“Humans are übersocial animals,” declare psychologist Dennis Proffitt and journalist Drake Baer. “Being socially connected is essential for health, well-being, and happiness. . . . Being immersed in a social environment with friends and loved ones is a default assumption of the human mind. We are born to belong.”
In their 2020 book, Perception: How Our Bodies Shape Our Minds, the authors go on to recount the findings of a 2010 meta-analysis by Julianne Holt-Lundstad, in which she assessed mortality data for more than 300,000 subjects who had been followed for an average of 7.5 years. She found that those “with adequate social relationships—as in being integrated into a social network—had a 50 percent greater likelihood of survival during this period than people whose social relationships were lacking.” In fact, as Holt-Lundstad found, low social support presents a greater mortality risk than smoking, excessive drinking, lack of exercise, obesity and air pollution.
Along similar lines, a large body of research supports the idea that the pain of being excluded activates roughly similar regions in the brain as physical pain, and that having a large social network may predispose us to a higher tolerance for physical pain.
But if we are such social creatures, designed to accept and be accepted, programmed for inclusion, why do so many feel so alone? Though likely an underestimate, one global survey estimated the number of lonely people worldwide at roughly 33 percent.
Gretchen Rubin, a best-selling author known for her books on happiness, notes that a number of causes underlie loneliness. But one in particular can leave us feeling lonely even in a sea of people: the loneliness of being different. It’s this kind of loneliness that has led to changes in defining a term that is increasingly part of our public discourse: normalization.
First used in the mid-1800s in the sense of returning something to a state of normalcy, to normalize something meant to bring it “back into line”; for example, malfunctioning organs need to be repaired to bring back “normal” bodily function.
The word’s meaning has been evolving for at least the past 50 years, and its popularity has grown exponentially over the last 5 years, so that it’s now made its way onto Merriam-Webster’s list of “Words We’re Watching.” Today normalization typically refers to something previously considered abnormal being recognized as more common than originally believed. It’s a call for acceptance, tolerance and empathy toward those who differ from us. A search of the tag #normalize on social media brings up results ranging from normalizing talking about mental health and seeking therapy, to expressing feelings more openly and setting boundaries within personal and business relationships; from normalizing various body types, to equality.
Normalization should not be confused with condoning immoral or criminal behavior. It’s simply about how we view people—a call to stop dehumanizing those we may deem to be Other.
Normal ≠ Average
On the surface, normal might seem to be something of a misnomer: how can something be normal and yet be different for everyone? But it would be a mistake to confuse normal with average. Each person’s experience is very much their own normal, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the average experience across humankind.
Still, because normality is subjective in many contexts, we may have no reason to think of something that seems abnormal to us as being normal for anyone else.
For example, if we have adequate or above-average hearing, we likely take that for granted. For us, it’s just normal. And yet, per the World Health Organization (WHO), “it is estimated that by 2050 over 700 million people—or one in every ten people—will have disabling hearing loss.” As might be expected, “the prevalence of hearing loss increases with age”; in fact, “among those older than 60 years, over 25 percent are affected by disabling hearing loss.” If this isn’t something we already struggle with, then recognizing that we may well have to confront it later in life is the first step toward a patient, empathetic attitude.
Fertility, likewise, is largely taken for granted. After a couple is married, it’s commonly assumed that children are the natural next step. However, WHO reports that “15 percent of reproductive-aged couples worldwide are affected by infertility.” While 15 percent is a minority, it’s a sizeable enough number that we may want to think twice before asking, “Isn’t it about time you started having kids?” As well-intentioned as one might be, treating couples who are childless—whether due to inability or choice—as though they aren’t quite normal isn’t helpful and can be extremely hurtful.
Similarly, there’s still a lot of stigma surrounding the spectrum of mental illness. Again according to WHO, “around 20 percent of the world’s children and adolescents have a mental health condition.” Does it make sense to assign the 1 in 5 young people who face such challenges to the status of subnormal?
It may be that none of these examples apply to us, but try to imagine being hard of hearing, or living with infertility or bipolar disorder. How would we want others to treat us? Rather than being criticized or ostracized, would we not want them to recognize and respect the fact that our normal is just a bit different than theirs?
“After conducting a series of experiments that examined how people decide whether something is normal or not, we found that when people think about what is normal, they combine their sense of what is typical with their sense of what is ideal.”
Many of the traits and conditions that make us different from each other are evaluated on a purely subjective one-size-fits-all basis. Body Mass Index (BMI) is an example—a formula that many health-care professionals use to classify people as underweight, normal/ideal, overweight or obese.
Yet researchers recognize that many of those labeled (and in effect stigmatized) as overweight or obese, based on their BMI, are not. That’s because the formula is flawed. It was based on studies done mostly on white men and didn’t take into account such factors as gender, ethnicity, waist measurement and physical fitness. If professional bodybuilders relied on BMI, they would almost certainly be classified as overweight or even obese. One size does not fit all.
Like obesity, learning and behavioral disorders are considered fairly commonplace today, and those who appear to suffer from such disorders are also deemed abnormal. But here again it seems that the magnitude of the problem is overstated.
According to clinical psychologist Enrico Gnaulati, “ADHD is thought to be as prevalent as the common cold, with 1 in 10 children meriting the diagnosis.” He adds that the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention “estimate that 1 in 54 boys and 1 in 252 girls have autism spectrum disorder, while bipolar disorder among youth has undergone a fortyfold increase in the past decade. What explains these sky-high numbers?” He suggests that practitioners often misdiagnose the problem by failing to determine why their patient acts a certain way, tending instead to simply medicalize the behavior.
Additionally, Gnaulati speculates that “teachers’ tendency to overdiagnose ADHD is probably due in part to the overly broad set of behaviors they associate with the disorder. . . . To be fair to teachers, the pressures they face in the classroom almost favor pathologizing children’s behavior; a referral for medication or special-education services often seems like the only viable solution.”
If you see enough red flags—a spirited personality, inability to sit still, frequent distraction, interrupting to give an answer—it becomes difficult to ignore them. “However,” Gnaulati points out, “for ADHD to be diagnosed correctly the symptoms must occur in two different everyday environments—typically home and school—and this requirement is often overlooked.”
This is important, because the behavioral traits associated with ADHD are commonly also found in gifted children. If a child with a fifth-grade reading level is expected to participate with a class reading at a second-grade level, it shouldn’t be surprising when that child exhibits signs of boredom or frustration. But because standard school systems can’t afford the time or money to focus on individual children, it isn’t hard to understand why many teachers feel a diagnosis that can be treated medically is their best option. So normal children are stigmatized as abnormal.
Too Sensitive or Not Sensitive Enough?
When we encounter individuals we consider abnormal, it’s easy to judge them harshly. And when they (understandably) react negatively to our judgmentalism, we may well conclude that they’re being too sensitive. But on what do we base this? Is it possible, instead, that we are being insensitive?
Proffitt and Baer explore such differences of perception in terms of Umgebung (“an objective physical environment”) and Umwelt (“a particular animal’s experience of that place”). As they put it, “you do not see the world as it is but rather the world as seen by you.”
They explain that naive realism, “that pesky assumption that our experience of the world is exactly the same as everyone else’s,” is what causes us to notice when others look, sound or act different—without considering that they’re probably thinking the same about us: “While we go about our days with the commonsense assumption that everybody experiences the same world, perception research says that experiential reality—the world you see, hear, feel, smell, and taste—is unique to each individual. That a basketball hoop is ten feet high has a very different meaning if you’re four foot seven or seven foot four.”
“We project our individual mental experience into the world, and thereby mistake our mental experience to be the physical world, oblivious to the shaping of perception by our sensory systems, personal histories, goals, and expectations.”
WYSIATI: What You See Is All There Is
Determining what one does or does not consider normal often comes in the form of a value judgment. We’re more likely to view something familiar as normal, or good, and something unfamiliar as abnormal, or bad. But when is different good or bad, and when is it just—different?
Researchers Adam Bear and Joshua Knobe suggest that while “people might sometimes be able to separate out the average from the ideal, . . . they more often make use of a kind of reasoning that blends the two together into a single undifferentiated judgment of normality.”
They note that “people’s conception of the normal deviates from the average in the direction of what they think ought to be so.” But even when someone’s actions justify a “good/bad” value judgment, should it affect the value of that person? Does it change how we see them?
What’s needed is to approach every person’s situation with the knowledge that we are experiencing only our own perception of it, just as no two people in a group will see a given object from exactly the same angle.
In his 2010 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman cites Daniel Gilbert’s proposal that understanding what others say must begin with an attempt to believe it’s true—that this is what they’re experiencing—rather than concluding (because we’ve never experienced it) that they’re probably overreacting. Kahneman observes, “We often fail to allow for the possibility that evidence that should be critical to our judgment is missing—what we see is all there is.” If all we have to go on is our own experience, our judgment of others’ experiences will always be flawed.
This requires avoiding knee-jerk reactions and instant value judgments; it calls for careful consideration and empathy. We can’t normalize something if others are unwilling to see it as anything other than abnormal. Proffitt and Baer observe that motivated reasoning—the fact that “perceiving and thinking occur within a mental world filled with biases, emotions, desires, beliefs, and other attendant concerns of the moment”—can make it difficult to change how we see things. “It’s not so much that you’ll believe it when you see it, but what you believe shapes what you see.” They propose that “the key to defusing these biases is to get people to think less automatically.”
Another concept they consider is the identity-protective cognition thesis: “We reason with ease about things that affirm our identity and avoid thinking about notions that conflict with the values of our social group.” This is the very definition of bigotry, which they propose is “the flipside of altruism. It is an offshoot of the imperative ‘We take care of our own’—there’s only so much to go around.” We may also feel we can’t afford to view something as normal when we’ve been trained to see it as the opposite. Either way, we become too focused on maintaining our in-group mentality to realize that in-group vs out-group thinking is not what’s called for; empathy is.
“How do we define the out-group, the people whom we deem unworthy of our altruism and social support? We create contrasts between them and us. They do it like this, but we do it like that.”
Share the Load
If we’ve ever struggled with something and shared it with a close friend, we may have found that it felt like a weight was being lifted, knowing someone else was now aware of and could appreciate what we were going through; perhaps we received some validation from this friend. This relates to social baseline theory, which according to Perception means that your perspective and approach change “when you’ve got an ally to share a load, be it physical or emotional.”
Proffitt and Baer revisit a study wherein participants were asked to estimate how much a box of potatoes weighed, and how difficult it would be to lift. For each person, the experiment was slightly different: some boxes had more potatoes, some had fewer; some of those participating had someone there to help lift the box, while others were on their own. Across the board, they found that regardless of how many potatoes were in a given box, if participants had someone to help lift it, they estimated the box to be lighter than it really was. The study concluded that “having someone share the load doesn’t just halve the burden, it actually reduces the burden’s perceived weight.”
Judgment often comes much more easily to us than discernment does. But just as lifting a box of potatoes or a heavy piece of furniture requires effort from both people, so does sharing our emotional burdens with one another. Individuals who share their experiences must first feel comfortable opening up, without worrying that they will be judged for how they’re handling a situation. For their part, those who are listening must be approachable and willing to hear a perspective that may differ from their own, without giving in to the temptation to judge whether that perspective is right or normal.
“Friends lighten the load, both literally and metaphorically. . . . The presence of a friend means that, as opportunities and challenges present themselves, you can rely on your friends for help and support.”
Broadening the Heart
Probably everyone knows some version of what’s commonly referred to as the Golden Rule. But it’s difficult, if not impossible, to truly understand what it means to treat people as we want to be treated unless we can understand how the way we’re treating people is affecting them.
To simply treat others how we want to be treated in the context of our own circumstances would be an incomplete interpretation of the Golden Rule; rather, we must begin to understand how we would want to be treated under the other person’s circumstances, and go from there. For example, our idea of a good meal might include a steak and a glass of red wine, but if we see a vegetarian teetotaler in need of a meal, treating that person the way we would want to be treated is not going to be very helpful. It misses the point of the Golden Rule.
It all comes down to honing our capacity for insight and empathy—what Daniel Siegel describes as “mindsight”: “Mindsight takes away the superficial boundaries that separate us and enables us to see that we are each part of an interconnected flow, a wider whole.” Gaining a clearer understanding of how our own minds work enables us to better understand others, and to treat them the way we’d like to be treated if we were in their shoes.
Siegel sees empathy as “the capacity to create mindsight images of other people’s minds. These you-maps enable us to sense the internal mental stance of another person, not just to attune to their state of mind. Attunement is important, but the middle prefrontal cortex also moves us from this resonance and feeling-with to the more complex perceptual capacity to ‘see’ from another’s point of view. We sense the other’s intentions and imagine what an event means in his or her mind.”
We all live under the influence of our own experiential reality. This is one of the reasons travel is so helpful. We’ve all heard that travel broadens the mind. It does this by taking us out of our everyday, our normal, and transporting us to somewhere that may be unfamiliar to us but is, in fact, someone else’s normal.
The same can be said for empathy. If we only ever stay within the confines of our home and never set foot outside, we’ll find it difficult to understand much of what goes on in the world around us. And if we only ever stay within the confines of our own normal and never step outside ourselves, we will find it difficult to connect with anyone else. Empathy—seeing life through someone else’s eyes—is a ticket to growth.
Developing and exercising empathy leads us to understand that “normal” is subjective. Respecting that fact will help us become more accepting of others as fellow human beings—regardless of our similarities or differences—and better able to form stronger interpersonal connections, reducing the social pain that results from being stigmatized as Other. We accomplish this by normalizing “normal”; that is, broadening our perception of what it really means to be normal.