In 2011, when I was researching and writing this book two very strange things happened. Firstly, there were two unprecedented earthquakes in both Japan and New Zealand – the former being the largest ever recorded accompanied by a devastating tsunami. Japan’s deathtoll alone exceeded 20,000 (or about 4 world trade centers by comparison). The scale of such disaster is unimaginable for the world who can but look on with disbelief and a sense of impotence.
The second strange occurrence is what happened next. In the face of disaster, one expects a gamut of emotions: pain, anger, frustration, anxiety. You’d expect many to give up hope, to simply accept the fragility of human life and the futility of planning for a future that may never arrive. But, rather than compound the negative sentiments of those impacted by the quakes, the opposite happened. Following both quakes, official sources reported suicide rates actually fell.
It seems that in times of despair, when the world around you appears like the set of The Day After Tomorrow, people find social meaning. Communities pull together, neighbors help each other and social bonds are re-established. It’s a phenomenon documented in how New Yorkers reacted to 9/11, how the communities of South London turned up with their broomsticks after the riots of 2011 and how we react to earthquakes. It makes us feel connected.