How to restore social trust in society

Social trust is one of the best metrics for the health of society.

Read this article if you are interested in learning about the systemic causes and solutions for loneliness and depression.

In this article, I present the problem of social distrust — how it has infected our cities and will continue to fester unless neighbourhoods are completely redesigned around belonging. Then, I present an inconspicuous solution: public human connection rituals. And vyving.

Growing up, I was fortunate enough to live in a rural neighbourhood with high social trust. My parents allowed me to bike ride wherever I wanted. There were a lot of other families in the neighbourhood. I knew pretty much all my neighbours and had probably been to all their houses for dinner at some point.

Cities are not like this.

Most neighbourhoods in cities are plagued with social distrust, a metric I learnt about while researching the Happy Cities team. Their research has revealed some interesting results.

One of the best ways to measure social trust is by asking people how much they trust their neighbours, local law enforcement, and co-workers. It turns out the factor most integral to our well-being is trust in neighbours.

Think about it. When we trust our neighbours, we can let our kids play freely. We can leave our door unlocked. Naturally, we socialize more in our neighbourhood. We participate in more community volunteering. We have more shared meals with neighbours. We invest in community infrastructure. We do not litter or steal, because they KNOW us.

Having trust in our fellow city inhabitants reduces crime, increases well-being, and amplifies social connectedness. It is one of the greatest metrics for community health.

So how are we doing? Taken from America Is Having a Moral Convulsion, featured in the Atlantic, not too well.

In 2012, 40 percent of Baby Boomers believed that most people can be trusted, as did 31 percent of members of Generation X. In contrast, only 19 percent of Millennials said most people can be trusted. Seventy-three percent of adults under 30 believe that “most of the time, people just look out for themselves,” according to a Pew survey from 2018. Seventy-one percent of those young adults say that most people “would try to take advantage of you if they got a chance.” 

This an urgent problem, because most societies collapse when trust collapses as explained in the article.

So what can be done?

Let’s first begin with what I do. Then, let’s expand it to more societal solutions — such as redesigning neighbourhoods, cities, and economies.

The Practice of Vyving

Public acts of joy have an impact on social trust. When we see strangers expressing themselves and playing with each other, it signals to everyone around them that it’s safe to do so. Expression and safety go hand in hand. Play happens when humans are in a parasympathetic, prosocial mode. This is why the presence of play within a neighbourhood is a sign of community health. Safety and trust lead to more play behaviour.

But it also works in reverse. The public expression of joy and practice of play can create a sense of safety and trust within a neighbourhood. And this, my friends, is the mechanism of vyving.

Vyving works by activating public spaces with joyful acts of play and human expression — namely singing, dancing, and frolicking.

Vyving combines place-making and public joy expression. Vyving defined — 

To ignite joy and human connection in public spaces — by means of dancing, singing, and playing with other humans.

Place-making is the process of creating quality places that people want to live, work, play, and learn in. Vyving is a form of place-making because it ignites human celebration in public spaces. It creates mental associations between public spaces and human expression.

What does vyving look like?

I vyve as a self-development practice. I vyve to restore social trust in our cities. I vyve because it can reduce crime and facilitate belonging. It’s backed by social psychology. 

When you play publicly, you invite others to play with you.

Vyving is a great tactic, but it is superficial. The root cause of social distrust is how cities are physically designed and how the economy incentives either cooperation or competition. This environment matters. So, idealistically, how can we change the environment? Let’s dive in.

The Overhaul of Cities

Neighbourhoods must be a certain size. Dunbar’s number is the maximum size of relationships a single human can maintain; after this number is exceeded, interpersonal trust is not as automatic because anonymity increases.

This is one of the largest problems in cities — we’re all anonymous. If one of us were to wrong another, anonymity would ensure that it would not come back to bite us. Anonymity breeds social distrust.

Neighbourhoods must also incorporate communal spaces. Gathering spaces. Places where the community can engage in its rituals and activities. The relationship between proximity to parks and well-being has been shown. But I challenge the urban designers to go farther: to design spaces where community programming regularly takes place.

The more pedestrian a neighbourhood, the higher the trust. This means that we must design cities around alternative forms of transportation, instead of the private automobile.

Not being an urban designer, I’m sure there are countless projects rethinking neighbourhood design. Based on my research on human connection, the method I will emphasize is the shaping of the environment to make belonging a default. Public spaces, communal kitchens, shared vehicles, and smaller buildings (Dunbar’s number).

The Overhaul of Economic Incentives

The most significant and elusive intervention relates to economic incentives. Does the economy incentivize us to trust one another? The simple answer is no. The American-style economy incentivizes exploitation and profiteering. The economy incentivizes personal achievement. When everyone is pursuing their own goals, instead of community goals, it’s difficult to trust others.

I dream of an economy with an entirely different metric than GDP. One that reflects the depth of our human connections, not the depth of our pockets. I am excited about what Bhutan has done. They have overhauled their economic incentives, and that’s why they’re one of the happiest countries on Earth.

I know that blockchain will play a role in the economic transformation.

There is a crisis of trust in North America. So what can we do about it? What micro-actions can you and I take to be a part of the solution? To close this article, let’s commit to embodying trust. Let’s commit to forsaking cynicism. It’s too easy. It generates distrust. Let’s commit to the following behaviours.

  1. Look people in the eyes and smile as you pass them.
  2. Dance and sing in public regularly.
  3. Get to know your neighbours. Invite them over for dinner. Offer to supervise their children.
  4. Focus on relationships, not transactions. In other words, stop trying to take advantage of people.
  5. Finally, lobby your local politicians to invest in local place-making.

Join 1002+ other human connection professionals who access my Lab. A weekly newsletter about facilitation and community-building.

Join my Lab.