8 Ways to Really Connect With Each Other
The world may be anti-depth. You don't have to be.
Posted Sep 30, 2015
The other day, a 21-year-old family acquaintance and I were talking about how “What are we?” has become a taboo question among dating couples in her generation. Better to be unconcerned about commitment issues, apparently, even if strong feelings arise or intimacies have occurred.
“I think your generation is anti-depth,” I said.
"It’s true,” she said.
Is superficial somehow better than deep?
Superficial connectedness appears to be a preference in the collective unconscious of millennials, as technology threatens to supplant face-to-face intimacy. With devices in hand, we can avoid human exchange—and the potential awkwardness therein.
One might ask, “What is wrong with avoidance?” As a professor of mine once said, “If you have a flying phobia, you can get treatment—or you can just not fly.”
Because avoidance relieves discomfort or fear in the moment, it feels like a solution. However, prolonged evasion exacerbates anxiety, makes it harder to extinguish, and limits possibilities for life enjoyment. Resilience, a very useful trait, is gained by exposure to stimulus. In small doses, we learn that we can manage and that the threat was unnecessarily inflamed. Maybe we even start to embrace what we shunned.
It is one thing to have a mouse phobia and another to have a social phobia, especially if the latter is culturally induced. Avoiding mice probably won't detract as much from an optimal life as avoiding people. Current research suggests that we do suffer without deep human connections. But how do you define a deep or true connection and how does it differ from say, a Facebook connection? How do you develop it?
Someone recently told me a story: An older person was baffled by a teen’s suicide since the deceased had 40 Facebook friends. A younger person explained that Facebook friends are not necessarily real friends. You may have never met them, and they may not actually care if you live or die or had a bad day. Facebook friendship no longer connotes a precious relationship. We might think we are meeting our primal need via virtual solutions and high tallies of friends or followers but it seems we are not.
According to MIT professor and researcher Sherry Turkle, author of the upcoming Reclaiming Conversation, devices interfere with conversations, empathy, imagination, patience, resilience, inner life and mental health. (Read more here.) Studies show that empathy is decreasing rapidly in rising generations.
As inner resources and empathy decline, depression, anxiety, and stress are soaring: College health services are inundated with students overwhelmed by depression, anxiety, stress, fragility, fear, loneliness, helplessness and a feeling of victimization. One colleague told me that 75% of the kids on her campus are in treatment. Claiming that one has been traumatized via “micro-aggressions” —passing statements or book passages that trigger feelings of vulnerability—is becoming commonplace as noted in the Atlantic. We have arrived at a place where the outer world presents ongoing psychological danger and the inner world cannot cope. (Boston College psychologist and educational expert Peter Gray describes the astounding situation in this post.)
What explains the suffering? Device dependency, helicopter parents, image over substance, and a surfeit of superficial engagements compromise a deeper relationship with the self and with others. Self-knowledge/reliance/soothing techniques, inner resilience, and problem-solving skills do not develop properly. The literature indicates that kids are so stressed about grades, social media, and performance that they are sleep deprived, sheep-like and soulless. The very things that will help them succeed and stay well, such as meaningful relationships and conversations, are sacrificed. True connections take time to develop—and they do not have ample time.
The strange thing is that there is now so much talk, hype, and valuing of connectedness—being connected, connecting the whole world, reaching out. People in remote places or underserved communities may need a way to “connect” for health or educational reasons. However, those with resources may be inundated with so many meaningless connections that they feel overwhelmed, depressed, or hopeless—especially if they crave depth and substance. Breadth does not do it for everyone, or perhaps anyone.
In the Steve Jobs documentary, the mother of his first child comments that he made a device that created connectedness because he had trouble connecting to people in real life. Inventing devices can involve a rich creative process or a psychological solution/compensation for the innovators. But the impact on consumers may be less freeing and more fraught. It appears that early innovators did not anticipate “addiction” risks—or perhaps business interests trumped human needs.
Author Jonathan Franzen, in a review of Turkle’s new book, says that we “adopted new technologies in pursuit of greater control, only to feel controlled by them.” We cannot just stop using our devices, being seduced by them, or depending on them. They are beautiful and serve many purposes. It seems that Jobs believed his devices would place innovation, expression, creativity, education, and delight in the palm of each hand holding a smartphone, yet had his own children take technology in stride. As is the way with most things, balance breeds betterness.
8 Suggestions for Cultivating Helpful Conversations, Health and Friendships
- Notice it when things do not feel quite right while you are ensconced in your device. Self-sensitivity preserves your health and increases your ability to understand others. Many people deny or dismiss inner feeling states but they are a great source of information.
- Make a plan to participate in the real world—meet a friend, take a walk, use your hands to make something or sit on a bench and daydream or dialogue with your self or with another.
- Establish a moderate use pattern for devices, as Turkle recommends. Make a clear, consistent plan so that your mind and body integrate it. Have conversations without devices in view.
- Find a way to form deeper friendships. Start casual, take small steps, tolerate strange situations and strangers, and let it evolve when something clicks.
- Trade self-consciousness for interest in the other person. Be in a conversation rather than putting on a performance. This is a version of emotional altruism—and altruism is a “healthy defense.”
- Figure out, for you, when your needs are best met by technology and when nothing will replace a human interaction. Look for this answer inside by what sinks or elevates your emotional state.
- Develop empathy by listening, observing, learning, and asking questions. Be curious. Delve into an endeavor that has personal meaning and draws you in. These are both ways of getting “deeper.”
- Know that there is something ubiquitous, primal, and timeless about the need for a true friend and that deep friendship heals. Science says so.
In the car on the way home after writing this draft, the song “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carole King came on the radio. I just cannot help but share because since 1971 (and evidenced today by the current Broadway hit “Beautiful,”) it has resonated with millions of people. In those days, “get real” was commonly prescribed advice. Just saying ...
“When you're down and troubled and you need a helping hand.
And nothing, nothing is going right.
Close your eyes and think of me and soon I will be there
To brighten up even your darkest night.
You just call out my name, and you know wherever I am,
I’ll come running to see you again.
Winter, spring, summer or fall
All you’ve got to do is call
And I’ll be there. You’ve got a friend … ”
(Lyrics by Carole King)