#68 - The loneliness epidemic and how to design a life of connection with Liz Bohannon

May 7, 2024
Liz Bohannon

Episode Summary

This week on The Aro Podcast, Joey sits down with Liz Forkin Bohannon, the founder of Sseko Designs, a purpose-driven fashion brand creating employment opportunities for women globally. Liz shares the journey of how Sseko Designs emerged to address a significant problem, bringing positive impact to young women in Uganda. Transitioning from her entrepreneurial story, Liz and Joey dive into another passion of Liz's —loneliness. Liz provides insightful perspectives on how loneliness manifests in people's lives, emphasizing how modern American culture often glorifies independence, inadvertently contributing to the loneliness epidemic. The conversation explores the influence of smartphones on the rise of loneliness, disrupting real-life connections and fostering a fake sense of connection called parasocial connections. Liz leaves us with valuable insights and practical tips on designing a life where real-life connections triumph over the allure of our phones.

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Episode Transcript

Liz Bohannon (00:00):

When I really started to dive into the research, we actually started seeing the single most significant increase in loneliness happen around 2010, 11 and 12, and 2010, 11 and 12 is the time period where smartphone usage and social media usage hit basically like a 50% penetration rate. So about half of America at that point had started using smartphones. And then at that same time is when social media really kind of started gaining steam and was becoming more ubiquitous in culture. It's a confluence of a lot of things and things that trends that we've been on for the last a hundred years, but that is the single most significant behavior shift. And if you just look at the data, it aligns so clearly. It's like smartphone usage, up loneliness, isolation levels going up at the same rate.

Joey Odom (00:53):

Welcome back to The Aro Podcast. Hey, it's your good friend, Joey Odom, Co-Founder of Aro. And Buddy, we got a firecracker for you today. Liz Bohannon joins Phe Aro podcast today. Liz is one of the top podcasters in the country, so she's one of the top speakers in the country. Forbes Magazine called her a top 20 public speaker in the us. She's a bestselling author, she's just terrific. But her background, she was the founder of a company called Sseko Design. Sseko was a global fashion brand, a multimillion dollar fashion brand with a very unique approach. Liz visited Uganda, she saw the plight of women there, and she said, what if we started a manufacturing company here at a fashion brand manufactured by women in Uganda and then sold it throughout the world? Sseko Designs was born there again, a multimillion dollar company. It's now merged with Noonday and they still do amazing, amazing work all throughout the world.

And Liz, like I said, is a speaker. One of the topics she speaks on is loneliness, and we all know this is an epidemic, and I will warn you getting into the show, it gets a little bit heavy at times talking about really what's happening in loneliness, but she gives us such a hopeful next step at the end. And it really is all around curiosity and letting your lens throughout life be, how can I go build community? How can I go build connection? Because it takes intentionality to do that. She also talks about how technology gets in the way of our connection. She talks about the parasocial connection that happens with our technology. It's an amazing conversation. It starts off with a bang with the introduction. Liz loved it. I had some insider information to help me with some factoids about her. We go through her background, how she founded Sseko, go into loneliness and talk about that. And we live on such a hopeful note for all of us to apply today. For now, sit back, relax, enjoy my conversation with the firecracker Liz Bohannon

Gang. Get ready for a big bowl of chocolate soup for the soul. You see, our guest is a hope dealer and her product is about to pluck you up in all of the best ways. She's from the loop and she's proud, and she's looped from and country to the Pearl of Africa to rip city to your ears right now. She dips audiences into inspiration like she dips butter into brown sugar and she sprays the world with joy just like her husband's travel Bday when she's not on stage cutting jokes. She's on the dance floor cutting a rug, making coach iot proud. She might look tame, but she is an animal, a Westminster Wildcat, a Missouri tiger, and a mama bear. It's a three boys gang. It's time to come pal around with the Kampala fashion queen. She cuts like a knife. She spoons up wisdom. It's Liz Forking Bohannon. Liz, how are we doing? Liz is doubled over right now. Listener.

Liz Bohannon (03:53):

So here's the thing. When you told me you had an intro coming in my head, I know what a epic intro is, and basically they list off every fancy accomplishment that you've ever had. It's very complimentary. And also I feel like it sometimes leaves me feeling like I don't know, what are we all doing here in life? And that left me with a very different emotion. I'm not quite sure. A mix of maybe having never felt so fully known and also a little bit scared. I think the emotion was scary, was fear of where did it come from? How did you do that? Who did you talk to?

Joey Odom (04:37):

You've done it right when people are a little bit nervous that you're right standing there behind them that, yeah, well listen, I don't want to give away all my secrets. I had an insider, namely your husband Ben, my friend Ben, and he gave me, lemme tell you what he served up for me. He gave me that You do make, you are a chef. You make chocolate soup. I understand. Will you tell the listener real quick what chocolate soup is?

Liz Bohannon (05:03):

Chocolate soup is a fast track way to be humiliated as an adult. So let me tell you, if you are looking for just absolute humility, I'm going to tell you a secret recipe for that, a literal recipe. And the recipe is this. So I love brownie mix. I love brownie mix. I could actually do away with brownies themselves once you cook it, once you bake the brownies to me, they lose a lot of their charm. I feel the same way about cookies. I don't love cookies, but I love cookie dough. So I was like, I'm sure I'm not the only one who loves brownie batter. And so we had some friends over and I think it was like a special occasion and I was like, I'm going to make the dessert, but the dessert that probably everybody actually wants, which is unbaked brownie batter. And so I just simply, I think I replaced the raw eggs with coconut oil or something like being thoughtful. I did tweak the recipe to make it appropriate to just eat a bowl of

Joey Odom (06:03):

It. Salmonella free night. Sure,

Liz Bohannon (06:05):

Yes. And then I passed out, I had cute little mason jars and I asked chocolate soup. And dear listener, I'm going to tell you this, which might be just the subtitle to my next memoir is you win some, you lose some, you win some, you lose some. And Reader, I lost this one. It was not a hit. Apparently not everybody else wants to just eat a bowl of brownie mix.

Joey Odom (06:31):

See, I'd kind of question this. I don't think that I would change the brownie mix. I'd change the friends. Thank you. I think the brownie mix is where you need to kind of start. That's kind of like the foundation and everybody's going to come to, that's anchor. You're going to get the right people if you keep doing it. The one that, and again, forgive me, listener, and I got to be honest with you, Liz, get so happy and proud of these things. It took me literally that was an hour of trying to get just the right words. I'm very proud of them. And so the need for the pat on the back is so strong. I always want to debrief it so I won't debrief it much longer. But I assume when you say the scary part was that I knew your high school dance coach coach IOT's name. Is that where it got real weird?

Liz Bohannon (07:17):

That got well, yeah, butter and brown sugar, that

Joey Odom (07:21):

Felt like a also from Ben.

Liz Bohannon (07:22):

Okay, okay. But yeah, the coach, did Ben tell you the name of my high school dance coach?

Joey Odom (07:26):

No, I did. I went on the dark web and I found an old interview that you gave to Westminster your high school, an interview you gave a few years ago. So it was post-grad. So I pulled some information from that. So coach em, I was going to name biology teachers. I decided to just cut it off at the dance teacher and move on from there.

Liz Bohannon (07:45):

I have no memory about interview. So the internet, this is our second lesson for today. That's

Joey Odom (07:50):


Liz Bohannon (07:50):

The internet is forever,

Joey Odom (07:51):

Never forgets.

Liz Bohannon (07:52):

The internet is forever,

Joey Odom (07:54):

Never forgets. Okay, Liz, let's talk. Just tell me how did a blonde girl from St. Louis, how on earth did you end up in Uganda starting a fashion brand? Take us back, walk us through the story.

Liz Bohannon (08:05):

Okay, let's go way back. Way back. Started on a rainy November evening. Got it. No, I'm just kidding. Okay, so the story is I went to college, I studied journalism. I was very interested in issues facing women and girls living in extreme poverty and conflict and post-conflict zones. And so I had this journalism degree and I had this thing that I thought at the time I would've used the word passion to describe this thing. And we'll talk about why in hindsight I wouldn't. But I was really passionate about social justice and specifically in the realm of gender equality. So I graduate with my journalism degree and I'm a couple months into this job and I have this realization that I'm on this path, this corporate America path, but I have this thing that I say I really care about, which is women and girls living in extreme poverty and in conflict and post-conflict zones.

And it really was honestly one of these kind of come to Jesus moments where I'm sitting at my computer, I'm doing research actually for a client, and I come across something that kind of spurs this thought. And it's one of those thoughts that occurs a few times in a lifetime where you're like, oh, I can never unthink that thought. I had that thought and now I know that and I can't unthink it. And this was the thought that I had. The thought was, gosh, you sure have a lot of opinions about this stuff about women and girls and gender equality and justice. You got a lot of opinions. You sure can talk about it a lot. But the reality is here you are sitting in middle America on this fast track corporate path and you don't have a single friend who is a girl who has been impacted by these issues that you say you care about.

Wow. And this is where I kind of redefine passion. I think a lot of us have gotten confused and think that being opinionated about something is being passionate about it. And the reality is the root of the word passion, the Latin root is actually Patti, which means to suffer and to suffer for. And the reality was I had a lot of opinions, I had a lot of ideas. I knew a lot of facts I was not suffering with or suffering for. My actual day-to-day life was completely and entirely unimpacted by the realities that billions of girls across the world face. And so I just kind of had this moment where I was like, girl, there is a delta between what you say you care about. And then if you actually look at your life, who are your friends? Who are you spending time with? What do you spending money on?

What's just like it was Annie Dillard that said, the minutes make up the hours which make up the days which make up our life. And when I looked at my life, I was like, you say you care about this thing that's not really reflected in your life. And so that was this big, it was a big moment for me. I literally was like, I either need to stop saying I care about this thing so much and just admit that that was a little college passion, idealism moment and move on. Or I need to close the delta and I need to build a life that's more reflective of what I actually say that I care about. And spoiler alert, I did the latter. I think it was that day. It's 15 years ago, so it's like memory is fuzzy. I think that day I put in my two weeks notice at my corporate job and I bought a one way plane ticket to Uganda.

Joey Odom (11:36):

And so you find yourself in Uganda, and I assume you made a friend. Is that safe to assume?

Liz Bohannon (11:42):

I ended up making friends, a handful of friends of people from different areas and walks of life in Uganda. But one specific group of friends that I ended up making was a group of young women. So I was in my very early twenties at the time. They were in their late teens. So we kind of had a gap. There's a difference obviously between college and beyond college or high school and beyond college. But I was only really a few years older than these girls. And I ended up meeting an incredible group of young women in between high school and university, or actually they were in high school at the time. And these are young women that come from all different walks of life, but most of them from backgrounds of extreme poverty, a lot of them have lost either one or both of their parents.

They have overcome remarkable things in their short lives and they're like top 5% of female students in the country from an academic perspective. So they're in this really, really academically rigorous, highly selective kind of college prep leadership program at the point that I meet them. And I'm just like, okay, these are my people. And so we started hanging out and they kind of became my community. And as happens when you make friends, all of a sudden your friends' problems kind of become your problems. That's part of the nature of community and friendship is your problem becomes my problem, your joy becomes my joy. And I realized that these young women had a big problem. And the big problem was that they were getting ready to graduate from high school and go into a nine month gap in between high school and university. Remember, it's like a college prep program.

They come from all over the country, top 25 girls, and then they go back to their villages. They kind of disperse for this nine months. When they went back to their village, the hope was that they would find jobs that they would be able to save up some money so that they could continue on to university already tested into college. But what ended up happening was they're going back to their villages and now they're all alone. They've spent two years with other academically gifted young women in community. And so a lot of them can't find jobs. They end up getting married a lot of them against their will and start going and giving up their dreams for academics and for their vocational pursuits. And so when I realized that, and again, just through being friends, the amount of stress and anxiety that these young women were facing about that kind of nine month gap, it's like imagine looking at a canyon and you're there with your 25 best friends and you're all looking at this canyon going, not very many of us are going to make it through this. And that was the moment where my life changed because all of a sudden this huge issue of global gender inequality became like 25 women and this kind of chasm or canyon that these 25 women were facing and going, surely we can build a bridge. Surely there's something that we can do. So that when you all look at that chasm, what you don't see is just woman after woman falling into the chasm. And instead you see a bridge and you go, okay, she did it. I can do it too. And that's how Sseko was born.

Joey Odom (14:42):

Wow. And so naturally from that you say, let's build a fashion brand naturally, obviously then that's the natural next thing. The chasm is a fashion brand. And I really mean you can't understate just how remarkable Sseko is and was. I know you're with Sseko and Noonday have merged, and so it's continuing to grow, but it began with those 25, it be really good about that. But what prompted and a global brand truly what prompted that thought to, okay, I see this gap, I see this chasm, and here's how we're going to bridge the gap here with a fashion brand.

Liz Bohannon (15:17):

Totally. I joke that to me, I'm like an accidental entrepreneur in the sense of I certainly did not show up in Uganda being like, my goal is to build a vertically integrated, profitable, best in class manufacturing company. To me, entrepreneurship really always has been kind of the means to the end. And I actually feel pretty open-handed with like, okay, I'm not that concerned with how we're going to solve the problem. I'm more interested in that we solve the problem. And so for me it was like I didn't care about fashion. And Joey, just to be very clear with our listeners, not only did I not care about fashion, I'm surprised Ben didn't actually bring this up in his little behind the scenes session. I was just one of the more unfashionable people you could imagine meeting almost purposely bad style. Because remember when I'm in college, I'm this crunchy social justice journalism student who just is wholly uninterested in things of the world and little distractions, parties and fashion and boys, and was just like, it's all a trap, whatever. And so fast forward whatever years I'm in Uganda and I'm literally just brainstorming what is something we could do or make ideally with locally sourced materials that we could actually create a market for an export market for. And it was actually one of my friends from college was like, what about those funky strappy sandals? And I was like, okay, yeah, I've tried six things already that have failed. Why not sandals? But that was the one that stuck

Joey Odom (16:51):

And then that evolved into handbags. And you have the women and you, the women are producing these and you're going in, you're being sold, so you're providing jobs and you're giving hope, giving that gap and then selling those throughout the globe. What were maybe some of the stories from that? I mean you set out, Hey, how can I kind of bridge this gap? Do you feel like in retrospect, in the early days, was that gap, did you bridge that gap? Did you all of a sudden look up and say, oh my gosh, this actually is making a difference in these women's lives?

Liz Bohannon (17:24):

Yeah, we started with three girls. So our first class of women, I went to the school and I were like, okay, who are three young women who are really smart, who are really ambitious, who would be successful in university, but who likely are going to have the hardest road getting there just based off of their backgrounds and where they come from. And so the school, the teachers and the principals met and they kind of selected the first three women, Mary and Rebecca and I sat down with these young women and I made them a promise and I was just like, Hey, if you promise to make these sandals for the next nine months, I promise that you'll go to university next fall. And they were like, okay. And I was like, okay. And then I had to come home and start selling sandals out of the back of my car, which was not what I was intending on doing with my master's degree in journalism.

That was not the plan was to just be slinging sandals out of Tupperware in the back of my car. But that's where we went. And then to your point, yeah, eventually we went from, I can't remember the exact numbers, but three the first year and then maybe six the next year and then maybe 15. And then in addition to our scholarship program, we started building in full-time staff to support an actual, like I said, vertically integrated manufacturing company. And then we started working with other suppliers and people all over the globe really. So folks who in their own context, we would refer to them as social enterprises. So people who have said, we have a problem, there's a specific group of folks that are particularly marginalized or particularly vulnerable. We have a skillset, we could employ them, but we don't have a market. We don't really know what the designs are.

And so we started looking for those kind of locally owned and operated groups all over the country from Kenya to Ethiopia, Peru, Ecuador, India, Southeast Asia, and going who's doing amazing work in their community by way of creating jobs and creating dignified fair wage jobs because less than 2% of people in the global supply chain earn a living wage. And so our greatest hope and the reason that we exist is to expand that 2%, but also to hopefully change and speak to consumer mentality to go every item that you're wearing was made by a human. How do you want humans to be treated?

Aro Member (19:47):

The why is pretty simple. I want to be more present, engaged with my kids. And I had tried multiple interventions myself. I tried the iOS screen time and I tried to just put my phone in my room. I tried to even lock it in a safe so that I didn't have access to it, but it was always calling me back and there was always a reason to go back there. It was the combination for me with the Aro being something that I could just go put it away in and forget it. And then I really do I, I'm incentivized by reaching goals. I'm a creature of habit, I'm a goal setter. I like to reach some of those goals. And the gamified piece of that Aro adds to it, I think really did call to me as well. And that was that extra layer that I needed. I mean, I've been able to put my phone away in my room, but still called to it with this. It was like I wanted to reach some of the goals. And I think that helped me really shift my mindset to be able to then focus on what I need to do and put that phone away.

Joey Odom (20:44):

We love hearing stories from the Aro community, the one you just actually comes from our Voices of Aro episodes where I sit down with Aro members and they share about their stories and their lives with Aro. Make sure to check out the Voices of Aro episodes, and if you're a member who would like to share your own story with Aro, please email us at stories@goaro.com.

I want to take it from that crisis and I want to go to another crisis. You talk about a bunch, and I'm skipping a lot in the middle, but you are a highly renowned speaker, a highly sought after speaker, and one of the topics you talk about is loneliness and something you said, and everything you just said really is such a foundation for discussion here on loneliness. You said something that I'd love. You said when you orient your life around making friends, you make them right. So was it your experience in Uganda? I want to dive in 10 or 15 minutes here on loneliness. Your experience in Uganda when you came back, did you see a stark difference? How did you land on this topic of loneliness? That's question one. And maybe interspersed in that, and this is kind of a dumb dumb question, what is lonely? How do you define loneliness? What actually is loneliness? We all know the term, but how do you believe that manifests and how do you think that plays out in people's lives?

Liz Bohannon (22:01):

Great question. So let's actually start with the second so we can all get on the same page with our definitions. The way that I would define loneliness is that the painful psychological state that you are in when you feel like you do not have the support that you need to thrive. So loneliness, let's just say this. Loneliness and solitude are two very different things. Solitude is beautiful. I think it's actually a really important part of being a healthy human and of actually not being lonely, is knowing that solitude is a beautiful and healthy part of a holistic life. Loneliness is the feeling. I don't have the support that I need to thrive. I am not known, I am not loved, I do not belong. I don't have a friend that I can call on for help. I'm alone in the world. Is the sense that is loneliness?

And to your question, yes, my early time in Uganda, I had already, I think of course, it's so interesting when we retell our stories in hindsight, there's so much that we can add to go, oh, okay, I see this. And now that that's like, I wasn't thinking like this at the time, but I feel like I grew up in a pretty lonely context. And by lonely context, what I mean is I grew up in upper middle class new suburbs in the Midwest where everything's just very spread out. Everybody has their own little yard and their own big house, and it's we're all just kind of trying to keep up, keep up, look good, drive the right cars. My friends all lived 45 minutes away from me. There was drive time, we didn't know our neighbors. I grew and I kind of just thought that that was a normal way to exist.

We have our little nuclear family, which by the way for me, which probably deeply contributed to my sense of loneliness, is my nuclear family was not very stable. In fact, actually behind the scenes it was kind of a hot mess, but the way we showed up was very presentable and we had this whatever. And so there was the loneliness of that, of being like, oh, we look really good, but this is awful behind the scenes, but nobody can know because if anybody were to know that we would be judged. There was just a lot of hiding, a lot of hiding, and a lot of, no matter what's going on, you show up, you save face. And that kind of just felt like that was my normal. And then I went to college and I just remember being like, I don't want that. That's not the life that I want to build. And really started just experimenting probably as early as college with just friendship and just asking this question of everybody says, college is the best time of your life. I hear these adults and they're just like, I remember that so clearly. People being like, oh, enjoy it. Oh, those are the best years. Lean into it. And the subtext of that is because only downhill from there.

It's so fun and you're living with your friends and all of these things. And I actually remember even in college going, what is it about how these four years that makes other people who are 15 years out be so longing and have so much nostalgia for that? And what if we could actually take whatever it is here that seems to be so universally beloved and kind of beautiful and carry it out? Do I have to leave this behind? And the main thing was just friends. It was friends, it was community, it was togetherness. It was prioritizing those relationships. And so I kind of started asking the question of what would we have to start doing now to make this friend group, specifically the six girls that I lived with in college? I think we could be friends until we're 80, but I don't think that's going to happen unless it's a goal where we state it and we say we want it, and then we strategize and then we think about what are the practices and the things that we would need to start doing now to kind of put that in place.

And that was really my earliest kind of experiment with community building. And then I moved to Uganda, and then this whole new layer got introduced to me of going like, whoa, I'm in this country where by a lot of metrics we would say is impoverished and then going, but whoa, I'm noticing that there's this whole other part of existence, which is connection, support, being known, relying on each other. And this feels like a very wealthy place to be when it comes to a sense of connection and support. And I noticed that my Ugandan friends largely were going through things on paper, much more challenging than anything I had ever experienced. And yet the general sentiment was, life is so hard and it's so painful, and I'm not alone.

And it started in Uganda, but then through building Sseko and now Noonday, I've had the opportunity to truly live and work and be friends with people all over the globe. And so this very natural curiosity has started to emerge of going the way that we are doing life here in modern America isn't inevitable. We have chosen a certain set of priorities and things that we're saying these matter to us the most. We have designed a specific culture and we are upholding that culture that isn't inevitable. Every country, every subpopulation decides a certain set of priorities, and then they kind of build around that. And what I saw was in countries and in places where we prioritize individual wealth, independence, privacy, safety, none of those things are bad things. All of those on their own I think are either good or neutral. But when we prioritize them, we are creating and designing a system that is by nature kind of not prioritizing friendship, community interdependency, honesty, transparency, proximity and proximity is a huge one that I noticed.

I'm like, it's very interesting that all of the happiest, most connected, least lonely people in the world are proximate with their friends and with their family members. And by proximate what I mean is that they have designed, and sometimes it's not by choice, right? It's because we are economically limited. We don't have the choice to go buy a 5,000 square foot house in the suburbs that's 20 minutes away from our friends. We by nature are living in this small urban area because we can't afford anything differently. So whether it's a choice to design or kind of designed by default, you've created a life where on a daily basis you're interacting with your neighbors, with people that teach your children at school, with your in-laws with, it's like there is a fabric of existence that we have actually actively said, oh, that's terrible. The best thing is to have privacy from your neighbors and to have great screens that block in a driveway.

Let's get this. We literally have started designing homes. This really took probably in the seventies, eighties, we used to have carports. So we used to park our cars first in front of our house, and then it went to in our driveways, but it was covered. And then we moved to garages, and then we started designing. You can just literally see this if you research the history of architecture trends. And then we were like, okay, actually what we want to do is even have the garage behind the house so that I can go to work, drive home, come into my driveway, go behind my house, so that I literally never have to interact with someone. That's an actual design choice that we're making. And yet what the research shows is get this, I want you to guess what the monetary number is that the equivalent of So going like, okay, you could get a bonus in your salary and that's going to increase your sense of fulfillment or happiness, or you have what you need. Guess what the number is that if you see a neighbor most days of the week, what that equivalent salary bump would be for your sense of happiness and fulfillment.

Joey Odom (30:05):

Gosh, I would've no idea. So you're saying seeing a neighbor, the bump in happiness I get from seeing a neighbor, what's the equivalent monetary value of that? Give $20,000,

Liz Bohannon (30:19):


Joey Odom (30:22):


Liz Bohannon (30:22):

Gosh. Guess what the number is, Joey. If you see a good friend three or more times a week,

Joey Odom (30:28):

Oh gosh. Well, if seeing a neighbor is 60, I'll go a hundred.

Liz Bohannon (30:33):

You're right. It's a hundred thousand dollars would be the equivalent of the innate sense of fulfillment, happiness, support. I have what I need to thrive in this life, a hundred thousand dollars if you just see a good friend multiple times a week. Wow. But what makes seeing a good friend multiple times a week, really hard,

Joey Odom (30:55):

Just busyness, I mean, yeah,

Liz Bohannon (30:58):

And living 20 minutes away from them and you got to planet and you got to get a babysitter, and then you got to drive, and then you got all these other things. And so it's like we say we want happiness and fulfillment, and we want to wake. Doesn't every single one of us want to wake up in the morning going like, okay, life is hard and there is pain and there is loss, and I generally have the support that I need to do this, and I'm not alone. And yet we are being convinced of something completely different that just move further away, have more of your own stuff, don't rely on your neighbors. And so largely what I'm trying to do both in the workplace and in my personal life is just flip that completely on the head of being like, well, what if you designed a business saying our primary currency that we are going to measure is connection in community and support.

Now, in a business context, obviously you also have to be thinking about things like profit, no margin, no mission. You don't run a successful business. You don't get to run that experiment. In my personal life, the same just going like, man, what if I built my life saying the primary currency is connection, friendship, relationship and community, and started making decisions that I think can seem pretty radical to a lot of Americans. We live on what we have jokingly refer to as an urban commune. So my actual living context is that I share property with five other families. We do life intentionally. We share our stuff by design. So it's like instead of going before we buy something, we check in with our friends and we're like, does anybody have this? Is it really necessary that we specifically as the bohannon own a leaf blower that we're going to use, I don't know, 15 times a year?

The typical American response is like, I don't have a leaf blower and I need a leaf blower once. So I buy a leaf blower. And this is such a silly example, but by going like, oh, actually the Mars have a leaf blower. We don't need a leaf blower. Not only one is it, I think being a good steward environmentally of not consuming more than we need to consume, that is actually a design choice. Because now when I need a leaf blower, I have to go interact with my neighbor. And I have a moment where I go, Hey man, can I come in and get the leaf blower? And so it's such a micro example that I'm using, but when you actually design not for comfort or convenience because it's more comfortable and it's more convenient to own your own leaf blower. Okay? So by saying, no, I want my own, I don't want to have to bother somebody, that's fine.

I'm not saying you're wrong. I am saying, okay, in that moment you are prioritizing convenience and comfort and independence. I'm saying I'm making a micro decision that's going, what would be the decision to buy a leaf blower or not? That prioritizes community and connection? And actually the answer is don't buy your own leaf blower, use the neighbor's leaf blower. And that when you do it a hundred times, 150 times, all of a sudden it's not all of a sudden it's over the course of years, you wake up and go, oh, I have built this kind of web of connection and of support, and it wasn't built through fun game nights only, or going out and having a cocktail with my girlfriends. That can only get you so far if you're not living life together, if you're not depending on one another, if you're not relying on each other, it's not that relationships and community and connection can't be built. It's just a heck of a lot harder. So if you could make the design choices that support your ultimate values, your ability to pursue those ultimate values, it's going to be so much easier because you've designed the environment for that.

Joey Odom (34:31):

What's interesting about that is that the design you're making is a design towards codependence. It's a not towards, it is towards community, but you're specifically designing where you're putting yourself in a posture where you have to have the other person that's a part of if a leaf's going to get blown, it's only because the Morans have it. And so it's almost as if you, and that's the thing that jumped out when you were talking about the community in Uganda, is those women, they need each other. They are desperate for each other. And if they don't have each other, they're in big trouble. Where now we just don't need anybody else. And so the design you're talking about, and I think I'm tracking with you there if I'm stretching too far, but I believe it's you're putting yourself in a position where you must have somebody else. It's not a convenience, it's a necessity because the way you depend on somebody based on that design,

Liz Bohannon (35:21):

A hundred percent. And that is when I kind of think about some of these core principles that I see other cultures that seem pretty, they have dense social networks where they rely on each other. It's not that all their problems go away, of course, but that is one marker of that specific group or place. Proximity feels to me to be one of them. Like they are living proximate. And then interdependence is a huge one. Whether that's interdependence by choice or whether that to your point is interdependence by design. And here in America, choosing interdependence by design I think is one of the greatest challenges because we live in a culture that glorifies, I would say idolizes independence. And to need others is a sign of weakness. To need others means you couldn't cut it. To mean to need others is maybe a point of shame.

And we have to understand that so many, and I think if you're American, that's the air that you breathe. It's the water that you drink. Of course, you can't realize when something has become so normalized until sometimes you're exposed to something where that's not normal. And I was talking to one of my best friends in colleagues in Uganda, and we were even just talking about being a working parent, specifically a working mom. The pressures, the intensity, the challenges. And so we're having a conversation about this and, and this is 10, 15 years into me thinking about this, and I'm still having these light bulb moments where I have a narrative that says, I messed up. I scheduled something. I can't find a babysitter. I need help. I need somebody to help me with my kids. My narrative is kind of one of shame of just one, you screwed up.

You should have been able to solve that problem for yourself and didn't. You're such an idiot. You're so disorganized. Also, you can't ask your, that's putting somebody else out. And then what if you ask them and then they say yes, but they don't even really want to and they don't mean yes. And then they're like, am I going to owe them? Or also are they just going to feel like I'm a hot mess and like, oh, I'll just figure it out myself. Okay. And then going, my friend in Uganda is going, if I was running late from work or I had a really important meeting and I couldn't go pick up my kids from school and I did not call my neighbor, we're not even talking about my best friend, just like my neighbor and ask them if they could go pick up my kids from school.

That would be a shame on me. If they found out I am struggling and I am stressed and I held that to myself and I didn't reach out and ask for help, my neighbor would be mad at me because in that cultural context, the neighbor's going, why would you not call me? What do you think you're so important and you got it all so together that you don't need your people? Are you hiding something? Why do you have to hide that? You need to help in that moment? That entire psychological circus that both of us go through are just fundamentally different. And mine and most people that live in America, I think share that is that we have a huge challenge of rewiring our brains. But the reality is what the social science actually tells us is that's how we make connections. What we want is support is intimacy, is trust.

There are very few people listening to this that I don't think would be able to say, I truly desire a community of support where I feel fully known. I feel like I can ask for help. I feel known, I feel supported. I feel a sense of belonging. And yet these little moments of discomfort are the very things. On the other side of that discomfort is the friendship, the support, and the community that you want. And so if you're orienting your life around never having to have that micro discomfort, what you're actually doing is going to design a life that probably isn't going to be one that's marked by community support and connection.

Joey Odom (39:08):

Again, this is because it's my paradigm. I can't help but think about the impact of our phones and technology and social media and all of that when it comes to designing community, real connection, real intimacy. We talk for a few minutes on that. It is how is that impacting us and how on earth can we begin to push back on those factors that are so prevalent? They're so ubiquitous, they're such a part of our lives.

Liz Bohannon (39:34):

When I really started speaking more publicly about loneliness and isolation, it's been in the last couple of years, so it's been post covid, and I recognize that a lot of people, as soon as you start talking about how lonely we are, and we are in the midst that the surgeon General of the United States of America last year issued an advisory saying, we are in the midst of a loneliness epidemic. This is the single greatest threat facing Americans, mental and physical health. This is our physical health. Because consistent loneliness is more dangerous to your longevity and physical health than diabetes. It is more dangerous than obesity. It is more dangerous than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Okay, you're going to be better off smoking 15 cigs a day than building a life where on most days you wake up and go like, I'm not really known. I don't really belong.

I don't know who I could call on for support in the middle of a really dark night. So it's like the red flag is like, there we go. And I noticed that when I started talking about that more. A lot of people were like, oh yeah, because of Covid, right? And it got me curious. I'm like, yeah, we had this massive shift. There was a lot of isolation. We're working from home. But when I really started to dive into the research, we actually started seeing the single most significant increase in loneliness happen around 2010, 11 and 12, and 2010, 11 and 12 is the time period where smartphone usage and social media usage hit basically like a 50% penetration rate. So about half of America at that point had started using smartphones. And then at that same time is when social media really kind of started gaining steam and was becoming more ubiquitous in culture.

And so listen, I'm not one to say, well, the silver bullet, it's so many different. It's a confluence of a lot of things and things that trends that we've been on for the last a hundred years, but that is the single most significant behavior shift. And if you just look at the data, it aligns so clearly. It's like smartphone usage up loneliness, isolation levels going up at the same rate. And so I absolutely believe the other really staggering statistic that just stops me in my tracks every time, even though I've said it a hundred times, is that this is the first time just within the last couple of years, so the first time in recorded human history, since we started asking this question or actually having any meaningful data on it for the first time in recorded human history, young people in America are reporting higher incidences or are a higher likelihood of isolation and loneliness than the sick in the elderly, which is traditionally kind of the most lonely isolated groups are people that are homebound and can't leave their houses. The average 15-year-old is lonelier and more isolated than the old man with the two hip replacements whose wife died 10 years ago who hasn't left the house.

And if we are not seeing that as just like that does not send alarm bells through our culture and society, I don't know what's going to. And I absolutely believe that smartphones and the use of social media play a massive part in that shift specifically for our young people

Joey Odom (42:44):

That doesn't tell the stakes are high. I mean, we already know it, but that loneliness in kids, and it makes some sense that it would escalate in tandem with it with smartphone usage because it fakes connection. It's almost like you believe you're checking the connection box when you're tied to a phone or you're gaming with somebody with a friend. And again, those are not terrible things, but it makes it seem like you're doing it, but then all of a sudden you feel empty from it, right? It's like you're eating a bunch of cotton candy, but you're hungry at the end of it. It's a fake connection that we're creating, but we think we're actually connecting in the meantime.

Liz Bohannon (43:18):

Yeah, social scientists would call it a parasocial connection. So it's not actually a social connection. It's kind of an offshoot of a social connection. What I love about that language is that I do believe, and I have seen in my own life technology, these parasocial connections, if used intentionally can lead to authentic social connections if they stay over here in Parasocial world, but we think it's checking our actual social needs box. That is where I feel like we can get into a lot of trouble. And that is what's happening. I mean, I just can't imagine. I can't imagine being a middle school, a middle schooler, gosh, right now and being like, I remember the Pang, and here's an interesting fact, Joey. So if you put somebody in an MRI machine and you're measuring their brain activity, the feeling, the amount of brain activity in the area of our brain that receives pain, when you get slapped in the face unexpectedly, you get hit in the face, a certain part of your brain is firing on all cylinders of just pain, fear, protect, there's an adrenaline spike, there's a cortisol spike.

It's going nuts. When you get rejected socially, that part of your brain lights up just as much as if you were getting slapped in the face. Wow. So our physical, physiological, biological response to social rejection and not being included and not being included has the same physiological impact as physical violence on us. Okay? So think about when you're a 14-year-old, and I remember the feeling of being left out. I remember the feeling of showing up Monday at school and finding out that there was a sleepover on a Friday night. I remember the feeling of being physically ill, my face getting hot, kind of going, why wasn't I invited? What else is going on that I'm not invited to? It is painful. It's painful, and I experienced that every so often because the vast majority of time that stuff was happening that I wasn't invited to, I just never really found out about and never made its way to that corner of the lunch table. And now we are handing middle schoolers devices going, look, watch, lay in bed and scroll through every cool thing, every meaningful interaction, every party, every ski trip, every really unkind thing that somebody could say about you. It's just like we're handing it to them and go like, here, go feast on this.

Joey Odom (45:53):

Alright, you got to give us some hope. Now you got to take me out of the pit here, Liz, how can we, let's maybe it's two questions. You can select either one or both. Okay. Take us out of the pit. How do we design our lives to where we do, where we are fully known, where we are in codependence interdependence with others, how do we begin to as bad as we know it feels? How do we begin to design towards that? That's a lot. We're not all going to move into the commune tomorrow, but how can we begin to do that today and what hope is there when we begin to start doing these small little designs in our lives?

Liz Bohannon (46:29):

So one, I don't want to leave us in a hopeless place. I also do believe that abstinence or boycotting or shutting things down can play a tool certain moments, but the reality is saying we're not going to do something is never as compelling and sustainable as saying we are going to do this. We are. So I think part of it is designing a life where real life is actually just better and richer and more connected than this kind of para life that we think that we're getting on our phone screens. And so instead of really focusing on just don't use the internet or don't use social media or don't use your phone, I actually would say a much more fruitful and interesting and imaginative question is how do we design lives that prioritize connection and community? Because then the poll for those parasocial interactions actually become less, and it does start, I would say with starting small, start small, but ask yourself the question of how would my life change if I said one of my primary goals is to build a life of connection, community and support.

And I would say in general, if you hold a value, you would, if an alien came down to earth and they came into your house and the only thing that they could see is your Google calendar or whatever calendar of choice that you use and your bank statements, those aliens should be able to look at your bank statements in your calendar and go, okay, based off of the bank statements in the calendar, I think that this is what this person cares about. I think that this is what their priority is. So asking yourself where in your calendar, where in your bank statement where, and even how you're thinking about your vocation. That's just an example of how once you start thinking this way, the priorities and the matrix and the framework just start to infiltrate these. It's not like a silo. It's like, okay, what would our family's weekends look like if we prioritize community and connection?

We're thinking about buying a new house and moving neighborhoods. What would that move look like if one of our key priorities was community and connection in our vocations, in our jobs with how we spend our money? It's just asking yourself the question and starting with curiosity. Not like militancy just starting with curiosity of going, how can I make this 10% better, 15% better? But I will say my experience has been that it doesn't happen accidentally that any other good thing in your life. We have a weird narrative around friendship in America in this sense that Joey, if you were to be like, Hey, I climbed Mount Kilimanjaro. I would be like, that's awesome. That's so rad. I would automatically assume that was not an accident. You thought about it probably a year or two in advance. You started training for it multiple times a week.

You started exercising in a way that was preparing you for this. You went out, you bought gear for it, probably spent kind of a lot of money on the gear. You found some other people that had a skillset or expertise that could help teach you. Maybe you read a book about it, so that was intention, and then you bought a plane ticket and then you gave up 10 days of your life to go do this thing. I kind of automatically assume all of that when you're like, I summited Kilimanjaro. You're like, that's awesome. Also, I'm assuming you worked really hard and you prioritized it. And that's rat friendship and community is this weird thing that we see it on television or we see it on social media and we just are like, ah, they have it and don't, something must be wrong with me. And instead of just, for the most part, the people that I know that are living in dense networks of community support and connection would answer the question, did you do that on purpose?

Was that intentional with a resounding yes, I made sacrifices. I was intentional about it. It cost me time. It cost me money. It cost me a lot of emotional resources. And so to just kind of rethink about it of just like, but we have this nature of if you get together with somebody and you don't hit it off right away, it's just like, oh, kind of weird. Or I don't want to ask again, or I don't want to follow up. It's just going to be magical from day one. And it's like, no, it's not magical. It's magical. Once you've invested the 200 hours, which is about what it takes, it takes about 200 hours social scientists would say to go from being a stranger to being a friend, that it has a dense enough connection to you that you would call on them for support.

200 hours. It takes about 150 hours to get in shape. So we just have to kind of start thinking it takes about 4,500 hours to get a bachelor's degree. Wow. So we know that good things take time. No one's like, I want to get in shape and just assumes that they're going to get lucky and in a couple weeks they're going to be feeling really good about the situation. It's like we know it takes work and time and intention. It really is just reframing how we think about friendship and connection in the same way. It's the same as getting in shape. It's the same as building your dream house. It's the same as building a company. It's the same as raising a family. If you want it to be good, you got to be intentional, and you got to give time, energy, and focus to it.

Joey Odom (51:44):

I love it. I know for me, and I know for people listening, it's just knowing it. It's almost like what you said at the very, very beginning. When you hear something or you see something, you can't get out of your brain. It's what brought you to Uganda. And it's the same thing. If you begin, this is now the framework. We'll start to see it. So I love that. Where can people learn more about You hear your talks, you can go watch. I know that you have the talk on loneliness, which is just terrific. Where can people dive in a little bit more? Liz Bohannon.

Liz Bohannon (52:13):

You can find me. My most active place on the interwebs, if you will, is over on Instagram. So come be my Instagram friend. I talk about community and connection a fair amount. I kind of feel vulnerable saying this because it's very new. I just started using LinkedIn recently to talk more about community and connection. I hadn't logged into LinkedIn for 10 years and then all of a sudden, here's what I was like. The word count on LinkedIn is longer than Instagram. So I'm starting to kind of experiment with being able to talk about this topic and content a little bit more on that platform as well.

Joey Odom (52:49):

We will link those in the show notes. Liz, thank you. This was wonderful. This was very challenging, and it does give a different lens into the world and how we can design. So thank you very much for joining our podcast. Good to just soak in all your knowledge, and you did just like Ben's travel B day, you did spray us with knowledge and wisdom and insight and challenge. So thank you. I

Liz Bohannon (53:13):

Sprayed you first with some very depressing news, but then I hope you also feel like there was a spray of hope and optimism

Joey Odom (53:22):

As well, which is honestly, this is the sequence of a bt. It gets crappy at first, and then it gets good at the end, right? There

Liz Bohannon (53:29):

We go, folks. You wrapped it all together. Come

Joey Odom (53:32):

On now. Let's go. Boom.

Liz Bohannon (53:33):

And here we go. Thanks for joining us today on The Aro Podcast.

Joey Odom (53:38):

Okay. I want to leave you with the question that Liz said, the starting small, what's the start? Small question. Question is How do we design lives that prioritize community and connection? So don't worry too much. This would be my encouragement. I'm thinking about this for myself too. Don't worry too much about getting it perfect. Don't worry too much about the end goal or how you're going to get to all the way to the end. But what if we just began with a lens in mind that said, does this decision prioritize community and connection? I bet you if we started with that question, just with that lens, we'll start seeing the world a bunch differently and then as a result, our actions will look a lot different. Thank you for joining us this week on The Aro Podcast. We can't wait to see you again next week. The Aro Podcast is produced and edited by the team at Palm Tree Pod Co. Special thanks to Emily Miles for video and digital support and to our executive producer Aro's own, Katelyn Farley.