this kind of experience. Sure, to, you know, to do something with your hands, cause we don't often get to do that and this world anymore. But also to, to have this fun experience of community. And it was incredible. For me, it was just a two week high. So, [00:12:00] um, in thinking about this episode, we thought it'd be really great to work more deeply with this image of building a house. So the goal is to end up with a really rich, genuinely supportive community. Community of connection. This is the opposite, remember, of this belief in separation where you think that you're on the outside looking in. It's realizing that you are part of it.

You are inside the circle. You're living inside the house that you're building.

Aimee: Right, and we each have our own idea of what kind of house we'd like to live in too. What size house? Not all of us need a great big house. So, how many people do you really need to have a sense of belonging? I like that question. And the research on this is pretty interesting, particularly considering how much pressure we might feel [00:13:00] to have like a big social media following or to have a party where a bunch of people show up.

Research shows that to support your overall wellbeing, you really need about three to five people who you feel like you could call in a crisis. People who you feel comfortable sharing hard things with. People who you feel really loved by, close to. Only three to five. Right? And if that does seem like a lot to you, or maybe you have a lot of friends, but few really close friends.

So here's some encouragement to focus some energy as we provide some tools here on building up just a few of these types of close, loving relationships. We all need them. And we can all create them, but it does take work. I like evolutionary psychologist, Dr. Robin Dunbar and his "Dunbar's number" as he calls it,

um, which describes a maximum amounts of meaningful and stable relationships[00:14:00] we can have at one time. Just like cognitively we have a maximum load. And I love his work on friendships and these proposed limits or boundaries because I'm someone who is both an introvert and who also has a serious issue with FOMO.

So this is helpful for So here are the maximums that Dr. Dunbar notes, we can have, five really close bonds, like best friends. 15 close friends, people you spend time with, feel quite comfortable around. And this number usually encompasses those five folks before as well, because Dunbar sort of categorizes these relationships in concentric circles.

So they all kind of like interact and then build on each other or expand out from each other. Um, outside of those close friends is a maximum circle of like 50 friends. People who you would invite to a big party or who you might build a cabin with, and then beyond that, [00:15:00] 50 are a circle of 150 casual friends, people who you might invite to more of those once-in-a-lifetime events, like a funeral, I guess you wouldn't see them there then if it was yours or a wedding.

Funny enough. I'm remembering that my husband and I, at our wedding, we had 400 people. And as Dr. Dunbar, noted and is spot on, I could absolutely not name 250 of folks that were there. 150 max.

Henry: Well, it sounds like a fun wedding.

Aimee: It was. It was good, yeah.

Henry: And I didn't realize you had FOMO, Aimee.

Aimee: I do.

Henry: I've got it too. I have pretty, pretty bad case of it. And I'm not even an introvert really. So we'll have to talk about that later.

Aimee: Oh, yeah.

Henry: So back to the house building metaphor, before doing the cabin barn raising, we had to prepare all of these timbers individually. And even before that, you know, we had to choose the [00:16:00] lumber that would become the timbers. And before choosing the lumber, we had to create a design and make a blueprint of the cabin. And then even before that, you need a vision. What do we want in this building? And there's even a step before that, I guess, which is you've got to have the desire to build it in the first place.

Aimee: Hmmm.

Henry: Now let's, let's start by assuming that each of us already has the desire to build a house of belonging. I think that's a pretty safe assumption. But the next step is to have an idea and to get it so clear, this vision, that can be turned into a written blueprint. And let me tell you, timber framing is really intricate and detailed.

So the vision has to be very, very clear and specific. Now in all the [00:17:00] different workshops I've led like resilience training, the inner life of healers, and now Joy Lab. We spend a lot of time working on this vision, creating, it first in our minds of what we want in our house of belonging. So you start with your mind, with your images and ideas of what you want and whether or not we actually write it down, like we would with a blueprint, I have really been surprised at how powerful it is to have that very clear picture in my mind of what it is that I want to create. If you do, it's remarkable, how it just flows from that vision. It still takes effort,

don't get me wrong, but it's almost as if it's already created. And the only thing that would stop it is to not do the work, to bring it [00:18:00] into manifestation.

Aimee: Hmm, I love this thoughtfulness. You know, if you were actually building a house you'd first look around at a lot of other houses, you'd Zillow, you'd drive through all the neighborhoods, you'd have all your Pinterest boards. You'd talk to other people who have built the kind of house you want. You'd create a good idea of what you wanted and then you'd change it as you go, as you grow, you'd redesign it in ways that fit you better.

I like how Dr. Dunbar back to Dunbar's number, he notes that we move folks around through those circles of relationships that I noted. These are not just static, concrete, you know, when somebody lands in a circle, they have to stay there. I think sometimes we can get into that feeling. But instead this thoughtfulness, right, this, this idea that there's movement and flow here.

Dunbar also notes this is especially true in our teens and twenties. There's a lot of movement within these circles, but it does [00:19:00] continue through life, it gets a little bit more stagnant in our thirties when folks start having kids, because having kids is like a wrecking ball for social life. To which I'm like, yeah, I hear ya Dunbar. My numbers are a little stagnant. But I also loved the image of picking out the timbers. What kind of people do we want in our house of belonging? Who are we drawn to? Who will help make it strong? Who will make it more nourishing?

Henry: Yeah, well, you know, interestingly, there are just a handful of timbers that are really key where you've really got to choose carefully. Because they're going to provide so much of the structural support for the entire house. And it does remind me of that number three to five key people that you talked about, who we know will always have our backs.

Aimee: Yeah, I love that idea of those folks as like our structural [00:20:00] support. It's exactly that feeling that those relationships can offer, they're there. They're just there, but in the simple and powerful way they're present. Uh, but those relationships take work. As you said before, Henry.

Time is finite and we have to choose which relationships to build.

I like Dr. Jeff halls research on the number of hours it takes to move someone from a stranger to a best friend. Uh, these hours need to sort of be held in a shorter period of time, not over the course of a decade. But maybe you can guess here, Henry, how many hours do you think does it take to move a stranger, listeners can guess to, into your best friend's circle?

Henry: Whoa. I have no idea. I really don't have any idea if it's a hundred, it could be a hundred, it could be a thousand for all I know. But the thing that really seems important here is that there is no substitute for time.

Aimee: Yes.

Henry: You just [00:21:00] can't magically have this happen. Anything of value, like this it takes time. So what's the answer, Aimee?

Aimee: 200

Henry: Really? Well, I was, I was in the right ballpark.

Aimee: 100- 1000. Yeah. I mean, but it's, it, there is no substitute for time, as you said. And these relationships need tending and 200 hours in a bit of a shorter period of time. Cause you kinda need that, those, consecutive or, um, numerous moments of just sort of being together to establish that comfort and to go deeper.

As we talked about in our episode about listening deeply. But yeah, I think our message here and the message from research is that we can all build our house of belonging. And what's more, you know, we already belong in this larger world. We've arisen out of it. But here's this profound opportunity to build a loving healing place that feels even closer in, [00:22:00] I suppose, right.

Even more supportive, but it does take work. At least 200 hours per person. Thankfully that, that work is, is generally nourishing in every direction, both for the other person and yourself. That work, the time you put in feels really good. I think to kind of wrap us up here, I want to close on a similar message from David Whyte. And this is from his book "Consolations".

He writes to us: "But no matter the medicinal virtues of being a true friend or sustaining a long close relationship with another, the ultimate touchstone of friendship is not improvement. Neither of the other, nor of the self. The ultimate touchstone is witness. The privilege of having been seen by someone and the equal privilege of being granted the sight of the essence of another. To have [00:23:00] walked with them and to have believed in them. And sometimes just to have accompanied them for however, brief, a span on a journey, impossible to accomplish alone.

Thanks for joining us!: Thank you for listening to the Joy Lab podcast. If you enjoy today's show, visit JoyLab.coach to subscribe for your monthly infusion of joy, and to learn more about the full Joy Lab program. Be sure to rate and review us wherever you listen to your favorite podcasts.