How to build real connection in a “like” world

Human Beings Need Real Connection

Human beings need real connection. The studies that have been done on it are pretty overwhelming at this point. We’re pack animals. A quick look at the horrors of solitary confinement makes obvious just how important other people are to our mental and physical well being. From neuroscientists to social workers you’ll hear the same thing, we need real connection with people. And while it’s too complicated to go into here, for real connection we must be vulnerable with one another. Connection without vulnerability cannot occur. (For more on the link between vulnerability and connection see the work of Brene Brown who makes the whole thing very accessible.)

There was a time when connection was simple and automatic. We lived in small nomadic bands, or small villages and our very survival depended on one another. That meant we didn’t have a choice but to be connect with each other. Human lives were lived on top of each other. We ate together, slept together, worked and played with one another. Until the last 100 years getting alone time was a luxury few enjoyed much in their lives.

A Changing World

But our world has changed drastically. For most of us who live in industrialized countries those automatic connections have disappeared. Sure there might be more people around us but there’s far less connecting going on. Cities with higher population density than human beings have seen any other time in history are wildly disconnected places. Neighbors don’t know one another and strangers rarely speak. It is not unusual for families to live scattered by hundreds or thousands of miles. It can be a lonely world. Enter social media. From the first it has been touted as a way to “stay connected” with far flung friends and family. But the way our social media tools are structured doesn’t actually encourage real connection.

Social media platforms don’t promote connection but “engagement,” the constant search for likes and shares. Suddenly keeping up with the Joneses includes people we’ve never met and who have entirely different resources and values from those we hold.

Women laughing together on a bench

The Old Model

Connection used to be what held our society together. Extended families lived under the same roof, or at least in the same village. Marriages acted as ways to cement disparate groups into a whole. Work couldn’t get done without many hands to do the back breaking labor. So men and women worked in groups, in the home or in the field. Work time was time to catch up on family issues, share thoughts, and brainstorm solutions to community problems. Even those who didn’t necessarily like one another were connected through necessity. There were drawbacks of course to all that togetherness. Never getting a quiet moment to oneself being the least of them. But there were advantages too, advantages that are far harder to find in today’s culture.

The Pavlovian Ping of the Like

Ivan Pavlov did a famous experiment with dogs and food. He rang a bell every time he gave them food and soon, ringing the bell would make the dogs drool in anticipation. We’re a lot like those dogs. Smart people figured out ages ago that if you give people even a little reward they’ll repeat the action to get the reward again. Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, they’re all built to get us to post things that will get reactions (our reward). At the end of the year you can find out which of your posts got the most likes or comments. It’s a feedback loop designed to keep us online, because the longer our eyes are the screen the more ads can be delivered to us and that is the real purpose of those sorts of services.

In the process we get trained. We get trained that a like is a connection, and we’re trained to share our lives in ways that will get us the most attention. My dinner has to look Instagram ready, someone is my friend if they post “Happy Birthday” on my wall, and the person whose post goes viral wins.

How That Changes Us

Like the dogs who drooled every time they heard a bell ring all that social media training changes us. It changes how we interact with people, and what we expect out of interactions. We edit our lives to get the response we’re trained to want. So we don’t share the meltdown that happened this morning because the blue shirt was in the laundry. We certainly don’t share that we botched inn and are eating frozen pizza again. It happens to all of us, but we edit our online lives to make it seem like it doesn’t. And yet, we assume that the lives we’re being shown online by our friends, or relatives, or celebrities are their real lives despite the way we edit our own. The result? Utterly unrealistic expectations and an increasing desire to hide anything in our own lives that isn’t “likable,” or at least sensational.

The Problem

Human beings wither up and die without real connection. Our mental and physical health suffers, we don’t handle stress as well, and we are more likely to not bounce back from setbacks. We need our people. A competitive “like” chasing culture takes this issue and makes it worse. We become not only isolated from one another, but we’re constantly exposed to unrealistic standards against which to view our own lives. It’s a vicious cycle of comparison, faking it, and failure. It’s no surprise that the online environment has turned so nasty for so many people. We can’t seem to disconnect from our digital tethers, but those tethers are making us miserable, overstimulated, and lonely.

Steps to Reconnect Well Online & Off

There are things we can do to get off the Pavlovian treadmill and start rebuilding strong connections. The first and most important is to pay attention to the way we use social media. Do you find yourself scrolling through Facebook as you wait for a table at the restaurant instead of talking to your spouse? Or are you getting into constant online


arguments with family members over political posts or emails? Maybe you find yourself looking at Instagram images of perfect makeup, or houses, or pies and find yourself resenting your little kitchen, or the way your face looks? All of these (and more) are signs that it might be time to make some edits in the way you interact online and off. Below are some best practices for keeping your sanity, and strengthening your connections in healthy ways.

Online: Cut The Noise

  • Take stock of the places you access social media and reduce these as much as possible. Try an experiment. Remove all social media applications from your phone for a week. You may find as others have that it will go a long way to reducing stress, overstimulation, and distraction. If you don’t have the constant feedback and distraction from your phone you’ll have more attention to give the people around you. I tried this a year ago and have never looked back.
  • Turn off notifications. If you leave any apps installed, turn off their ability to send you notifications. All those little interruptions throughout our day keep us constantly stimulated and train us to go back more and more into the social media world. Both iPhone and Android allow you to disable notifications for an application, do this for all your social media apps. Nothing is so important it can’t wait until you chose to open the app.
  • Curate your friends list. Is your friends list 500 people? There is no possible way you can really know that many people in a meaningful way. Unfollow or unfriend folks you only vaguely know, whose relationship is toxic, or who you don’t want to follow anymore. I unfriended anyone I had never met physically. Then I grouped my friends into circles from those closest to me to those I perhaps need to keep friended for work purposes only. The groups with which I have least connection I’ve unfollowed so that I have more attention for the lives of the friends I do want to be closest to.
  • Take stock of our reactions. If Pinterest makes you feel rotten about the cupcakes you make for your daughter’s birthday party it might be time to stop using Pinterest (or greatly reduce). We got along just fine without it, and managed to make Halloween costumes, food, and just about everything else without comparing ourselves to perfect shots of stuff that was probably made by professionals. Consider unfollowing the Instagram accounts of folks who are really just there to sell you something (who needs more adverts in their lives?). Unfollow uncle Bob who only posts political rants, or your work colleague who just shares those “type yes and share” chain letters. Remove the noise as much as possible.
  • Get private, get real. Change your sharing settings to be at least “just friends.” Preferably create a group of friends and family who you trust and want to be really connected to and make them your default post privacy setting. Share with them the honesty of your life. Your third cousin twice removed doesn’t need to hear and see all the details of your life. But you might just find that by being honest with your inner circle you will all start treating one another differently online and off. Just remember, don’t ever put anything online (no matter the sharing settings involved) that you wouldn’t want to be made public. Once it’s online, it never goes away.

Group of friends laughing together

Offline: Build Real Connection

  • Make it a date. Text, call, or email your best friend/brother/Mom and set up a time to get together even if it’s just for a long phone call. But spend time together without distractions, no phones, no kids, no spouses. Just you and someone you love.
  • Do something you enjoy, badly. Seriously, go for the slowest run in history with your kid. Make a cake that’s lopsided and funny looking (it’ll still taste awesome) and invite folks over to eat it. Bake cookies with your kids. Cook with your lover . This isn’t Pinterest or Instagram so how it looks doesn’t matter. What matters is that you enjoy doing it with people you enjoy.
  • Setup a regular checkin with someone you love and trust. Make it a pact that you will check in with one another at regular intervals (every Thursday evening perhaps, or every other Sunday). The checkin can look however you like, coffee, dinner, watching soccer practice, or a phone call. But make it happen regularly and be real with one another. Share your ups and your downs, give one another the time and attention to really cover what’s going on.
  • Show up when it matters. Has your friend just had a baby, or just lost a spouse? Leave dinner on the porch and text to let him know it’s there. Call and see if she needs company. Stressors in life can be bad or good, both will need support in different ways. Make it a point to figure out how to honestly be with your friend no matter what they are going through, even if it’s uncomfortable for you.

You can probably see a theme in all these ideas. It’s about creating real connection with a small group of people, instead of superficial interaction with many people. The old phrase quality over quantity is true here. A few close friends you can trust and be yourself around are better than 500 acquaintances you have to keep up appearances for.

So now, let’s share. What is the one best thing you have done for your relationships? Share it with us here so we can learn from one another!

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