The Basic Human Need for Companionship
In state, city, and national charters, it is not uncommon to see certain basic human rights and needs enumerated like food, shelter, clothing, and increasingly mobile technology. These are the building blocks to any good society. It starts with asking what does a human being need and have a right to have. And then on top of that, we build in health and wellness, and then community and culture. And on top of those, ethics and integrity, and ultimately institutions.
But there is one core essential that often gets neglected: a human being’s need for companionship and the touch of another human being. Those who go without having this essential need met can suffer considerably. It leads to loneliness and depression, or to crime and violence. You get mass shootings, stalking, predatory behavior. So many social ills come back to this basic need. Think of the origin stories of your favorite heroes and villains. Most have the exact same back story. They suffered and then they had to make a pivotal decision: “I’m going to make the world suffer because of my suffering” (the villain’s choice), or “I’m going to make sure that no one else has to suffer what I did” (the hero’s choice). That’s the deciding factor in their narrative trajectory.
Millions of people around us confront decisions like these all the time because they are suffering from a lack of companionship or community. Solitariness has become a huge problem, especially for men in today’s society. There are people who want partners but cannot find them. There are others who have an ax to grind because modern culture marginalizes them. And when you take power away from someone or make them feel alienated, they tend to lash out, often against women or the less fortunate.
People need to be able to have means for meeting the fundamental need for human companionship, whether it’s basic sexual needs or just the need to be hugged. Hugging and touch can be powerful medications as we all learned very well during the months of isolation during the Covid-19 pandemic. Social distancing is simply not natural. It goes against our fundamental biochemistry and our need to be around others and part of a group.
So how can we as a society or a city help people to meet this fundamental need? Well, where I’m from in New York City, we already have a patchwork network of nonprofits and charities that provide help to some of the most desperate, but this is usually geared towards other basic needs like food and shelter. What we really need is a customer service model, something like a city-run department that has branches all across town. Let’s call it the Department of Community.
This might sound a bit Utopian. But other cities in the world manage to organize institutions like this all the time. For example, Singapore runs a large-scale government program designed to train its elderly citizens on how to use emerging technologies. This kind of effort pays for itself and then some. Teaching people how to solve problems and be better community members leads to fewer problems down the road, just like preventative medicine and wellness leads to fewer severe health issues in a community.
A Department of Community, or just a large-scale program could provide the infrastructure we need to address the epidemic of social loneliness and depression that we face, and help blunt some of the heavy social costs it exacts. It is just one of many ways we can help improve human interactions and social wellness by making the world one percent kinder. Companionship and community are ultimately what create a functioning and healthy society – and from that a city sprouts. This is the foundation of our society, as I see it, and it starts with recognizing our common human need for companionship and meaningful interaction.