The book, Together Again, will show how we can all rebuild the webs of care and trust that keep us strong.
If you lost your wallet or purse on the way to work today and a stranger found it, do you think you would get it back?
Your answer to this seemingly-random question matters more than you might think. It offers a glimpse into your mind as well as your heart. It predicts your happiness, but it also predicts the length of your life and the health of your neighbourhood. Psychologists have found that if they ask enough people the wallet question, they can get a pretty good idea about the success of entire societies. In fact, people’s answer to the lost wallet question is an excellent predictor of national death rates from COVID-19.
Strangers are almost always more trustworthy than we tend to believe. Lost wallets, for example, are returned at more than double the rate that most people predict, in most places in the world. But here is the tricky part: trust and trustworthiness rarely align. We almost always underrate the kindness and integrity of strangers. This failure to see people clearly leaves us all impoverished. It shrinks our networks of friends and collaborators. It reduces our reservoir of support in hard times. It jacks up the concentration of toxic stress hormones coursing through our veins. And it makes it harder for us to make choices that are good for us in the long run.
The bad news is that the world is experiencing a drought in social trust. Confidence in strangers and government has plummeted. Social media is flooded with testimonies of disconnection and anxiety, broken faith in institutions and disinformation-fed disasters. Google searches for the term, “Who can I trust?” have doubled since 2015.
I’ve spent the last decade working with communities around the world to help boost their health and happiness. They were all in trust deficit. “There’s something wrong with people here. You just can’t count on them,” a Japanese immigrant told me in a London bar. “Everyone is fake,” a lonely man wrote me during an online dating chat. “The government is trying to trick us,” my best friend told me recently. I knew then that mistrust had gone viral.
It’s not just that people are pessimistic about getting their lost wallets back. A shocking number tell me that they are alone in the world, that neighbours, strangers and governments don’t care about them, that they can’t figure out who is really their friend anymore, and that people with different political views are out to harm them. They have come to accept that it is human nature to be selfish at the expense of others, and that they must retreat in order to protect themselves.
We should be treating this trust drought as an emergency. Low trust steals economic opportunities. It corrodes happiness. It shortens lives. It also endangers our collective future: Climate change, resource scarcity, inequity… if we don’t place faith in the good intentions of others, we lose the ability to solve the great crises of our age.
I heard testimonies of disconnection and alienation from people in Vancouver, Denver, London, Mexico City and Dubai. But when I looked more deeply into the lives of these places, I realized that the problem was not a deficit in altruism. It wasn’t that people in these places were unkind, or could not be trusted to do the right thing. It was that people could not see each other clearly. It seems that none of us can, anymore.
What’s clouding our view of each other? My research suggests that part of the problem is design. Buildings, cities and communications technologies all shape our social attitudes. So do the spending decisions of distant governments. And so do the invisible rules that define our most intimate relationships.
Our homes are configured to maximize value for international investors rather than neighbourly relations.
Our streets are organized in ways that kill friendly encounters.
Our social apps are fine-tuned to make us suspicious of strangers and experts.
Our laws and norms break down kinship networks that once served as the foundation of happiness.
Meanwhile, big corporations and well-meaning government programs have erased opportunities for people to participate in each others’ lives.
In short, we have shaped the modern world in ways that corrode our relationships. And all this antisocial design has been fuelling the rise of social ills as seemingly-unrelated as teen depression, heart disease, racism and political violence.
If we care about building better lives and stronger societies, we need to understand how these systems mess with our minds. Then we need to fix them, together. My book, Together Again, will be a guide to that journey.
I have spent the last decade experimenting with designers, neuroscientists and artists in cities around the world to reveal the hidden social power of design. My collaborators and I have posed as lost tourists in order to test the kindness of passers-by. We have measured the effects of group hugs on political views. We have tested the power of architecture to influence friendships. Through this exploration, we realized something wondrous: If we understand the effects of design, we can help build a more inclusive and more caring world. I started to assemble a map of the forces — both visible and invisible — that influence interpersonal and societal trust.
Unfortunately, just as that picture was beginning to emerge, my own social world disintegrated. My relationship ended. I moved into a one-bedroom apartment that felt worlds away from friends and family. I found myself spending night after night alone, doom-scrolling online news and dating apps, spiralling into a whorl of disconnection. I grew more suspicious and much stingier with my compassion. A knot of loneliness tightened in my gut. I realized that I was beginning to embody the low-trust world I had hoped to heal. My own life needed a radical trust intervention.
So, like a mad scientist, I began to test theories from the science of trust on my own life. In one experiment, I joined a group of fifty strangers to build a new kind of urban village. We poured lessons from psychology — and our life savings — into a residential block specifically configured to nurture kindness. In another experiment, I made a deal to create and raise a child with two strangers I met at an art gallery. These experiments catapulted me into a messy web of common care and kinship I once thought was out of reach. They have convinced me that all of us can grow stronger and happier if we take control of the trust machines that shape our social lives.
In Together Again, I will share science, stories and experiments that reveal the ways that the modern world builds or breaks our trust in one another. I will introduce the rebels who are remaking their neighbourhoods, their online worlds and their world views, all to recapture the soul-nurturing power of positive social connections.
The book will offer readers a code to help them understand how trust landscapes influence their own lives. It will share clear actions we can all take to rebuild trust. And it will demonstrate how:
- We can redesign our homes, neighbourhoods and cities in ways that nurture more friendship, belonging and mutual support.
- We can wrest back the control that apps and algorithms now command over our perceptions, attitudes and our friendships.
- We can rebuild our frayed relationships by adopting new ways of working, playing and sharing power.
- We can recreate the rules of social engagement so that more of us enjoy the mutual support that is too-often reserved for the idealized families most of us only see on television.
- We can build a society of trust that is safer, healthier, and happier — because it includes everyone.
As I research and write Together Again, I’ll be using Medium as a sandbox and a place to synthesize ideas. I also welcome YOUR thoughts about how we can reclaim our relationships by redesigning the world around us.
If you are working to rebuild the trust landscapes in your world, I would love to hear from you. Reach me at @charlesincities!