Shared Experiences Make Life Better

On the 50th anniversary year of Woodstock, we look back on the pictures of that event with wonder. Thousands of strangers sharing music, food, pot, mud, travel and good times. We may envy the experiences of those who were there and, if we are old enough, we relive where we were during that momentous time. The sights, sounds, film images and news of that concert are legendary.

Fifty years later, here on the Key Peninsula, we have many opportunities for shared experiences; none so epic as Woodstock, but valuable nonetheless. For example, we have ball fields for team sports, and two historic buildings where dances, auctions, events and parties are held. We have parks and trails and beaches where families and groups gather for picnics, recreation and celebrations.

But what really is so important about shared experiences? Why do they matter and what is the benefit?

As it turns out, shared experiences have been studied quite a bit. The findings show the shared social connections are more valuable to people than the experience itself. People, in general, have an inner drive to share experiences with others.

Another aspect is a fulfillment of people’s drive to share information. The social connections formed at events can help pass along knowledge used for decision making and adds to a collective store of wisdom. For instance, you meet a new person at a party and discover they are familiar with a place you have an interest in visiting. The conversation reveals important logistics, influencing your travel plans. You pass this tip along to others in your circle.

Perhaps the most important aspect of shared experiences is their effect on our wellbeing. Social connections formed by shared experiences provide “protective factors” for individuals. As a social worker, some of the most informative questions I ask have to do with an individual’s connection with family or friends. Sharing meals, looking at photographs, attending church, taking a walk — all are activities enhanced by company. 

As a result, our mental, emotional and physical health are bolstered. Just reliving the memories of positive events provides a continued source of enrichment. Conversely, those lacking connections and opportunities for shared experiences often suffer depression, anxiety and cognitive decline.

Sharing an activity amplifies the emotion we attach to it, positive or negative. For instance, if we see a movie with friends, a negative comment tends to intensify a bad review. Likewise, a group can be influenced by a positive comment to remember an experience as better than it actually was.

Sharing pain and struggle are also ways people come together in shared experiences. They produce bonding and cooperation, and might be referred to as our social glue. For example, our older relatives lived through the Great Depression of the 1930s, a decade-long experience that influenced their entire lives. Northwesterners remember where we were in 1980 at the eruption of Mount St. Helens. The camaraderie of soldiers is well known. Shared adversity increases creativity and innovation. Shared experiences can be a reminder that we have more in common with others than we do differences.

Volunteers seek out the company of others who share a passion. Locally, we have many nonprofit organizations working to improve the lives of those on the Key Peninsula. Volunteers contribute many hours on behalf of elderly people or low-income families. It is not difficult to jump in and become a friend of the library or a helper with Food Backpacks 4 Kids. Many adults volunteer with our local schools to tutor kids struggling to read. These types of shared experiences benefit individuals and the community as a whole.

Next time you are tempted to stay home and veg out with a solitary movie night, ask yourself if this might be a time for sharing the movie instead. Living as far from civilization as we do on the KP opens the door for making our own fun and getting to know our neighbors. I recently joined my neighbors having a tea party in their orchard, and loved observing a neighboring family hosting an apple pressing party. The effort you make to share your most valuable asset — your time — may reap the greatest reward for your well-being.

Vicki Husted Biggs is a longtime social worker who lives in Home.

A Shift in Perspective