“You can make more friends in two months becoming interested in other people than you can in two years by trying to get other people interested in you.” Dale Carnegie
A couple of weeks ago, I planned to meet up with a friend I had not seen for several years. I loved this friend, felt excited, but also nervous.
As I noticed my thoughts, I realized that I was imagining how I might look in comparison to her. How had I aged in comparison to her? I found myself wondering.
I tried to not beat up myself, but rather to remember my newish mantra, “Make a connection, not an impression, June.”
You’d think I would have that understanding thoroughly figured out and embodied by this seventh decade. No.
I gave myself a break though. It isn’t just me. This is a human being issue. It’s also an ape issue. A lion, giraffe, elephant, rhinoceros, bird, fish, reptile, fish, and even for some crickets an issue.
We compete, we jockey for position. All this leads to comparison. We compete over everything. Money, fame, whose kids have the best jobs or are making the best grades or are in the best schools.
We compete in games. We compete on who has the best and most toys, classiest cars, even deepest enlightenment.
In the early days of living on the African savannah we may have needed to prove our worth to get mates, food, and to not be rejected by our troop. These days we realize that social comparison, some types of competition, and some types of self-evaluation are quite detrimental to our friendships and well-being.
If we want to be happier, have more meaningful lives and stronger friendships on a long-term basis, we most urgently need to know how to stop the madness around trying to impress others (which has resulted in anxiety, depression, loneliness, and huge increases in materialism). Instead we must learn to better connect.
Perhaps we should even go so far as to make connection one of our primary goals according to researchers like Dr. Ronald Siegel who has written several books including the extraordinary gift of being ordinary (title purposely lower-case. It is from Dr. Siegel that I lifted "make a connection, not an impression.")
How do we do that? First, we must understand what’s going on with us. It’s a common but problematic condition, that we must actively work to reconfigure our brains from social comparison to social connection.
Second, one of the strategies that works well… IF you feel the person or the environment is safe, is to risk being honest and vulnerable.
About 14 years ago, one of my sons invited me to speak to an MBA group at Berkeley. I asked him to look over my presentation beforehand. In that presentation, I was planning to do a small breakout session in which the students would connect by sharing some of their hopes and challenges.
My son seemed incredulous, “Mom, these are MBA students; they can’t risk this sort of a vulnerable exercise. They will feel too threatened. It will not be fun nor will they do it."
I got it. It was a competitive environment with much posing and posturing. Still unfortunate for their long-term happiness and relationships.
The hope is that with our old friends and possibly some new acquaintances, we can sense when we are safe, take off our masks, and share our concerns, longings, struggles, as well as our moments of pride.
We usually will reap honesty, vulnerability, and intimacy in return. As I have mentioned before, one of the researchers who has made vulnerability more accessible, more understandable, and more alluring is Dr. Brene Brown. Her famous TED talk on vulnerability is powerful as well as is her personal example https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iCvmsMzlF7oc.
A third way to increase connection is to find commonality. Researchers have been able to increase kindness, compassion, and connection by helping people find their overlap rather than concentrating on their differences.
Instead of seeing ourselves as rooting for different hockey teams, we see ourselves as both loving hockey. Instead of being Shias or Sunnis, we see ourselves as both Muslim. Instead of being Muslim, or Christian, or Jewish, we see ourselves as children of Abraham. Instead of being from red or blue states, we see ourselves as Americans. Instead of Americans or Russians, we see ourselves as human beings.
If we believe the wisdom teachers, philosophers, and modern-day psychologists, one of the best things we can do for ourselves is to cultivate good relationships. We can learnto temper our tendency toward social comparison and judgment.
It begins with prioritizing connection over impression, leaning toward honesty and vulnerability, and finding our commonalities.
Feeling safely connected to others turns out to be, according to many researchers, the central ingredient in human flourishing. Being disconnected is a risk factor for a multitude of ills.
It’s not the rich, privileged, powerful, most brilliant, most accomplished, or good-looking who are the happiest people. It’s those who have loved, been loved, and been connected to meaningful work.
A friend and family member told me that he learned this from his neuroscience friends. The most important things in living the good life are who you love, who loves you, and what you can contribute to this big rock.
My visit with my friend turned out to be quite fulfilling. I did notice myself occasionally checking her out and mentally comparing myself. Most of the time, I could bring myself back, enjoy her company, laugh over old times, and willingly share some low points and worries.
Our parting hug was a lengthy one. We softly looked into each other eyes and very naturally gave each other a sisterly kiss.
How might we experiment with pulling off our armor and masks, embracing our common humanity, and connecting with each other - journey together toward The Good Life?