Social connection – the authentic joining, however brief, of my humanness to yours – is a key contributing factor to happiness. The truth is, these days, we are constantly connected…to the Internet and to others’ carefully crafted social personas. In this digital-age we have more “connections” than we’ve ever had: tons of Facebook friends, oodles of instagram followers, the Twitterverse, all proffering bits of validation in the forms of likes and shares. We text and email constantly, yet a third (or more) of us are lonely – and that was before COVID.
We have an innate psychological NEED to feel a sense of belonging and closeness with others, yet the average American adult has fewer close friends now than a generation ago.
Perhaps that’s because we move farther away and more frequently. Maybe we’re “too busy” with other demands and don’t have the time or energy to prioritize socializing. Or maybe we don’t know how to genuinely connect anymore; we’re scared and out of practice, and a pandemic certainly didn’t help.
Regardless of the reason, loneliness is an epidemic.
Loneliness is something I’ve struggled with over the years. “I need more friends and better eyes” (I’m visually impaired) is, sadly, a frequent sentiment in my junior high journal entries.
As a socially anxious teen, I desperately wished I could be friendly and outgoing but was so worried about being negatively judged that I censored myself. I had friends but lacked self-confidence, and lacking confidence leads to wearing metaphorical masks and putting up walls that separate us from others.
No more masks and no more walls. Over the past several years, I’ve adopted some practices that have made a tremendous difference in my overall happiness level and quality of life (e.g., having new experiences regularly, embracing vulnerability, intentionally building new beliefs through deliberate actions, mindfulness). But seeking out connections — and, more importantly the mindset shift that drives that quest — seems to have had a truly profound impact.
The Mindset Shift
The importance of actively pursuing social connection crystalized for me a few falls ago after an evening of unlikely interactions. I went to Irish Fest on my own to join a meet up group that essentially ended up with me being the fifth wheel on a double date. Fortunately, at that point in my life I had a pretty high tolerance for awkward, so I decided to embrace the situation and try to get to know those people. After parting ways, I took the streetcar home. Energized from the evening, I found myself playing tour guide to a mom and daughter visiting from out of state then deep in conversation with a man from a very different walk of life. Once home, I reflected on how unexpectedly happy I felt and drew some essential conclusions.
I realized that every single person whose path I cross is a potential connection. I don’t know if the person next to me is my future best friend, the love of my life, my next business partner, or just a drop of connection to remind me that I am not alone, that I am a part of humanity. That night illustrated the power of being open to connecting with others, even for fleeting moments.
The Uber Attitude Adjustment
Because Uber is my primary mode of transportation, I am pretty constantly in close quarters with strangers, faced with the options of conversing or sitting in silence (realistically, burying myself in a tiny screen). My tendency to opt for the former is continually reinforced. I’ve had drivers who unexpectedly inspire me, introduce me to new genres of music, technology, and restaurants, make me laugh, and broaden my horizons culturally and philosophically.
One in particular left a lasting impression a few years ago. Obinna, a young African man, dramatically improved my day and changed my outlook. The conversation started like any generic small talk: “The weather is beautiful today!” “I know! I’d much rather be outside enjoying it than going to the office, especially because I don’t usually work on Fridays.” Joke about trading places. Question about why I’m working on a different day than usual. “Well, I just got back from Iceland so am making up some missed time.” “ARE YOU KIDDING ME!? You just got back from Iceland and you’re complaining!?!?” my driver, smiling, almost shouted at me. “Wait, what?” I thought. I expected a big reaction to Iceland. That’s been pretty standard. But he’s chastising me about complaining? Wait. I AM complaining. What the heck?
He continued, “You work so you can be ballin’ and go on awesome trips! Be grateful that you get to do that!” You know, Mr. Uber, you’re right! My perspective shifted immediately. I have patients today. My work has meaning, and seeing them allows me to live this lifestyle that I am cultivating and enjoying, and I AM grateful! I felt my mood lift, dread replaced with excitement. This young man, this complete stranger from a different continent, changed my day in a way that had ripple effects.
Not everyone with whom I interact has a noticeable positive impact on me, but many do. Rarely, though, have I regretted talking to someone. Usually worst case is a neutral experience. Nothing gained, but nothing lost. Regardless of the exchange it, frankly, feels better to be friendly.
What Gets in the Way of Connecting?
In a word: JUDGMENT. Fear of and of others.
Fear of Judgment
Humans are inherently social creatures, and the threat of being ostracized or shunned by the herd triggers fear or anxiety. Therefore, we worry about being judged or rejected by others.
“He’ll think I’m dumb.” “She’ll reject me if she knows the real me.” “I must be the only one who XYZ.” “If I share my real opinion, they won’t like me anymore.” “What if I embarrass myself?”
We are hard-wired to escape or avoid anxiety-provoking situations. In this case, that may mean avoiding putting ourselves out there or risking potential rejection. Have you ever held back or censored yourself because you were concerned about what someone else would think about you? Be honest. I know I have.
Judgment of Others
We pre-judge others on the basis of exterior appearances and our own beliefs, and those judgments put up barriers to connecting. Our expectations about others influences how, or even IF, we interact with them.
Nowadays, I find myself embracing strangers (when safely possible)…sometimes to the chagrin of those around me. On a trip a few years ago, a friend messaged to virtually introduce me to his friend who was traveling in the same city. Yay! A friend of my friend has to be cool, right? I immediately followed up with her to set up a time to get together. My travel partner, one of my dearest friends, however, had a completely different reaction when I told her we were meeting for brunch. “What? What if she’s weird?” Moment of tension as the difference in our underlying mindsets about new people became obvious. (Side note: brunch was quite enjoyable.)
How to Make It Happen
I realize that being friendly or outgoing or open or authentic or whatever word you want to call it is sometimes easier said than done. The good news is, though, it CAN be done! Here are some key points to keep in mind.
If fear of being judged holds you back:
Ask yourself these key questions:
- You can’t control what other people think. Why bother?
- What’s the worst thing that can happen? You let someone see the real you and they reject you? That sucks, sure, but it won’t kill you. Wait, before you move on, consider what’s the best thing that could happen? You put yourself out there and others accept and value you? What would that experience do for you? Confidence up, insecurity down. Sounds good to me!
- What are five other things they could think (could’ve thought) in that moment?
Know that it gets easier with practice. That’s a concept called graduated exposure — baby steps of putting yourself out there and testing out how others respond.
If your own judgments and expectations get in the way:
Step out of your own judgments and try people on, so to speak. Did they match your expectations and assumptions?
Make a qualitative shift in how you approach interactions by having the goal of connecting rather than alternative goals like changing the other person, being right, getting something out of it, or protecting yourself from possible threat. For example, I had a super engaging and respectful conversation with a flat earther because I chose to be open to trying to understand his perspective rather than trying to prove him wrong or writing him off all together. While we don’t share fundamental philosophies, I still got a boost of energized happiness from that connection. Finding commonalities, especially with people who don’t necessarily look or act like you, can restore your faith in humanity and help you feel like you’re a part of something bigger than you.
If you’re still not convinced that connections come in unlikely forms, take it from Norah and Mr. Dan:https://www.youtube.com/embed/Hzpnk3PvZbY
I challenge you to embrace the mindset that everyone is a potentially worthwhile connection. Doing so has been transformational! It has exponentially increased my openness to interacting with others. It has translated into more frequent conversations with a much wider variety of people and helped to reduce feelings of loneliness, even when key players in my life are far away or haven’t entered yet.
The other unexpected outcomes? I have gotten increasingly comfortable being vulnerable, which allows for more authentic connections as well as more self-confidence and acceptance. I am also generally more compassionate and find myself getting less annoyed with others. All in all, I’m just happier, and I’m thrilled to connect with you.