If your life is full of deep and meaningful connections with the people around you, then well done! This article will not be for you. But if your social interactions have become superficial and you only have few or no intimate friendships, then keep reading.
I’ll share some practical steps for reviving your social life further down, but first let’s take the example of Michael, a middle-aged lawyer who came to me to explore his next career move. Like many City lawyers, he was working late nights and weekends. If there is a crisis in the office, he would be the first to step in and take on the extra load.
Apart from his work, there was little else in Michael’s life. Having migrated from Eastern Europe, he had no friends in London – literally none. Except for Netflix, the screening service that provides a substitute group of familiar faces we can return to each night, letting us watch fictional characters living the exciting lives that we have given up on experiencing ourselves.
When we discussed Michael’s isolation, he shared that he was not interested in other people anymore. He did not even know the names of all the people in his department at work.
Michael’s story may sound extreme, but it’s not uncommon. Others in similar situations may have at least a small group of friends and family around them – but, as we grow older, the quality of those relationships can deteriorate too if we don’t nurture them.
I have heard similar stories from other clients and friends, and also experienced some of this myself. It makes me wonder whether there is a theme in our society: a decline of true human connections.
So what’s going on?
Are you enjoying true heart-to-heart connections?
Most of my clients work in high-performance jobs. Often they are overachievers and come to me to move to the next stage in life: maybe a new job, a promotion or setting up their own business. Yet sometimes they need something very different: true heart-to-heart connections with other people. Their chase for success has made them emotionally raw. Having prioritized their careers over relationships, they have closed their heart and stopped connecting to others authentically – maybe with the exception of their life partner and a few intimate friends.
This was me for a few years in my life until I made a conscious effort to relearn genuine human connections.
Do you actually want to connect?
I did not believe that Michael had really stopped caring about other people. I suspected that he had simply closed his heart as a response to being hurt or feeling frustrated by his life. It takes one to know one! Indeed, during our sessions, Michael discovered he had a yearning to connect with others. I believe this yearning is part of our DNA. We all want to connect, to love and be loved, but at some stage, we have given up on reaching out to others.
Michael was interested in relearning how to have true connections with other people. He decided to start by connecting to his colleagues at work. He made time for personal conversations and tried to truly see the other person as a human being instead of a body behind a desk.
Michael has made great progress with this exercise. He has been connecting to one new person each day and, in our coaching sessions, he could tell me their names, key facts from their lives and sometimes even their date of birth. He was surprised at how interesting some of their stories were. For the first time, he is seeing his colleagues as real people.
His next step will be to form friendships outside work, and I look forward to seeing how this will transform his life.
Have you created a wall around you?
As someone who spent years in self-created isolation, I know how easy it can be to create a wall around us. It’s often out of frustration with life and to protect ourselves from disappointment. Sometimes it seems easier not to bother with human connections.
Yet the denial of our natural desire to connect has consequences. It can create a painful void in our life, and with it an urge to numb this pain. We do this by distracting ourselves with addictive behavior: watching TV, drinking, smoking, having sex, gaming, eating, excessive working, taking drugs or whatever else helps us not to sit still and feel the void and frustration. None of these activities are bad in themselves, but notice when you use them as a substitute for what you really want from life.
Maybe that’s the real issue: Sometimes we don’t even know anymore what we really want from life.
Have you lost your mojo?
Carmen is the owner of a successful digital marketing agency. She moved to the UK from Spain, where she enjoyed a rich social life. She found it difficult to replicate this life in the UK because of cultural differences. She gradually withdrew emotionally and focused on growing her business instead. Whilst Carmen had numerous acquaintances and some friends in London, her interactions with them were superficial.
When Carmen came to me she felt depressed. Her usual pleasures of winning new business, buying new clothes or engaging in extreme sports no longer satisfied her. She put this down to a lack of challenge in her life and came to me to explore possible new business ideas. Yet she was struggling to come up with anything that inspired her. She had lost her mojo.
My intuition told me that Carmen was not in the right space to come up with a new business idea. Even if she did, I suspected that a new commercial venture would just mask a void in her life that would benefit from being explored. We needed a different approach.
What makes us happy?
I told Carmen about studies that have found our life circumstances, such as our career and wealth, only determine about 10 percent of our happiness. This may seem like a surprisingly low figure, considering that most people focus on improving their life circumstances in their pursuit of happiness. If the new job, the new home or the business success don’t bring us lasting happiness, what else can?
In life coaching, we know that happiness is less about what happens to us and more about the stories we tell ourselves about our life and how we engage with life events. That’s why we all know of highly successful people who are deeply depressed, and others who have little but are happy.
When we want to become happier, an excellent strategy is to change the way we think about ourselves and our life. We can also pursue certain types of action that promote happiness, for example practicing gratitude, meditating, exercising and, most importantly: socializing.
The importance of social connections
According to Dr. Martin E.P. Seligman, renowned worldwide as the “father of Positive Psychology”, the biggest influencer on happiness is social connections:
“One of the few human universals that psychology has found is that we are by far the most social species on this planet. And thus the single most predictive element of global life satisfaction is the quality of our relationships. Having authentic connections with other people based on love, respect, admiration, being able to truly count on others – relationships.”
If our relationships are so important, then it makes sense that a lack of social connections can have a severe impact on our wellbeing. It raises the question, though, why so many of us seem to be getting worse at true heart-to-heart connections and surrender so much of our social life to work, TV, success, and isolation.
I was curious how these theories about happiness would sit with a success-driven businesswoman like Carmen. I expected resistance, but she got it straight away. Carmen could see that genuine human connections were the missing link in her life, and she felt inspired to revive that part of her. We agreed that we would work on her emotional wellbeing rather than her business. I coached her on creating true connections with her friends.
Are you hiding your true self?
Through psychometric testing with the Enneagram model, we established a strong pattern that showed how Carmen sought to hide her vulnerabilities. She was eager to be perceived as a successful and happy woman, as she believed that the world favored strong people. Subconsciously, Carmen feared she would lose respect if she showed others her weaker side. Most of her conversations with friends and family were limited to typical London topics such as property, holidays and business.
I encouraged Carmen to lower her strong-woman façade with a few trusted people, to truly open up to them and let them see her authentic self, with all the good and bad. She did, and the first results were encouraging.
When Carmen disclosed her depression to a friend, surprisingly he shared that he was going through a similar phase in his life. Carmen discovered that showing her emotions and vulnerability did not diminish how her friend viewed her. Quite the opposite: It brought their friendship to a deeper level. She had created a beautiful moment of true connection and intimacy. It was Carmen’s first step towards rebuilding a nurturing social life.
The last frontier: Have you stopped talking to your partner?
Many of my clients are lucky enough to be in a stable long-term relationship, which can be an invaluable source of support and love. Yet sometimes we neglect even the people we love.
My client Jeffrey had stopped sharing his troubles with his wife. He felt that she would not understand him anyway, particularly when matters concerned his business. She would not be able to give him any useful advice, so why even bother? They spent their dinners talking about trivial matters and gradually grew apart.
I talked to Jeffrey about the value of sharing personal matters with friends and loved ones. I suggested that it was not always about receiving advice. Sometimes it’s great to just speak aloud what’s bothering us and to be truly heard. With some of my friends, I like being upfront in conversations and tell them whether I want advice or just need to moan for a moment. There is a time for both. Equally, when my friends tell me about an issue in their life, I often ask whether they want me to listen only or to coach.
You can create these types of conversations with your loved ones too, if you are willing to open up to them. If we don’t, we are refusing to allow the people around us to see us as we are. If they can’t see us, they can’t create a true connection with us.
Going back to Jeffrey’s example, I asked him how his wife might feel about the fact that he had closed off to her. Would he be willing to let her back in and revive the intimacy of their relationship?
How to reconnect to joy
When I coach clients who are experiencing depression, as most of us do at times in our lives, I ask what would bring them joy. Often they can’t answer this question. They have numbed their emotions so much that they feel disconnected from a sense of joy. If that’s you, it’s time to wake up.
Here are a few tips for reconnecting to a sense of joy:
- Create space alone where you stop distracting yourself with over-activity. Stay with the discomfort you may be feeling and reflect on your life, just for a while. Maybe go for a walk, meditate or soak in a warm bath. If you are not used to having quiet time on your own, this may feel uncomfortable; but stay with it, even if you only manage it for a short period of time to start with.
- Listen to your inner voice. We all have an inner voice or intuition we can connect to. Pay attention to what it says about the things you really want in life, more than the stuff you currently fill your days with. What are the parts of you that you have been neglecting for too long? What do you secretly hanker for?
- Create a joy list of things that used to bring you joy and of other things that you think might bring you joy. If you can’t think of anything, ask people who have known you for a long time.
- Start bringing joy back into your life. Experiment with the activities from your joy list, bringing them gradually into your life one by one. If you are lost for ideas, try exercising, meditating, creative activities, listing to music you once loved or going for country walks. Most of all, keep connecting to other people. Talk to your friends about your lack of joy. You may also want to hire a life coach or therapist to help you explore your feelings.
How to relearn human connections
Whether you have experienced similar situations like the ones I have described in this article, or you simply want to improve your already good relations with other people, here are a few practical tips on how to create deeper social connections in your life:
Create a social mind map. This basic exercise will be useful if you don’t even know who you could connect to.
- Take a piece of paper and draw a circle in the middle. Write the word “me” in the middle of the circle.
- Now think about all the groups of people in your life you could connect to; for example, your partner, family, colleagues, neighbors, local shopkeepers, club members, etc. Write down the names of each of those groups in a circle and draw a line from each one to connect them with the inner “me” circle.
- For each group, identify specific persons you could reach out to. Write them around the outside next to the relevant circle and connect the names to the circle with a line.
Create meaningful connections: Reach out to the people you circled green on your social mind map. Make an effort to show an interest in their lives, not just on superficial topics such as work and holiday. Invite them to share something more personal; for example, how they are feeling about events in their lives.
You may be in a situation like my client Michael, who I mentioned above, and believe you don’t really care about other people. Yet I am still encouraging you to do the exercise. You may have to fake your interest at first, but the results may surprise you. Once you cut through the superficial small talk, you will probably find out surprising new facts about the people in your life. You may experience a new sense of connection and learn to care again. Would you like to?
Open up: The next step is to share something personal with your chosen connections. Again, I encourage you to move beyond superficial small talk. How about sharing something you feel frustrated about in life, problems in your relationship or worries about a work situation?
For some of you, this may feel uncomfortable or even scary. You may fear being judged and prefer to maintain an external façade of perfection, strength, and success. Whilst this façade can be beneficial in certain situations, for example in a job interview nor negotiation, in many others it is not.
There are too many of us maintaining a fake façade. We are bombarded daily with dubious images of success on social media: glamorous holiday pictures, heart-warming engagement announcements, proud boasts of achievements. Everybody seems to be happy, successful and having fun all the time. We can easily think that those people have it all. But most likely they don’t.
Have you ever made assumptions based on a snapshot on Facebook that captures a second in the life of a person, and then compared yourself to the life that (you think) that person has? I certainly have and still, find it easy to fall into this trap. Maybe you have a sense that you are somehow missing out in life and feel inferior as you are watching the lives of others on social media. Can you see how this can cause emotional stress?
If we all started to be more authentic and share our vulnerabilities, this would not only create more intimate relationships but also alleviate the pressure to be amazing all the time.
Here is a refreshing example: When I greeted one of my ex-colleagues with the usual phrase “How are you?”, he actually gave a meaningful answer. He shared that he was experiencing mental health problems, and he did so confidently as if he was sharing that he had the flu. I loved that! His frankness led to a deep and meaningful conversation that made me feel closer to him. What would it take for you to be as brave and confident when connecting to others?
Stop objectifying others: In our hectic lives, it’s easy to objectify people we interact with. There’s the shopkeeper who has the role of taking our payment, the waitress who brings us dinner, the colleague who provides information, maybe the one-night stand who satisfies our sexual desires.
Let’s be human again and see those people as real people. How about starting a chat with your local shopkeeper or saying hello to your bus driver? I know a few people who do this naturally all the time. For others, it will take conscious effort and, if you are as introverted as me, you may not want to do it all the time. But if you do, it can be rewarding – even if you just exchange a smile with the cashier at your local sandwich shop, look him in the eye and say, “thank you”. You may experience how good this personal contact feels, and even receive something precious in return: a smile that brightens up your day.
Find new friends: If you lack people in your social mind map to connect with, how about finding new friends? The world is full of people craving connections. You can find new friends everywhere: at work, in social clubs or in your neighborhood. Somebody needs to make a start, though, so you will need to reach out. Maybe after you have “clicked” with someone, you might even be brave enough to share that you are looking to extend your social circle and that you would love to meet up with him or her again?
You will probably receive rejections, but so what? Some people will be too busy, not interested or maybe they simply don’t click with you. That’s OK because as you keep connecting, you will find people who will love to hang out with you. It’s like dating: the more you reach out, the more you invite people to join your life, the higher the possibility that someone will say yes.
The website meetup.com is a great way to find social groups in your neighborhood where people with shared interests meet. Once you have started mingling with new people, how about inviting one of them to meet you for an activity you both would enjoy?
Maintaining your friendships: This is where many of us (including me!) could probably do better. As we grow older, many people tend to withdraw socially – some more than others. In particular, if you have kids you may have shifted your focus onto your home life. There is nothing wrong with that, but don’t neglect your friends.
Friends are your support network; they bring variety into your life and they will be there if you want to talk about matters that you are not yet ready to discuss with your partner. If you look after them well, they will be with you in good times and in bad.
Maintaining friendships is like tending a garden: if you don’t nurture your social connections, they will shrivel and eventually die. Make sure you spend regular quality time with the people who are important to you.
What constitutes quality time will be different for each of you, but I recommend that you make authentic sharing of your emotions and life experiences part of it.
Why even bother?
If you are reading this and it all sounds like far too much work, then spend just a moment reflecting on what you want from your life. Maybe you are happy living as you do now. Will you also be happy if this continues for the rest of your life? If the answer is yes, that’s OK; but if you sense a longing for more social connections in your life, true intimacy, and even love, then I invite you to embark on this rewarding journey.
Face your fears, push aside your apathy and slowly break holes through the wall you have created around you. Reach out to people, truly connect with them and open your heart to love.
Previously published here and reprinted with the author’s permission.
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