Loneliness is an epidemic. (Not the first time we've said it on this show and probably not the last.) But what does the research say about loneliness? What is actually working when it comes to heading off serious loneliness problems before they morph into larger issues, particularly amongst college-aged kids? (Though, of course, it's important to emphasize that loneliness affects all of us.) Our guest today, Nathaan Demers, has a lot to say about all of this.
Nathaan's organization, Grit Digital Health, looks at connection from a research perspective and designs solutions based on evidence. Which is huge. Building relationships in real life is difficult to do, and increasingly so. For instance, did you know that someone who graduated high school in 2015 has had 50 percent less in-person interactions than someone who graduated in 2000? A lot of this stuff is just staggering.
Some of the highlights in today's episode include Nathaan's work with the social app Nod, what the loneliest living generation is, some of the stats and research Nathaan works with, and even tips for folks (like community-builders) who are on the front lines of facilitating connection. There's a ton of great info in this one — don't skip it!
Nathaan Demers, Psy.D.
Nathaan is passionate about people. This passion has led him to an enriching career as a clinical psychologist, filled with a number of twists and turns working across a variety of settings. Nathaan is an active traveler, athlete, and outdoors enthusiast — these aspects of his life have inspired him to think beyond the traditional confines of mental health care. He strives to find innovative ways to expand the reach of mental health services to improve the lives of others. While Nathaan is fascinated by all areas of psychology, his passion lies within the positive psychology movement working specifically in preventative behavioral health. In his current role as the VP of Clinical Programs & Strategic Partnerships at Grit Digital Health, he leads a multidisciplinary team innovating at the intersection of behavioral health and technology. The team develops and implements digital tools that decrease stigma and connect individuals to the right behavioral health resources at the right time to increase grit, resilience, and well-being.
In This Episode:
- Targetting the precursors to mental health issues
- The loneliest living generation
- Highschool, college, and a major skillset gap in terms of friendships
- Why loneliness is in the eye of the beholder
- An operational definition of loneliness
- Who students don't want to hear about loneliness from
- The science of Nod and how it supports the building blocks of friendship
- “Hey, Zoomer”
- Designing Nod to embrace awkwardness
- Social insights outside of Nod's target demographic
- What's next for Nod
- Nathaan's top tips for folks who faciliate connection
- Roseto, Pennsylvania, coronary disease, and the incredible benefits of community
- “Surfacey” connections and techniques for getting past the small talk
- Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker
The CX 015: An Evidence-Based Approach to the Loneliness Epidemic with Nathaan Demers, Psy.D.
Tony Bacigalupo: Okay. So we all know we've talked a lot about the fact that we have a loneliness epidemic, people are struggling to make friends and make connections, but what does the research say about what's going on and how this works? Well, it turns out that our guest today, Nathaan Demers, is in the position to be able to tell us that.
His organization, Grit Digital Health, looks at connection from a research perspective and is able to design community interactions based on that research. So that just is going to be a big help for us to understand better what's really going on and what we can do about it. And he's going to share that with us today on this episode of the Community Experience.
Jillian Benbow: Welcome to the Community Experience podcast. Tony, question, burning question for you.
Jillian: As a community professional, like myself, when you have an idea for new programming or something that you think your community will really enjoy, how do you go about creating that?
Tony: Yeah. It's a good question. I feel like I am a little bit impulsive about my decisions when it comes to making community programming. Of course, I'm trying to have the needs of the community in mind, but usually, basically, I just get really excited about something and then just jump right into trying it.
Jillian: Same. I think a lot of us digital community builders are guilty of just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks. And honestly, it's advice I give new community managers and community owners, builders, because it's a great way to just test things out. But that's also why I'm super excited about our guest today, Nathaan Demers is a Psy.D, so he has a doctorate of psychology. And he's the VP of Clinical Programs and Strategic Partnering at Grit Digital Health in Denver, Colorado.
And I actually know him from some consulting I did with him pre-pandemic, as we'll get into. But what's especially interesting about him and his story and what Grit Digital Health does is they use actual research-based science and data to help navigate the programming they create.
And the app we're going to talk about a lot today called Nod, or Heynod, HeyNod.com, if you want to learn more, is made entirely to... It's like technology that helps adolescents in particular, college students, learn how to make friends in real life, because the data shows that adolescents and even all of us oldies, all us adults, don't actually know how to make friends in real life. And their app helps you... it sounds like a catch-22, but you use an app to then learn how to rely on technology less. So, I am super excited.
Tony: And just as an aside, you will, in this conversation, hear Nathaan use the abbreviation SES a lot. And in case you don't know what that means, like I didn't, I'll save you the google, it means socioeconomic status. So, Jillian, what do you say? Shall we get into the interview with Nathaan?
Jillian: Let's talk to Nathaan.
Nathaan, welcome to the podcast.
Nathaan Demers, Psy.D.: Thank you so much for having me. It's great to connect again-
Jillian: I know.
Nathaan: ... even though it's post pandemic. And we're virtual now. It's better than nothing.
Jillian: So true.
Tony: Great to meet you virtually, Nathaan. I'm excited to see what you and Jillian can share about your in-person relationship. I haven't met Jillian in person yet, so this is just... it's very exciting to meet somebody who's met her.
Jillian: So yeah, so I know Nathaan through some consulting I did a while back pre-pandemic with a app that his company, Grit Digital Health, created, and I was helping with an in-person ambassador program. And it's just such a really interesting program, and the reasoning behind it and what it does. So, Nathaan, do you want to explain who you are and what you do and a little bit about Nod?
Nathaan: I'm happy to, and that's why I'm here after all I'd say. So, a little bit about me, so again, Nathaan Demers, I'm a clinical psychologist, and throughout my career I've worked in a number of "traditional settings.", so working, providing therapy, college campuses, therapeutic boarding schools. But I really found a passion for preventative mental health and well being, if you will.
And the analogy I always use is medicine realized that they'd much rather treat high cholesterol than wait till someone's having a heart attack, and I think we can do a much better job in mental health in treating the precursors to mental health and providing tools, tips, resources, and psycho education to help folks long before that crisis occurs. So I've been lucky enough to be working with Grit Digital Health. We've been doing that for the last five plus years now, which has been great.
And to jump into Nod, if that's where you want me to go next, Jillian-
Jillian: Yeah, that'd be great.
Nathaan: ... I'm happy to. But specifically, Nod is an app we developed that is evidence based. We're very proud of that. And it is designed to combat the issue of loneliness.
So, the backstory there is we actually partnered with an organization called Hopelab, which is a nonprofit social innovation lab based in San Francisco, and their sole mission is... They're incredible. They're like the unicorn org that... It's awesome. So, they're funded by the Omidyar Network, and their goal is to help and better the mental health and well being of adolescents and young adults. And basically, they did a systems mapping exercise, which is where you look at every sort of input that can impact some sort of variable. Again, their variable was mental health and well being among adolescents.
And they did this. It's an incredible systems mapping exercise. It's literally 30 yards wide and like 10 feet tall, and they looked at all the inputs negatively and positively impacting the well being of adolescents. And what they found was loneliness was actually one of the biggest contributing negative factors that is weighing down adolescent mental health and well being.
And not the beautiful thing, but the interesting thing about intervening with loneliness is it impacts everyone. It's a human condition. It cuts across race, gender, SES, geography, take your pick. So with that, Hopelab knew that if we intervene and could make something that can move the needle even 1%, 5%, nevermind 10% or 20%, we can have a huge impact across the system, because we can't, of course, impact someone's SES status or where they live, their zip code, and things like that.
So, they partnered with us, because at Grit Digital Health back in 2015 we launched a platform called YOU at College, which is all about supporting the mental health and well being of college students, as one might guess. And in parallel, we were actually interested in tackling loneliness at the very same point in time, but we weren't at the same place until we actually met each other.
A consultant connected us and we hit it off, and we did a one year full, all-in research and design process. We talked to over 50 experts. We interviewed and co-designed with over 100 students across the country, and our end result is Nod.
Jillian: That's amazing. So, I think it's important too to talk about how Nod came about, and please correct me if I'm wrong, but what I remember way back pre-pandemic, it feels like 10 years ago, is a big issue was just that adolescents going into college did not have the skill set of just knowing how to make connections with other students, classmates, and find their group, find their friends in school, which, obviously, impacted their feelings of loneliness and even to the point of suicidal ideation or suicide. I remember that being a part of it. Is that correct?
Nathaan: Mm-hmm. Yeah. Your memory is serving you well. But just to zoom out a little, so first off, Hopelab and we both identified loneliness is something that we think really should be addressed. So, we started peeling back the layers of the onion and doing a lot of academic research, and pretty quickly we found that loneliness... excuse me, Gen Z is actually the loneliest living generation. And I think that's a pretty common misperception that most people think that loneliness is an affliction of aging populations, and while aging populations are lonely, Gen Z is actually the loneliest.
And the previous third surgeon general, I guess it's two previous surgeon generals now with a couple changes of administration, came out saying that loneliness is actually an epidemic, and it's the equivalent of smoking about a pack of cigarettes per day. So, with that we knew that we had to act.
And what we found in our research, the unique piece about college, specifically when students are entering college, is it's a unique point in time in that students want to form friendships. They want to succeed and find their people. But then, on the other hand, we know that it's an amazing time of upheaval. Many are moving away from home for the first time. They've had the same friend group, let's say, from K through 12. And let's say I'm from small town America and all of a sudden I'm going to a large state school, I'm one of 2000, 3000, 10,000 incoming students, that can be incredibly overwhelming.
And then, furthermore, when we look at the messages that media portrays, college is supposed to be the best four years of your life. You look at movies like Pitch Perfect where there's that classic college fair, student walks in, finds their people, has not only one movie but a sequel and a triquel, that's not a word, but I think you know what I'm talking about.
So, we know that college is great for many people, but that is not every student's experience. And we heard that there's a lot of pressure students are feeling to get to campus and find those people. A quote that really summed it up that we heard in our research was, "I look at my dad and he's still having reunions with his best friends 40 years later. I have to find that, and if I don't, I'm a failure or something's wrong with me."
And then another common narrative and a misperception was that students said, "You know what, I wasn't a social butterfly in high school, but college is going to be different." But the reality is, we know nothing magical happens in those three months between graduating as a senior and walking on campus three months later in the fall. So, if a student doesn't have those skills that they need to form the building blocks of friendships, unfortunately, we are not setting them up for success.
And there's another common misperception where the idea is like, let's have a movie night or a dinner fair, just put a bunch of students in a room together and they'll make friends. And the research actually shows that if I'm experiencing loneliness, that's not only not helpful, that can actually make it worse because I'm surrounded by people and I don't have the skills to connect.
And students can very sadly, in some ways, draw the incorrect assumption that either this isn't the place for me, and they might look to transfer if that doesn't happen, or they might say, "Something's wrong with me, and you know what, I'm just never going to have those satisfying social connections." And it's not surprising that loneliness is a precursor for anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicidality, because it can start that downward spiral.
Tony: Do you find, Nathaan, that there is a common sense that people expect that they're supposed to know how to do things like make friends in those kinds of environments and that there's shame attached to if they struggle to that?
Nathaan: It's a great question, Tony. And I do think there is, unfortunately, shame around not having the relationships that one wants. I don't think anyone raises their hand saying, "I want to be the lonely person." Social support is so important, as I know you have a whole podcast around it, but furthermore, I just think about college is made for extroverts, and the very important thing to know about loneliness is it's in the eye of the beholder.
So, I should have done this sooner, but here's the definition of loneliness, operational definition: It's the gap in the relationship which one has and those which they desire. Why that is so important is if I'm a student and let's say I'm a little bit more introverted and I'm alone on a Friday night or maybe even a whole weekend, if I have several friends that I can turn to in that time of need, I might not be experiencing loneliness.
And then, on the other side of the equation, I could be the star quarterback, I could be beloved by campus, valedictorian, it seems like everyone just loves me and I have everything, all my ducks in a row, but if I don't have the depth of relationships that I crave I'm actually experiencing loneliness. And that's so important to remember, because what "people think loneliness looks like" is not what students are portraying.
67% of students, this is pre-pandemic, endorsed feeling loneliness. It's from the American College Health Association national survey. So, when you think of 60% of a college student body, we don't think of 67% in their dorm rooms alone at night. We know a lot of students are putting on a smile and a happy face and getting out into the world, but they are experiencing loneliness and, unfortunately, all those negative correlates that are associated with it.
Tony: I feel like that's huge, because... and this maps across different environments too, right, that even in the corporate workplace or in other environments, just the fact that people are talking to each other and they're socializing doesn't mean that they're not lonely. And you could very easily misidentify what's going on. But if it's a perception thing, that also means that perhaps there are avenues to addressing it that the solutions aren't necessarily just get everyone to make more friends. It might be, let's figure out how to help these people better recognize the connections they already have. Is that kind of a direction you guys are looking at? Yeah?
Nathaan: It is. And that's really what Nod's based on. And I know, I feel like we're doing a Quentin Tarantino movie, we're mixing up the order of things, but just to share a little bit about what Nod's about. It's exactly what you just shared there, Tony. It's really getting down to, what are the building blocks of friendship, and how can we provide a scaffolded approach to allow students to get out in the world and simply try many experiments, if you will, to build those relationships?
So, the app actually has three main components. So the first is testimonials. So, one thing we heard is that students don't want to hear about loneliness from me or either of you. We're all old-
Jillian: None of the oldies.
Nathaan: ... washed up people. Even if we think we're cool, we're not anymore. That's the reality.
Jillian: I'm not like regular moms though.
Nathaan: But they want to... Right. Yeah, me either. I'm a cool dad, right?
Jillian: I'm a cool mom.
Nathaan: So students wanted to hear from other students, and they wanted to hear that, you know what, I'm not the only one. And it was fascinating in our research when we made Nod, that students would say, "You know what, I need Nod, I need Nod. I need an app to help me with this, but nobody else does, because everyone else has it all figured out." And we know that that's simply not true.
So, a lot of quotes and testimonials we got from students simply normalize the experience of loneliness. Simply sharing a story of, it took me three, four, five months or even the end of my first semester to find those relationships that I want, goes a really long way so students don't feel flawed if they don't experience that success right off the bat.
And then, secondly, what we do is provide students ideas to get out into the real world and practice the building blocks of friendships. We know when someone's anxious our brains, obviously, aren't working on all cylinders. It can be really hard to think of new ideas to get out there. And what Nod does is you can actually rank how competent or confident you feel in terms of social relationships, and then we recommend ways to get out into the real world.
So if I'm very introverted and I'm not feeling confident, it might start with something super small, like try smiling at five people today, versus if I'm feeling good and I really want to deepen my relationships, it might talk about something of, try sitting down with a student you've never met at the dining hall today and just practice that.
So, those ideas go such a long way in giving students that little nudge to step slightly outside their comfort zone and try practicing some of these techniques. And all of the techniques are rooted in the science of social connections, mindfulness based self compassion, as well as cognitive behavioral therapy. So it's not like we just made up a bunch of things. We turned to the science to make sure that these indeed are the building blocks of friendship.
And then, thirdly, we actually know that the way I process a social interaction is actually more important than how that social interaction goes. So, quick example, let's just say I said, "Hey, Tony and Jill, when you're in Denver, I'd love to get a cup of coffee." and you said, "No.", I could internally say, you know what, Tony and Jillian hate me, I'm never going to ask anyone for a cup of coffee again because I'm a big loser. Obviously, that's going to have some ramifications on my self image, if you will.
On the other side, I could say, you know what, Tony and Jill, they're here for work, they're probably going to be super busy, we're still in the midst of the pandemic, you know what, I'll ask them next time. That's going to have a very different implication on how I'm going to move forward with my social interactions.
So, we created reflections which create a space to both, A, help students celebrate their wins. I'm sure you're all familiar with the concept of the ever rising bar, I have no friends, I want one friends, now I have one friend, now I want five, now I have five, now I want 10, and I constantly feel like a failure.
So with that, we want to say, "Good job for throwing yourself out there. Even if it didn't go well, you know what, you're trying and you're making progress." And then, on the other side of things, if an interaction doesn't go well, for whatever reason, we want to help students reflect on that and get out of that negative thought pattern.
So, we have a really fun game, for example. It's actually whack-a-mole. Who doesn't love playing whack-a-mole? And what we do is we draw the parallel between negative automatic thoughts and playing the game whack-a-mole, saying, some of those thoughts that might be popping up right now, you know what, treat them just like whack-a-mole, give yourself a pat on the back for trying, do your best to get on the horse, and try again tomorrow.
Those three things go such a long way in helping students take a step back and be willing to actually get out into the world and practice some of these skills.
Jillian: The reflections piece of the app... I had the privilege to get to use the app and really understand how it worked. And first of all, before I forget, let me just say the artwork, I just love it. The two flamingos on roller skates are still my hands down favorite. I have the button still. Yeah. It's just so cute. But the reflections piece is so powerful, just, to your point, to let someone get a little perspective on how social interactions go, because you're right, we all interpret them differently, and then that changes how we try the next time, or we just don't.
And I think it's so important, especially with the Zoomers, as I heard someone called Gen Z and I can't stop, so that's... My daughter said, "Hey, Boomer." to me once and I was like, "Do you even know what that means? My parents are Boomers." So then I called her "Hey, Zoomer." and she was just like, "Uh." It was so funny. But anyways, I digress.
I think just because the Zoomers have... they've grown up with technology, and so Nod is so genius because it uses the evidence based data and, like you were saying, just those modalities to help them use what's comfortable for them, which is their phone in front of their face, and use it to get off of it, which is almost... it's funny, but it's the best way to teach them, because it's like, here's an app, and they're like yes, and it's like, well, this isn't a social network, we're going to teach you how to put this down, go and talk to another human, and then come back and process the information, which is just genius.
Nathaan: Thanks, Jill. And that's really at the heart of all of our work at Grit Digital Health, and that I firmly believe, and our team does it, if we don't meet young people where they are, which is on technology, we're not going to meet them. But again, the second part of that is so important, is our goal is not to keep people on apps or in our websites, it's to get them out into the real world to connect with real people.
And I'd love to go back just to the illustrations that you mentioned, Jillian. So, in our research we did so much work to really make sure that this app would be very inclusive, because we know, especially college student bodies, there's so many different experiences in terms of race, gender, ethnicity, SES, geography, international students. And we tested a lot of different motifs, if you will, and what we landed on, and for those of you who haven't seen it, go to HeyNod.com and you can check out some of the images, but we went with a theme called awkward animals.
So we have like-
Jillian: No wonder I identify in some way.
Nathaan: ... a hippo driving a jeep. Yeah.
Jillian: I saw myself in those flamingos.
Nathaan: We have a pizza and a pineapple hanging out. But they're very inclusive. And that touch of awkwardness that's in there actually leans into the fact that making friendships is awkward. It can feel weird, and it makes students feel much more comfortable approaching this topic. We couldn't go with a suit and tie buttoned up approach because that would have been pretty intimidating to students.
So, that's the level of detail that we went into to make sure that this is inclusive, and awkward animals also cuts across all those different identities, and specifically, with all our research, we made sure that about half we over sampled students from first generation backgrounds as well as historically marginalized communities to be as inclusive as we could be.
Jillian: That's beautiful. Well, and it shows. It's just beautiful artwork. I almost found myself spending more time going down paths and looking at challenges to see, are the turtles going to show up on this page? They're just very cute. But I didn't realize that awkward animal was the intention, and I realized now why I like it so much, because I identify with that completely.
Nathaan: Who doesn't?
Jillian: Right? Yeah. Actually, that brings up a great point in that, something you were saying earlier with loneliness, I think we all see how other people are living and make so many assumptions on them based on our own insecurities or our struggles, or whatever, and loneliness is no exception.
I think we all have kind of, now that we have phones, I think it's common for many generations to have forgotten or never needed to make these type of connections. I'm curious, your thoughts on just what... like if you were talking to an awkward animal adult and they were talking about this and saying they had a hard time connecting with people, is there one big takeaway that you would tell someone that maybe doesn't fit the college age as far as how to get out there and connect and not feel so in their head about it?
Nathaan: Yeah. So it's a really great question, Jillian, and what's really nice about Nod and all our research is that we've focused on college students, but a lot of the insights are very generalizable. So, of course, the awkward animals, the languages, the tests that we came up with are college specific, but when we have tested them with adults, with high schoolers and other groups, everyone really resonates with it.
So, it's important, those three pieces are really important in this process of, first off, knowing that you're not alone. Unfortunately, when we look into the research, I know I said Gen Z is the loneliest living generation, that doesn't mean that other generations are all flourishing. Unfortunately, loneliness is hovering around 50% for a lot of the population in those generations.
Secondly, it's really important to be willing to try and adopt what we call a growth mindset. So, a growth mindset, just to define that, is the belief that with effort, trying, practice, you can get better at just about anything. Nothing is fixed. So, if folks can understand and treat it as an experiment of, you know what, I'm going to get out into the world and try interacting in a different way today and then tomorrow and build upon that. If I can do that and celebrate my successes, I can absolutely achieve and get the desired outcomes that I'm looking for.
So I think those are really important things. Treat it like a science experiment. There's no magic bullet. Loneliness is not... A, it's not a formal diagnosis, B, there's no pill to help with loneliness. There isn't a quick fix, but being willing to get out there and give it a shot is important.
And just a different data point that speaks to this, an individual who graduated high school in 2000, compared to the year 2015, has had 50% less in-person interactions. So let me unpack that for a second. So, when I wanted to find out the time a movie was playing when I was growing up, I had to call and call the movie theater, ask what time, asked what movie, figure all that out. If I had a romantic interest at school, I had to call that person's landline and explained to dad why I wanted to talk to Katie and make up some excuse about a homework assignment.
All those little interactions actually build your resilience in your social skills in having these conversations. And, of course, technology has, unfortunately, limited the need for a lot of those little interactions that can go a long way. But the other side of things is technology, everyone points to technology and says it's the root of all problems, we need to get rid of it, whatever it might be, when the reality is that the jury's still out. It's less about how much we use technology and more about how we use technology.
So, for example, if I'm feeling lonely and I scroll on Instagram and just look at pictures and like, that might exacerbate my loneliness. But let's say I'm a minority international student on a campus in the Midwest, there aren't many students like me on my campus, but all of a sudden I can go online and connect meaningfully with students having a similar experience at other institutions. And I can actually build support, share my experience, get that normalization, and build my coping mechanisms.
I think we've all used Zoom in a different way than we ever would have expected in this last year and a half. And I know I've built some amazing connections via Zoom. I mean, you and Tony have never met. It seems like you two know each other pretty well. So the how is super important in the context of all of this.
Jillian: And I think that's really what we do in our communities at SPI, is, globally, find all these people with a similar vibe, if you will, and interest, and then just have these really outstanding relationships happen and collaborations. And so there's always the good side to technology versus the dark side, of which there is much, of course, but...
Nathaan: Of course. When we look at college campuses we know that even pre-pandemic they were having a lot of difficulty keeping up with the mental health demands of students, and college counseling centers can't keep up. And again, 67% of students experiencing loneliness, loneliness being a precursor for anxiety, depression, substance use, and suicidality.
If we can intervene there and help even a small percentage of those students we can have a huge impact in our systems of care by preventing those downstream consequences, and that's what gets me so excited. Because we can absolutely help students before there's a challenge, and help them flourish in the way that they're hoping to.
Jillian: So Nod, historically, has been for incoming university students with partnered universities, but it sounds like you're looking at even intervening earlier.
Nathaan: Mm-hmm. Yeah. So, we're at campuses across the nation now, which is great. We're having an impact in that space. And we actually are really lucky to have partnered and have been awarded a grant from the upswing fund as of January 2021 to transcreate Nod for the high school space.
So, in doing some research we actually found that, unfortunately, loneliness is also a very significant challenge for high schools. And our belief and my belief as a clinician is that the earlier we can intervene, the better. So with that, we partnered with an organization called the Colorado Education Initiative. They have very deep connections here in Colorado. And we're co-designing.
We did research, just like we did with the initial development of Nod. And then we actually co-designed with a wealth of high schoolers to see what works, does this land, does this stick? And we found that a lot of things are very similar from college to high school, but there are a lot of different themes that high schoolers are looking for and desiring. So we're actually in the process of making those slight tweaks right now. And we'll be piloting with a handful of schools, school districts in the state of Colorado this fall with the hopes and intent of scaling beyond the state.
Jillian: That is just so exciting to hear. And this is one of those places where I think technology at its best, if you will, because you've created this really amazing thing that helps people solve a huge problem, as we've been talking about with loneliness. But because it is this tech based intelligence, if you will, it's so scalable, and that's just so wonderful, because, really, this should be in every adolescent's hand or phone, if you will.
Tony: I think one of the more encouraging parts of it — that loneliness can be made worse by virtue of going online, being addicted to your phone, things like that, but we can also propagate really good ideas that help people more easily. And that's part of why we're having this conversation right now.
And so, one of the things I'm wondering, we're looking at this through a few different lenses, but I'm wondering about the perspective of the organizer who is hosting some kind of a gathering, whether it be a team meeting or a meetup or some kind of a social group or anything like that. And I just wonder, outside of your main area of focus, do you have top tips for anybody who's in a position to maybe help nudge people along in their journey to getting better at building relationships?
Nathaan: Yes, it's a great question, Tony. And I think one thing that's so important, let's just go with the work setting for a minute, is creating points of human connection.
I think all too often, excuse me, we can hop right into a meeting and it's go, go, go, and you're just off to the races solving whatever task it is. And I, again, clinical psychologist here, so this won't surprise you, but to me it's very important to see, how is everyone doing, what's up in life? Because I have the belief that if you're not doing well in life, we're not going to do anything here at work that's productive. But furthermore, finding points of commonality.
I think it's very easy to forget that we are more similar than we are unlike one another. I don't care if you're cutting across age, gender, country lines, whatever it is. And finding ways to do that is so important. And one thing we did with Nod was we made these fun conversation cards which were super simple. Jill, I know you know these so well. But they're simple things like questions like, what's the last song you sang out loud, what was your first concert? Little things like that that can go such a long way.
And I know people can't see it, but Tony just smiled. That goes such a long way in, you know what, disarming someone, in reminding we are human. And you know what, I do want to follow up with Tony about his first concert or the last song he sang out loud and figure out why that's the song that he picked. So, consciously making the space to connect as people is so important in our society that feels so much more geared around productivity and getting the job done. And I think leaders have a very important role in fostering that.
Jillian: Tony is a music aficionado. So now we must know, Tony, what was the last song you sang out loud?
Tony: I don't remember, and I think that's actually... Yeah. I don't remember, and that's actually part of why it's so poignant for me, because singing is such an important part of my own health and my soul and my energy. And if I go a long time without it I wither and I can identify with that right now. And so, yeah, thanks for the reminder.
Nathaan: We're ready for a song. Just belt it out, Tony.
Jillian: I know.
Nathaan: We're ready.
Tony: We're trying to gain podcast subscribers, not lose them. So we'll-
Nathaan: Fair enough.
Tony: ... save that for another time.
Jillian: I have been singing Blues Traveler's Hook weekly. It's just-
Nathaan: Great song.
Jillian: It's such a good song, and I think just the messaging of it is really relevant. And it's just one of those ones where, especially all us Gen X, Gen Y-ers, it's just like, suck it in, suck it... You just get into that fast part and it's just like, can you do it without breathing?
But, yeah. In community, and especially digital community, and depending... there are so many different types of communities, and some are very safe and just authentic and you know people deeply, and some are really big and wild like Reddit. And so I think it's so important, because we've seen this happening in the last decade. There's communities that are forming that are very closed off as far as the belief systems and what the community is about, and it's creating so much division.
And this whole disarming conversations and finding commonality and really leaning into human connection, and hey, we may not agree politically, or whatever these big things that are very important to people, but there's always a common ground. There's always something that you can find that you can connect on, and that is just humanity. And so, really leaning into that, I think, is such an important part of where we are as a society right now, where technology has allowed us to connect, but also to get in a bubble and form an alternate reality almost.
I'm curious, just because you are so well... obviously, this is what you do and you work in this, is that something that you think about?
Nathaan: It is, and I'd love to actually go on a little tangent. Bear with me. It's all going to make sense in a second.
Jillian: I'm the queen of tangents.
Nathaan: So, I don't know if anyone's... Yeah, that's what we do here. It's a podcast. Back in the 1960s there was a town called Roseto, Pennsylvania. I might be butchering that name. Sorry if anyone's from there. But basically this town was composed of folks who came from Italy, a town called Roseto. And the town was pretty much exclusively made up of folks from that town. And a handful of doctors who were providing services to that group found out that, after generations, that no one under the age of 55 had ever died of coronary disease.
So, basically, it kicked off this thing of like, we got to study these people and figure out what's going on. So they looked at what they ate. They were like, is it the olive oil? They looked at environmental factors, is the air they breathe better than neighboring towns? They did all this work, and basically they found nothing in conclusion from the medical side.
So what they did was they brought in a bunch of social scientists to start peeling the layers of the onion back further, and what they found is there was this profound sense of community in that town, that if someone's kid got sick, you know what, they could go to the neighbor and they'd take care of it. If anything went wrong the town had their back.
And the whole learning from this is that when we have a sense of community, when we have that support, we actually extend our lifespan. We're less anxious. We're less depressed. We have less cortisol flowing between our veins, because, you know what, we're not worried if something goes wrong, because I know I have 10 people that I can turn to in my neighborhood. And I think that's what we've somewhat lost now.
I think of so many neighborhoods where folks don't know their neighbors. They have no idea who lives across the street. And it takes a lot. And it's hard in our modern go, go, go society. And I feel so lucky to know my neighbors, and kids have brought us all together, but we have a bit of that feel of Roseto, Pennsylvania, but I know so much of our country and the world right now simply does not have that. And I think it's on all of us to go out of our ways to start fostering that even in little, little ways.
Jillian: When you say in little, little ways, what does that mean to you? How would you do that?
Nathaan: Great question. First off, it's simply knowing the names of your neighbors next door.
Jillian: Step one.
Nathaan: Going out of your way to see what's up.
Jillian: Hey, you.
Nathaan: Yeah, what's up with you? But from there, I feel like once we find those points of connection we are so much more likely to offer support. When someone's unloading their groceries, if I know Bob across the street, it's much more likely that I say, "Hey, Bob. Do you need a hand?", or vice versa. But until we start with that, again, humanizing all the people around us, I don't think we're going to get to any of those subsequent levels of being willing to give and receive support. So, I guess Nod for everyone maybe is a way to just start talking and feeling a little bit more comfortable.
Tony: Or at least finding ways to get creative about making yourself visible and being that person who isn't afraid to greet your neighbor as they walk by.
Nathaan: Absolutely. Maybe having headphones in when I'm going for a walk around my neighborhood isn't exactly the most welcoming of conversations, for example.
Tony: Nathaan, one last little bit is just in terms of the means by which people connect and whether that has an effect on the quality of the connection. So, if you have people connecting because they're all fans of Pokemon, that's a certain level of interest, versus if they're maybe passionate about the same kind of social good topic, or that they're meeting because they're all going to do something of service to the community. Is that something that you guys play with in terms of the different vehicles for connection that people use?
Nathaan: It's a really great question, Tony. And I'm going to answer it in a couple ways. So, first off, in my opinion, you can connect over anything. You can connect over volunteering. You could also connect over a rock collection, if that was something you're into, which my five year old is. But what's more important is, if I'm connecting, let's just use the gaming world, if I'm connecting, playing, I don't know what's cool, Halo... Is Halo still cool? I'm just going to go with it. If-
Tony: You're fucking with the wrong people.
Jillian: Halo is definitely in.
Nathaan: But if.... Okay. Perfect. Thank you, Jillian. I feel confident. If I'm connecting about that or Pokemon but I'm just talking Pokemon and I'm not sharing anything about my human experience, that's what I would call a more surface-y connection. That doesn't mean that, hey, because Tony and I play Pokemon, when I'm sick or if I need something I can pick up the phone and call Tony.
So, with that, one of our most commonly engaged with Nod tactics, if you will, or areas, themes is actually how to get past the small talk, because everyone knows how to do that dance, how are you, I'm doing well, oh, great, let's play this game, or let's do this thing, but how do I get to a relationship that has more sustenance? And a lot of our questions and ideas in Nod are about getting to those subsequent levels.
So, to get back to your question, yes, there's some activities that, of course, are a little bit more primed for that. If, for example, I'm meeting other parents when I'm dropping off my kid at preschool, inevitably, your kid's going to do so something that drives a conversation that makes you get a little bit deeper. But if I'm just connecting with my soccer team and I'm only playing soccer all the time, I might not get to that subsequent level.
So, again, it comes down to intentionality and being willing to push yourself out there to get to that next level of friendship, to practice things like self disclosure, to practice skills like active listening. Those are all things that we really embed into Nod and make it very explicit that practicing this skill is going to help you be a better sharer. It's going to help you be a better listener. Those are the building blocks to get the relationships that you want and desire.
Tony: Would you be up for just sharing what those techniques are, in brief, explaining that? Active listening is so important, and then... Yeah.
Nathaan: Active listening is all about... really what we're doing here is really thoroughly and genuinely tuning in to what someone else is saying, listening for things that you might want to follow up on, rather than just waiting and already thinking, Tony, as soon as you start talking, I'm just thinking about what I'm going to say next. So it doesn't really matter what you say, because I'm blurting out this. There's no connection there. When you do that, what you're not showing is that, hey, I listened to Tony and I asked a follow up question related to something he really cares about.
And then self disclosure, on the other side, is basically doing the same thing in the opposite fashion. It's being willing to share something about yourself, whether it's that you're a music lover and you haven't sung a song out loud in a while, or that I'm a soccer player and I have an injury and I haven't been able to play for eight weeks, which has added a lot of stress to my life, because it's a coping mechanism. When I share that, that's what's likely going to pull someone to share a story about their own life, and that's going to draw us much closer.
Tony: Awesome. Sounds like the word vulnerability comes about in that conversation as well, and-
Tony: ... yeah, it's such a powerful tool.
Jillian: Tony, I think you should take the hot seat questions if you're ready, Nathaan, to answer some deep burning questions.
Nathaan: Ready to go, practicing some self disclosure here.
Jillian: Oh, yeah.
Tony: Exactly. We're doing it. This is it. Okay. So, I'm just going to fire off these questions. Don't overthink it. Whatever comes to mind, totally cool. And yeah, just whatever comes off the cuff will be great.
Tony: What did you want to be when you grew up?
Nathaan: Great question. I'd say a soccer player most likely.
Jillian: That makes sense.
Nathaan: Kids dream. Played all my life. Yep.
Tony: How do you define community?
Nathaan: Great question. Being able to give and receive support unconditionally.
Jillian: I love that.
Tony: Oh, unconditionally. Useful word in that context. Bucket list question, something on your bucket list that you have done.
Nathaan: I have done.
Tony: It was on your list and you crossed it off.
Nathaan: That's a good one. I love travel, and I've been very lucky to have traveled to some very cool places throughout my life, both through sport and just through recreation. So I've definitely crossed off a handful of places that I wanted to visit.
Jillian: What was one of those top places?
Tony: Such as?
Nathaan: Yeah. Fair enough. I was lucky enough to study abroad in Fiji, and I did some research in-
Nathaan: ... very, very remote villages, like way out, like take a bus, then hiking, then take a horse. And that was definitely a highlight, just going to some places way, way, way off the beaten path, and their communities are very close knit, as you might guess.
Tony: Stay tuned for part two of our podcast interview with Nathaan for more on that.
Nathaan: I have some great stories from Fiji.
Jillian: I bet.
Tony: Okay. Something on your bucket list that you have yet to do.
Nathaan: That's a good one. So, our oldest son's name is Rupin. My family is from India, or part of my family, and there's a Rupin pass in Kashmir, and I really hope to be able to hike that with him one day. Time will tell.
Jillian: That is a beautiful...
Tony: That's beautiful.
Jillian: Yeah, I love that.
Nathaan: He's probably not going to like hiking, but he's going anyway.
Jillian: He's going.
Nathaan: It's my bucket list.
Tony: Okay. A book that you are loving.
Nathaan: Oh, that's a good one. Why Sleep Matters. This is bringing the nerdy clinical psychologist in me. Sleep is so freaking important to all that we do. If you haven't read it, read it. Maybe it's probably loneliness epidemics number one, sleep epidemic probably number two, is what this book has taught me.
Tony: Amazing. And if you could live anywhere else in the world other than where you live, where would it be?
Nathaan: Yeah. So I'm just going to go with... It's somewhere I lived, but Northwest Montana, just outside of Glacier National Park. I was lucky enough to live there for a couple years, and it's incredible. Weather's great. Cloudy, gloomy winters, but a lot of water, not a ton of people, and actually, a commonality, there's a great sense of community there.
And there's an amazing blog that... when you're in small towns everyone waves to each other when you're driving, about why people do that. It's fascinating. Because you don't do that in the big city. You don't wave to everyone that you drive past. But even if you don't know them when you're in Lost Prairie you wave, because you never know who that person is and when you might need their support, because you're pretty isolated in places like that.
Jillian: That is fascinating.
Jillian: I 100% do that. Where I live now it's small, and we certainly... you wave when you're walking and stuff, but not driving. My husband's family has a remote cabin, you wave at every single person. It's just what you do.
Nathaan: Yeah, it's a fascinating psychological sort of thing, but it's also fascinating of what it communicates and what it means, for sure.
Jillian: Yeah. I never thought about it, but it is-
Tony: It's a survival-
Jillian: ... deep.
Tony: ... mechanism. It's amazing.
Nathaan: Yeah. Tony, you hit the nail on the head there.
Tony: Amazing. We'll save it for part two. Okay. Last one is a deep one. How do you want to be remembered?
Nathaan: Oh, that is a deep one. Tony, bringing on the big ones. I hope I am remembered as someone who made a difference and made the world a better place. I know that's so cliché, but if I could do that even like 1%, that would be a huge win for me, whether that's through kids, community, my work, any of those.
And I'm going to add one more thing. I've been so lucky to combine my passions with my work, with my professional life. And in doing that, I know it's so cliché, but work doesn't always feel like work, and I can have an impact and be able to support myself and family. And I hope folks can find that, because it's an amazing balance to be able to have.
Tony: Right on my man. I'm very excited to follow your journey and godspeed to you.
Nathaan: Thank you, Tony. Love your questions.
Jillian: So, Nathaan, where can people find you and your work?
Nathaan: Yes. So, GritDigitalHealth.com. That's all about our organization. You can learn about all of our work there. We have interventions to help working aged men in the corporate space, and most specifically college. But then to learn more about Nod and see some of those awesome illustrations, the website is HeyNod.com. You can also always email me or find me on LinkedIn. I'm around and love connecting.
Love all that you're doing, and thanks for having me. Really appreciate it. Take care. See you both.
Tony: All right. Jillian, thank you, again, for bringing Nathaan into my world. I'm a huge fan.
Jillian: Yeah. Shout out to the whole Grit team. They're lovely. I've had opportunity to do a little bit of work with some of them, those that were working on the Nod app, but honestly, check out their website. I think it's Grit, GritDigitalHealth.com. They have a few programs going on. This is not the only one.
And the other organization he mentioned, Hopelab, is also just knock your socks off amazing. If you're into nonprofit, where nonprofits meet Silicon Valley Tech, they partner with nonprofits and help them really accelerate their tech stack in just such beautiful ways. If you're ever feeling down, go check out both those organizations and you'll feel better knowing that there are people in the world doing the light work, doing the work to support other humans, which always makes my heart happy, and I'm so proud to have been a part, a very sliver small part, of one of their projects.
Tony: So, I got a lot of amazing takeaways from this conversation that I think would be valuable to a lot of the folks listening as an organizer and as an attendee, even just somebody... if you're just trying to make new connections out there in the world. So, yeah, and I think one of the most poignant things that jumped out at me in our conversation is the fact that we can't assume people know how to make friends.
And I've seen bits of evidence about this in other conversations, but it's true, there's a lot of event programming out there that more or less, in terms of the social side of things, just throws people in a room and says, "Go talk."
Jillian: 1,000,000% I fucking hate it.
Tony: And so, one of my takeaways from that, from that takeaway, the extension is look for ways to make it easier for people to connect in meaningful ways, give people prompts that are likely to elicit more substantial conversations, more vulnerability.
Jillian: Yeah, I think, as Nathaan mentioned, self disclosure, and granted, knowing the boundaries of how much disclosure. You want to go for, if it's just meeting someone for the first time, but being willing to put yourself out there a little bit, put out a flair, like, hey, I'm human and I have vulnerabilities, and then just see if the people you're talking to are receptive to that, and not everyone is.
I mean, it doesn't have to be like, what's your deepest, darkest secret, but it could be, what's the last song you sang out loud? Which, Tony, have you put more thought into that since I put you on the spot earlier?
Tony: I don't know specifically, but I'm sure that it was just something that I sang and danced with my girlfriend in the apartment at some point-
Jillian: Oh, precious.
Tony: ... in the last couple of months.
Jillian: All right.
Tony: So I think for another takeaway, I think it's important to acknowledge that we might sometimes feel bad if we struggle to make connections in a context in which other people are not struggling to make connections.
I think more people need to not blame themselves for struggling to make connections in circumstances where, frankly, the organizers didn't really create the right circumstances for those connections to come about.
Jillian: And I think that expands into just day to day life too. I mean, something that Nathaan brought up, well something we talked about a little bit about the Nod app that I really, really appreciate is that part of the process, like you get a challenge and it might be like, ask someone in your class if they want to meet up to share notes, as an example, and that might not actually be one, but let's just, for argument's sake... that just sounds familiar in my brain.
But then, in the app you say I did it or I didn't do it, and then, depending, you go through this path, you're like, I did it, then there's a reflection on like, how did it go? And if it didn't go great it's like, that's okay, let's reflect on it.
And I think it's really important for all of us to, although we may not have access to the Nod app, to allow ourselves to reflect on those situations, especially the ones that leave us feeling kind of meh or down, and be like, oh, I tried something, it's an experiment, and this is the result I had, so maybe next, instead of giving up, next time I'm going to try it differently. I think it's super important.
Tony: Which, by the way, iis a great way of approaching a lot of things, especially anything that can be emotionally charged, anything around self improvement.
Jillian: I think one of the biggest takeaways for me that came across was just the importance of finding commonality amongst other people. And it's okay, especially in different situations, whether it's a college campus, a digital community, your church, whatever, you're in this group, and there was some sort of commonality, but whoever you talk to, you can find commonality with any other human being and you can find something to talk about that's positive.
Tony: Absolutely. I think one of the paths out of the very divisive and toxic culture that we're witnessing unfolding right now is to give people better ways to humanize each other outside of the context of the more controversial topics. There's probably people-
Jillian: Lets just say it: it's politics.
Tony: Yeah. Well, there's probably people who are flaming each other online on the internet anonymously who, under different circumstances, would be very friendly in real life. And that doesn't mean-
Jillian: It's like Patriots fans and everybody else. You can still find something in common with a Patriot fan, surely. It's okay.
I think that rounds out, that brings us to an excellent place, which is something I just thought was hilarious, was Nathaan was talking about... they realized all of this wonderful research information they had geared to college students, that they needed it to be... the vibe had to be on par with college students, the Zoomers, and a bunch of stuffy Gen X, Y, whatever we are, Gen X millennial hybrids, they don't care what we think, even if we're the ones that figured out the research.
And so they really spent a lot of time, was very thoughtful, coming up with the awkward animals and the branding and the messaging so that when a college age student whose school was participating in their programming and had access to this app, when they saw the posters on campus or whatever and got the app, it would feel young, it would feel like them, they would connect to it on that level. And that's super important when you think about even just like business or anything, and just like audience connection and how you message to your audience.
Tony: Just one last thing, which I think is valuable when I think in terms of a systemic standpoint, but I think it's probably useful in other contexts as well, is recognizing that a problem is sometimes more about the perception than the reality. And the loneliness epidemic is a really good example of this where, yes, there are some people who do not have friends, who need to make more friends, who need to make more connections.
And my natural assumption in trying to tackle that epidemic was exactly that, let's help people make more friends. And it wasn't until I discovered some of that research that said, well, actually, some people actually do have a network of people that they could rely on, that they could consider to be a sufficient support system for them, they just don't realize it, and they don't know how to engage it.
And so, maybe in tackling the loneliness epidemic the issue is less about helping people make more friends, and it could be that it's helping people recognize the connections that they already have, the people who are already looking forward to hearing from them. And I think, in a more generalizable way, that probably applies to a lot of other problem solving contexts. Just because you see a problem doesn't mean that you need to solve exactly that problem. Figure out why people think it's a problem first, and make sure that it's not a perception issue.
Jillian: Well, that was just such a fun conversation. Learn more about the work Nathaan is doing at GritDigitalHealth.com. You can check out the awkward animals splendidness. See if you can find my two sassy flamingos in roller skates at HeyNod.com. And of course, you can find Tony and I on the Twittersphere @TeamSPI.
Why don't you go out today, tomorrow in the real world, if it's safe for you to do that right now with this fun pandemic, and maybe just say hello to someone, or maybe challenge yourself to interact with someone in a way that maybe is a little past your comfort zone or your regular, and then shoot us a tweet and let us know how it went. And hey, if it crashes and burns, that's okay, because it's just an experiment.
Tony: This has been the Community Experience. For more information on this episode, including links and show notes, head over to SmartPassiveIncome.com/listen.
Jillian: Learn more about the work Nathaan does at GritDigitalHealth.com. You can also follow Nathaan on Twitter. It's at @doc_demers, that's D-E-M-E-R-S. And, Nathaan has a website, NathaanDemers.com. Remember, Nathaan is N-A-T-H-A-A-N D-E-M-E-R-S. Thanks for listening. Have a great day.
Tony: Our executive producer is Matt Gartland. Our series producers are David Grabowski and Senior Producer Sarah Jane Hess. Editing and sound design by Duncan Brown, music by David Grabowski.
Jillian: See you next time.
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