The Univerality of Social Capital

I have been a student of social capital theory for many years.  After being exposed to the concept in the early-90's, I have been looking at its application as it relates to folks with disabilities.  We know that many people with disabilities have marginally less social connections and over the years have been trying to understand why this is and to change this reality.

I know in my own family experience growing up with a cousin who had downs syndrome, as well as supporting my dad after his diagnosis of Parkinson's Disease, that limited relationships, as well as the loss of relationships created real vacuums for them.  And in my work with CLASS (formerly UCP) these similar relationship voids were (and are) constant and present.

As I began to write and speak about the importance of relationships for people with disabilities, I began to find that this challenge didn't just apply to them.  I started to frame the concept more from a personal focus and asked audiences to think about the relationships in their own lives.  This not only helped people appreciate the impact of the concept, but also see its relevance more broadly.

Now more and more groups, interested in a variety of community concepts, are starting to appreciate the tie in of social capital and better outcomes or impact to them.  Community action groups, mental health advocates, gerontologists, educators, politicians, criminal justice advocates, children's programs, and on and on, have begun to open their thinking on the impact of relationships to their agenda. 

Certainly the key to better outcomes, regardless of the emanation of issues, is found in people connecting with people and the building of social capital.  Indeed, everyday people, who might not be struggling with any particular issue can find their lives enhanced through the outcomes of social capital.  It is a universal concept that we should all strive to get better at in our course of lives.  

What Makes an Expert

I just returned from some presentations I did in Winnipeg, Manitoba, and at the conference I was introduced as an "expert" in the concept of social capital.  I did my presentation but later reflected on the introduction and it caused me to think about what makes an expert.  Indeed, I have done advanced study on the notion of community and social capital, as well as having garnered actual experience in the work we do at CLASS - but does this make me an expert in the subject?

Certainly we are exposed to experts all the time; we see and hear them in the media speaking about things they are supposed to know more about than the average person.  When we go to conferences or events, experts are on the program to discuss subjects in which they have some expertise.  So, what makes someone an expert?

To me, expertise is a combination of a number of factors.  Of course, we expect that an expert has some advanced knowledge, study, or familiarity with the topic.  I want them to have some formal, rigorous efforts in the topic via study, research, or deep exposure.  I would also want them to have some direct experience with the topic and not just understand it academically, but to have wrestled with it in application.  Last, I hope the expert has some broader wisdom and can understand the direct application of the subject in everyday life.

In this day of social media and open access to other people, we really need to be cautious about who we believe.  Thinking about a topic, and then putting trust in what the "expert" says about it can make any life application easier, or harder; so we should really think about the credentials the expert has in the subject. 

So what do you think - what makes an expert in your opinion?  Who do you tend to believe on subjects, and why?

Family Engagement Patterns

One of the things I love about the work we do is the opportunity to gather evidence related to our field.  Recently CLASS partnered with our sister organization, Mamre, in Brisbane Australia, along with our good friends from Chatham University in Pittsburgh to explore family engagement patterns.  We were particularly interested in looking at the differences in family engagement between families who have children with disability labels compared to families who have children without disabilities.

So, we identified 50 families in Pittsburgh, and 50 in Brisbane, 25 of which had children with disabilities, and 25 whose children did not have disabilities in both cities.  We then proceeded to conduct a community engagement survey, developed at Harvard University, with these 100 families.  This survey was designed by Robert Putnam, a renowned sociologist and prolific researcher on social capital and community engagement.

We recently completed the research and are now in the process of examining the data for trends and findings.  In the early analysis we are discovering what seems to be some interesting cultural and disability related trends.  Of course we plan to write this up and share it more widely, but here are some aspects of interest:

*  In both the US and Australia, children without disabilities are much more likely than children with disabilities to have friends who do not have disabilities, but there is no significant difference in whether the two groups have friends with disabilities.

*  Families in Australia who have a child with a disability are much less likely to go to a friends home or community events compared to other groups.

*  US families were more likely than Australian families to go out to dinner and Australian families who have children with disabilities were the least likely (of all 4 cohorts) to go out to dinner.

*  Australian families who have a child with a disability appear to feel most lonely in their neighborhood compared to all other groups.

*  In both the US and Australia, children with disabilities tend to not see their school friends outside of school as often as children who do not have disabilities.

These are but a few of the findings, but we think this kind of information is important for a number of reasons.  We know that community engagement is a key step in building social capital, yet for most of us, we rarely get formal exposure to engagement protocols.  Rather, we learn how to engage by observing others engage.  If this is the case, and the families who have children with disabilities tend to engage less, then their children get less chances to observe engagement protocols - and, in turn, may have a more difficult time engaging at all.  This, in fact, may be one of the reasons why adults with disabilities, on average, tend to have less social capital than their non-disabled peers.

There is so much more we need to learn about community engagement and social capital, but studies like the family engagement exploration we are doing offer a good start.  Once our analysis is complete we will report the findings and I will be sure to share key aspects in this blog. 


Healing Alone

As I move forward in my recovery from pancreatitis, I still find myself reflecting on aspects related to healing.  When I left the hospital, they armed me with a variety of prescriptions, a strict diet, and strong recommendations to rest.  Given the pain I experienced, I took their directions to heart.

Over the next week or two, my wife was phenomenal in making sure that I followed the doctors order to a tee.  Beyond that, however, she was a warm ear and an encouraging source when I struggled with the slowness of my recovery.  Quite simply, she was at the core of my recovery.

This reality got me thinking about situations where people do not have a significant other on hand, or even close friends to support their recovery.  Certainly people can heal by themselves, but it just seems so much more therapeutic when you have someone at your side in these times of healing.

In our communities there are a lot of people who are isolated and lonely.  Not only when they get sick, but even in the times of health, relationships matter.  

Social Capital and Men

When you think about relationships and connectedness, there seems to be an acceptable difference between men and women.  Women seem to bond and connect so much more easily.  Men, on the other hand seem to be much more superficial.  Of course this is an overstatement, but over the years it has been parodied in comedy and has been at the core of many a joke.

Yet, there seems to be evidence for these differences.  Robert Putnam argues in his book, "Bowling Alone," that women are the social glue that advance community.  He hypothesizes that the fall off of social capital in the past 50 years is partially tied to the distractions that women feel being pulled in their career's.

In any social situation, if you are a fly on the wall, the women gather and discuss deeper issues while the men gather and have superficial discussions about the weather or sports or other inane issues.  Quite simply, men have a more difficult time getting deeper in their relationships, and especially with other men.

This brings me to a recent article a friend sent me about a movement started in Australia called the "Men's Shed."  This is an effort to create safe places for men to gather around projects, or activities, much like you might have going on in your shed.  The movement has a number of outcomes - obviously one is to help men develop a deeper sense of social capital.  Another, related to social capital, is to improve men's health issues.  We know that men typically do not tend to their health at the same level that women do so the hope is the "menshed" will push that indicator.

Regardless, any way that men can become conscious of the importance of social capital, and then find ways to build opportunities to connect deeper, especially with other men would be a good thing.

Nightmares and Reality

I have been recovering from a recent hospitalization and sleeping the full night has been difficult.  My MD prescribed a sleep aid but i was cautious in using it as one of the side effects was nightmares.  After a couple sleepless nights I yielded to the sleep aid.

I stayed up late to watch the special election returns in an off year congressional race that had national implications.  I had taken the med and started to drift off, with the TV still on CNN.  In the middle of the night I woke up looking at the image of a young politician, a new generation of leaders.  He was handsome and articulate; he looked like someone from central casting.  I thought about photos of a young JFK.

Then the scene changed to his opponent, who appeared as a classic politician, one you know will really not work for you, but for lobbyists and big interests.  He had a smirk on his face, looking like he just pulled one over on the electorate.  And he was making his victory speech.

I wiped the sleep from my eyes and realized i was in the middle of a full blown nightmare.  I turned the TV off and tried to get back to sleep.  In the morning i discovered that it really was a nightmare - because the young, articulate political newcomer had actually won the election - maybe there is hope for our political future!

Pain and Suffering

I was recently hospitalized for a bout with acute pancreatic.  This is a condition where the pancreatic duct gets clogged, the pancreas becomes severely inflamed and the pain becomes unbearable.  It is a very serious condition and the primary course to hospitalize the patient, shut down the digestive track with no food or nutrition by the mouth, initiate saline and pain meds via IV.  This was my 2nd bout in the past 10 years - and believe me, it is no day in the park.

The first 3 or 4 days the pain and suffering are excruciating and you don't want to see or have any visitors.  Of course, for most of us our social capital become concerned and want to reach out in support.  We have all done this and, in the end, it is at the core of the health impact of social capital.  Still, as the patient, most of us want to be left alone with our pain and suffering.

Laying in the hospital, reflecting on this was illuminating to my personal understanding of social capital.  Over the years I have read, studied, lectured, and attending trainings on social capital and feel I have a fairly good grasp on the topic.  I have written extensively on the subject with the highly successful, "Social Capital: The Key to Macro Change" 2014).  But this personal experience, when I actually felt better after talking with family and friends, brought the concept full circle.

In the end, as much as we know that the concept of social capital can be deep and esoteric, in the end the notion of relationships is really basic and simple.  Life can bring on experiences of pain and suffering.  These times challenge us both physically and emotionally - but it is the simple notion of our relationships that bring us through.

From Virtual to Actual

We know that social capital (relationships in our life) are complex issues.  We mostly think about relationships being actual, yet with social media we can maintain virtual relationships with people, many that we may have never actually met or spent any direct time with.  Through platforms like Facebook, LinkedIn, or Twitter, we have come to know new people, or have maintained distant relationships with people in our lives that make us feel good.  Still, the sweetest aspects of social capital are found in our actual relationships when we look into peoples eyes and promote a deeper sense of bonding.

This balance of virtual and actual relationships can be managed in a way that enhances the good things we find in social capital; health, happiness, self confidence and a more positive view of life.  In fact, the purposeful community builder can find that using the virtual to compliment the actual can make for better outcomes.  This means that anyone interested in promoting social capital for individuals who are isolated or lonely should understand the symbiotic relationship between virtual platforms and real life.

One such social media platforms that can be extremely useful to the community builder is MeetUp (  This site was conceived right after 9/11 unfolded in the United States.  The MeetUp founders were taken aback by the purposeful connection between people for social good and conceived the notion of a website that would allow people to find others who shared passions.  Over the years the site has connected people in all kinds of ways.  It has allowed newcomers to find social capital through their common interests; it has allowed organizers to put out a call for social action; and for community builders it offers a medium for linking people at risk of social isolation with others.

Recently was sold to a company that is work-site oriented, but the early signs are that it will continue to be a place to connect like people - a virtual platform that leads to the actual. So as a community builder recognize the powerful virtual tools at your disposal in connecting socially isolated people.  In the end, we all need people in our lives that can help us frame reality, and in a way frame better lives for all.

So think about ways you can balance sites like Facebook, or MeetUp to help promote people having a greater opportunity for actual relationships in their lives.  Community builders must use every tool at our disposal to help build community.

The Beach or the Mountains

One of the things we all need to rejuvenate is time away from the ordinary.  These opportunities to get away from our everyday demands is the fodder for re-creating and refreshing our mind and soul.  For most of us this is found in the vacations or recreation opportunities we choose.  Of course, most people think about retreating to the beach or the woods (mountains) when they plan their time off.

For me, both venues offer wonderful opportunity to think, plan and become more philosophical.  Since the earliest years of my work life, I have opted for both venues and have found solace at both the beach in the summers, and the mountains to ski in the winters.  In fact, I wrote 3 of my earliest books (Interdependence, 1991, Beyond Difference, 1995, and Cultural Shifting, 02) while on vacation at the Outer Banks.  There was something about depth and breath of the ocean, not to mention the odors and sounds associated with the surf, that pushes your thinking to deeper places.

But as I write this blog, I am in the Colorado mountains at the Copper Mountain ski resort with my family.  We are enjoying not just the good company, but the blue, cloudless mountain scenery and the perfect ski conditions.  There is something about the sounds of the wind through the trees as we make the long runs through the timeless slopes.  It is occurring to me that the balance of the ocean and the mountains has been perfect match for the deeper thinking I have done over the years and the re-creation of self so important to a more purposeful life.

I read somewhere that our native Indians had an understanding that being in the mountains put you closer to the higher spirits.  That in a way, put you closer to God, the Great Spirit.  Now I don't know for sure, but I do know that for me this seems to be true.  When I am in the mountains there is something unique that I feel.  It may not be exactly a higher purpose, but a more fundamental realization of self, of purpose, of duty.  It makes me feel more alive and cognizant of direction and purpose.

So how about you - where do you find your purpose - how do you re-create yourself to be able to withstand the everyday clutter that can dull the senses and flatten life?  Be it the beach, mountains, or some other setting, make sure you get there on a regular basis.  Life is short and purpose is critical.

Key Family Concerns - Lessons from Partners in Policymaking

There is a wonderful program available in most states in the United States designed for families who have children with disabilities (and self advocates and other advocate/stakeholders) known as "Partners in Policymaking (PIP)"  This effort initiated in Minnesota many years ago and has been one of the most successful disability advocacy programs.  Over the years it has been adapted and adjusted, but the basic design is to have a class of partners attend a weekend curriculum over a 6, 7 or 8 month period, with each weekend focused on a different topic important to families.  The goal is to empower a cohort of disability rights advocates each year in the states that conduct the PIP program.

For the past 20 years or so, I have been active with the PIP faculty and have conducted sessions on community building, social capital and understanding macro change in many different states.  I have really enjoyed these session and the passion that families and self-advocates bring to the program.  In fact, as i write this blog, I have just finished a session with the Florida PIP group.

As i reflect on the session I had today, and the others i have participated in over these many years I am taken by a powerful common theme that always emerges in these sessions.  When we focus on community and examine what these families really want for their children, the discussion always turns to relationships, friendship, and being active in the community - social capital.  The question that almost always emerges is; "What will happen to my child when I am no longer around?"

Of course, all families want their children to be happy, healthy, and safe, but families who have children with disabilities know deeply the realities of isolation and loneliness that manifests more for their children.  They know that, for the most part, their children are not routinely invited or involved in social and community activities, and often have to rely on human service agencies for this type of socialization.

It is this core issue of relationships and friendships that must be addressed by disability agencies and advocates.  It is clear that specialty programs designed for kids with disabilities is not what these families really want.  They want what any other family does for their children - that they are naturally a part of the community, and have the diverse social capital that reflects our culture.

I have learned so much from my experience with "Partners in Policymaking," but the key element, a sensitivity to the importance of relationships, continues to be an area we all need to focus on.  If you are a family member reading this blog, and your child does not have a disability, encourage them to be open to their peers with disabilities and extend out to them.  Relationships are always a 2-way street.

Caregiver Magic

All of my career I have provided direct caregiving to folks with disabilities.  In the early years (1972) we worked hard to get folks with significant disabilities out into the community. In these pre-ADA days, and especially in an inaccessible and hilly city such as Pittsburgh, a lot of this care giving support was lifting, carrying, and transferring folks into inaccessible places just to be a part of the mix.

As accessibility improved with more ramps, lifts, and accomodation, caregiving supports shifted to the attendant supports of helping people in bathrooms, being able to eat, and other personal care. I remember travelling by air with a friend who had cerebral palsy to a conference. The flight was delayed so they offered us free drinks, and before you knew it, the 2 of us waltzed up to the bathroom for the inevitable. Imagine doing personal care in an airplane bathroom that hardly holds one person!

Later, when my dad began to struggle with Parkinson's disease, our family worked hard to keep him engaged and active in the community. Taking care of dad so he could be an active part of our community became a key part to his dignity. There is no question that caregiving, both physical and personal is a key ingredient to inclusion. For some people, the only way they can engage in the community is through caregivers. Indeed, an entire category of direct support professionals along with countless family caregivers play an essential role in the inclusion process.

I have always been aware of this, but recently my sensitivity to the caregiver, care receiver relationship has been seriously heightened.  Just a couple days ago I underwent a total hip-joint replacement and as I write this blog, I am fully dependent on caregivers. I needed assistance for the most basic needs, and although I am on the mend, and will hopefully regain strength, dexterity and ability, this experience has been incredibly humbling. It has given me a new appreciation for what it feels like on the other side. 

I know from experience that providing care can be exhausting. I have lived it for the past 45 years of my career and life.  Now, however, I know how exhausting, frustrating, and unpredictable being the recipient of care can be.  It is a good and important sensitivity. In a way, a silver lining to the struggle and pain this experience has brought to me.

So, if you are a direct support professional, or friend/family caregiver, or, if you are a person who relies on caregiving to engage with your community, try to remain sensitive to this critical symbiosis.  Community inclusion does not happen without caregivers, and community doesn't really benefit until all people are present to engage.

How Many Friends Do You Need?

I am always on the prowl for research, information, or discoveries that might help us better understand social capital and the potency of relationships.  In this quest, a number of years ago, I began to dig deeper into the work of Dr. Robin Dunbar.  He is an evolutionary psychologist who teaches and researches at Oxford in the UK.

Over the years Dunbar has written prolifically on friendships, social capital and social interactions and become famous for developing what is now known as the “Dunbar number.”  In his research, Dunbar has concluded that our friendships evolved to the number, 150.  Anthropologically, this is the core number that defined tribes, villages and such as human beings initiated and evolved. He contends that 150 is the total amount of people with which we can trust and establish obligations.

In fact, Dunbar has articulated that there is a progression in relationships that unfold:

5 is the number of intimate and deep trusted relationships

50 is the number of people with which we can establish good friendships

150 is the number related to social trust and obligation

1,500 is the number of people we recognize by name

In one of his books, "How Many Friends Does One Person Need," Dunbar explores these notions in much greater detail and cites his and other scholars work in making his case.  If you get a minute, google "Robin Dunbar" and check out his TED talk.  You will be fascinated by this perspective.

Lyrics and Life

Often when I do public talks, especially if I am doing a full day session, I like to use music to supplement and compliment the themes we are discussing.  This approach really helps because most training efforts are lecture oriented where the trainer is speaking or sharing concepts and the audience is listening to the themes.  It can be tedious as the audience is calling heavily upon the left side of their brains to synthesize and understand the information.

With music, however, we often call upon the right side of our brains to digest the music and use our creative side in this process.  Beyond this, the music breaks up the didactic influence and broadens the flow - it makes people feel better, more alive and engaged.

Of course, when I do this I make sure I have passed out "song books" that allow the audience to follow along with the lyrics and try to make connections between the theme at hand and how the lyrics relate.  This is especially helpful if I am using a song that is not widely known.

With most of my talks we are looking closely at social capital and the importance of relationships in our lives, so I found a wonderful song, written and performed by Kenny Rankin, titled "Like A Seed."  Now if you are not familiar with Kenny Rankin, he was an amazing singer/songwriter who left us far too soon.  His voice offers a unique 3-octave pitch and you would do well to spend some moments with his work.  In fact, when you finish this blog post, take a moment to google Kenny Rankin and "Like A Seed."

Before you do, however, I wanted to point out some of the beautiful lyrics, and how they relate to importance of home, hearth, and relationships.  I particularly like how the lyrics suggest that awakening to these basic elements of life, which many of us take for granted, are like a paradigm shift.  Here are the key lyrics to "Like A Seed."

"There's a feeling that's lying here sleeping, like a seed in the earth.  There's a new day, a new day and a new way.  We're all gonna rise together, we're all gonna fly forever.  Over all the shiny cities; and there'll be nothing left to hide - all will be known.  We're going home.

Sometimes when this feelin arises, and everything is too much in place.  There's no room to move; and nowhere to run.  We just got to keep our souls free; we just got to live and let it be. Love and trust your sisters and brothers, and there'll be nothing left to hide - all will be known - We're going home!"

The power of music and poetry is found in its simplicity.  The blending of melodies with the unique words chosen can create an amazing gestault, and, in a way, help connect the dots.

What Driving Says About Us

I just finished reading an article by David Brooks titled, "How Would Jesus Drive."  Brooks is often known for his political commentary, but over the years has written about social, cultural, and psychological dimensions.  I have enjoyed his books, "The Social Animal" (2011), "The Road to Character" (2015) and "Bobos in Paradise" (2000).

In this recent column he talks about how driving shows our character; he states: "Driving means making a thousand small moral decisions: whether to tailgate to push the slowpoke faster, or to give space; whether to honk only as a warning or constantly as your all-purpose show of contempt for humanity."  He states: "BMW drivers are much less likely to break for pedestrians at crosswalks. Prius drivers in San Francisco commit more traffic violations. People who think they are richer or better than others are ruder behind the wheel."  Finally he points out: "In short, driving puts you into social situations in which you have to co-construct a shared culture of civility, and go against your own primeval selfishness and it does so while you are encased in what is potentially a 4,000 pound metal weapon."

Brooks points out that driving is governed by laws, but it is also shaped by norms.  It creates an expectation, a communal disposition, so if you are exposed to aggressive driving, you become aggressive.

There is certainly something to be said about all of this.  We all know the headaches associated with rush-hour driving; and in some places, rush hour seems to be every hour.  So we find ourselves doing things that might be horrific in other circumstances, but we think it is ok, a sort of law of the jungle.

Further, as the public discourse becomes more aggressive and bully-oriented (just listen to our elected leaders) we can easily take this to the roads.  In fact we already have with continued incidents of "road rage" and the like.  So the next time you are behind the wheel, think about all of this.  How would Jesus handle driving in this day and age?

Community and Diversity

The concept of community is really a powerful element in our lives.  Quite literally the term community means "with togetherness" and it does more for us than we tend to give credit.  Some anthropologists suggest that community is the primary reason why human beings have not only survived, but thrived as a species.  Certainly as an animal, humans lack many of the acute skills and abilities of physicality to succeed on our own and so by sharing, collaborating and cooperating everyone does better.  This is the history of human success.

Think about it.  In spite of our individual skills or abilities, anyone of us who have experienced success have not realized this totally on our own.  Our success is a compilation of people and experiences with other people that have informed, or inspired, or challenged, or cajoled us into performance or activity that lead to the success we have enjoyed.  From our parents, to teachers, to coaches, to friends, to allies, life is riddled with relationships that have made us better people.

It is this reality that has driven social scientists to come to the conclusion that life success is promoted, not just by our individual skills, but more by the social capital we have developed around us.  Today researchers are convinced that all good things of life; health, happiness, advancement, achievement, and even life expectancy, are directly related to social capital.  Indeed, the term "social capital" is a deliberate effort to remind us that our relationships are tangibly valuable to us.

More, we also know through research and study that the more diverse our social capital is, the more we grow or broaden in our perspective of self and life.  Quite simply, when we build a relationship with someone who has some differences from us, we become more tolerant, and willing to accept or even respect their differences from us.  This is an important, maybe even critical phenomena because we also know that when people have or experience key elements of difference, they are at risk of societal segregation and devaluation.  The antidote for devaluation is to be included in the bigger mix, and so with an inclusive agenda for community, we have an interesting and powerful paradox.

In a simple way this means that people who are different or outside of the community "norm" are at risk of devaluation and segregation.  This happens in a variety of situations, some direct, others more subtle, where people who have some difference from the norm are formally offset.  Yet, when diverse people are welcomed into the greater mix of community, everyone is better off, and grows.

To this end, diversity in community becomes an important variable in promoting a better, more successful collection of people.  That is, when people who have some significant difference from each other (age, race, lifestyle, disability, poverty, etc.) come together around things they have in common, good things happen for everyone.  In this regard, inclusive community should become a goal for all of us.  Essentially diversity and connectedness makes us a better community.

So, where do we start?  How do we shape an inclusive community?  It would seem that the very first step in this process is to think about the elements to a more inclusive community and begin to reach out.  Every journey starts with the first step.  Take time now to reach out to people around you who are different.

What Makes A Good Life

I just finished reading my AARP magazine - it is one of the benefits of growing older - and found an interesting article titled, "What Makes a Good Life."  It summarized the work of Harvard researcher, Robert Waldinger, M.D., the director of Harvard Study of Adult Development.  His entity has been tracking the lives of men for 80 years to find the keys to a more successful life!

Their research is showing that what makes people healthy and happy is both surprising and simple.  They are discovering that the best predictor of your future health and happiness is found in the quality of your relationships at age 50.  They have also found that although alcohol and smoking are the top health threats, loneliness and social isolation ranks nearly as high.

This simple, yet elegant finding that our social capital as we age is key to a better life is, in a way, good news.  If we could focus attention on the ways and means to building stronger relationships we can have greater control over the quality of our lives.  Waldinger goes on to suggest:

* You don't have to have a ton of friends or be a social animal.  You just need to have some close relationships.  It is quality, not necessarily quantity.

* A key indicator to determine a quality relartionship would be to answer the following question: "Who would you call in the middle of the night if you were sick or scared?"

* If you have a conversation about something you are worried about, your body literally calms down.  These relationships and conversations can lower you blood pressure and stress hormones.

* Negative childhood experiences can have an impact on the quality of relationships, but are not always fully damaging to building social capital.  People can and do adjust over time.

Overall, research has shown that over 2/3's of the maladies that can harm us are ones that we self-inflict by our lifestyle and choices that we make.  Still, the work being done at Harvard, and other think-tanks are promising in that if we work on building social capital and developing important, quality relationships, we can find that illusive path to happiness.

Us and Them

In our work in helping people build more social capital, we know that similarity creates important bridges between people and is the first factor in initiating a relationship.  So finding ways that people are similar becomes a primary strategy in community building.

In fact, this notion of similarity, or things that make us feel connected has some unconscious roots.  I am reading a new book on unconscious behavior titled, "Before You Know It," by John Barge, one of the leading authorities on this topic.  In his book, he states: "It turns out that even the very word "us" is unconsciously positive, and the word "them" is unconsciously negative....In the automatic evaluation experiments conducted in Illinois the word "us" has the same automatic (immediate and unintended) positive effect on people as do words such as "cake, birthday, and Friday," while "them" has the same automatic negative effect as "poison, tornado, and Monday."

When you are one of "us" the stage is set for building a deeper relationship.  All the positive, pro-social aspects associated with being similar are displayed.  For those of us then, advocating for more social capital for people who are socially isolated, we need to move people from being one of "them" to become one of "us."

Unconscious Behavior

I was stuck in a traffic jam on I-80 in Pennsylvania coming back from some training I did at Mansfield State University.  The highway was closed down and we just sat there for 2 hours.  Thank goodness for National Public Radio and their thoughtful programing that helped me keep my sanity that afternoon (yes, I am a regular contributor!).

The program I listened to that day was "Science Friday" with Ira Flato and in this episode he was interviewing John Barge, one of the leading authorities on unconscious behavior.  Barge just released a new book, "Before You Know It," and was recounting some of the studies that have been done recently on unconscious behavior.  It was a fascinating interview, and when I finally got home I ordered Barge's book.

The book is filled with really interesting studies and commentaries on the way we behave.  He looks at how hot beverages have been linked with greater trust; or how more attractive candidates for job openings are favored, even when it is just a photo on a resume.  He explores how "priming" (introducing a notion prior to an encounter) will tilt responses toward the priming topic.  Or how attitudes toward political issues such as immigration can be associated with germs and create a sense of fear in some people.  He reviews studies that show that "baby-faced" adults are more likely to b e found innocent and given lower sentences that are other defendants.  He shows studies that have clearly proven that racially prototypic faces cause the defendant to be treated differently; and cited studies that showed where black defendants who had darker skin received sentences that were on average three years longer than did black defendants with lighter skin who committed the same crime.

He states: "We are all guilty of treating attractive people more favorably and with greater friendliness than we treat less attractive people....In one study, viewing attractive faces alone, without judging them in terms of attractiveness, caused the activation of the participants medial orbitofrontal cortex (reward center of the brain).  We naturally and unconsciously like to see attractive faces; they are rewarding and pleasurable to us.

This is an interesting book.  The unconscious ways we behave can be tracked back to early imprinting and exposures.  We sometimes do things that don't make rational sense, but can be associated to some earlier notion of experience. 

As I listened to the interview with John Barge some of the anger I felt at being stranded on the highway started to make some sense.  I wondered if my anger was tied to an earlier experience of not being tended to as quickly as wanted as an infant.  Or maybe the frustration of feeling trapped on that highway triggered some long lost experience of being trapped in my room as a kid. 

Be that as it may, perhaps the deep frustration I felt in that traffic jam on I-80 bore some fruit after all, as I have really been enjoying Barge's book ever since!

Kids and Brain Injury

I was invited to speak at an International Pediatric Brain Injury Conference that was held recently in Rome Italy.  There were 500 delegates from 43 different nations, gathered together in the "Eternal City," to share the latest research and trends in this penetrating topic.

My keynote focused on the power and potency of social capital, especially for kids.  We know clearly that when disability occurs, people lose much of their social capital.  As friends depart, the social challenges can become more intense.  Add this to the physical and cognitive issues and families can be seriously compromised.  My talk and the importance of social capital went over well.

After my keynote, I had the opportunity to participate in the gathering by attending workshops and panel discussions on childhood brain injury.  There were some illuminating talks.  One thing I learned is the childhood injuries are on the rise, and that sports related brain injuries are one of the major culprits.  I was amazed to learn that at the core of this increase is linked to kids starting contact sports at earlier ages.  Football, hockey, and soccer,  sports where kids can easily injure their brains, all have peewee divisions.  As these kids start sooner, and practice longer, they continue to be exposed to continued aggravation to the brain.

One talk suggested that the worst blows for children to experience are ones to the side of the head.  A blind side tackle, a check into the boards, or a side propelled header all can do much more intense damage to a young brain.  (Actually, to any aged brain!).  And researchers are clear that helmets, even more intense padding in the helmet, do not really help.  Even with a helmet, the brain still floats in the cranium and the impact alone causes damage.

Now we all know that sports reign supreme, and nothing in the US is more popular than football.  Young children (and their families) dream about sports success and the celebrity that this can bring.  Still, we are seeing younger and younger athletes showing signs of brain injuries and one has to wonder where will it all end.

One encouraging fact is that more and more parents, given this information, are directing their children to the non-impact sports.  If more and more families go in this direction, perhaps the contact sports will begin to lose favor, much like boxing has, and we will see a decline in childhood brain injury.



Holidays and Social Capital

A lot of the work we do at CLASS is to help people begin to build more social capital in their lives.  We especially focus on how folks who have significant disabilities, and tend to be more socially isolated, can find connections.  But as the holidays are right around the corner, it is perfect time to think about how we can nurture the relationships we already have in our lives.

To maintain and sustain relationships require work.  We can not take our friends for granite and need to take advantage of any window that might help in this process.  Enter the holidays!  They offer the perfect reason to reach out look for ways you can refresh, or renew a connection.

Certainly holidays can be hectic; but this hectic reality is mitigated by the positive mood most people display at holiday time.  So keep this in mind; think about those important people in your life and find time to reach out.  Get a drink, or sit down to a meal.  Nurture these relationship and surely good things will come back to you.