Without strong relationships to remind us that we’re humans who need a sense of community, our digital-age addictions take over.
Statistically speaking, socially healthy people live longer, stronger lives than those with little or no sense of community. So it shouldn’t come as a surprise that loneliness (the fear of being left out physically, intellectually, or emotionally) is ingrained in your biology. You need a tight-knit community to stay happy, healthy, and alive longer, so any past social rejections, losses, etc. can resonate for an unreasonably long amount of time — your inner cave person is triggered by forced aloneness, because it’s always seeking safety in numbers. This awesome 12-minute video explains how loneliness is a survival technique that all humans share. In short, the fear of being isolated kept your ancestors safe and alive, and it’s still trying to do exactly that for you.
To maintain your social health, you just have to learn to hack the system by building a strong personal sense of community. No big deal, right?
How’s Your Social Self-Esteem These Days?
Social self-esteem is real, and it’s a real beast for a lot of people, made worse by the pseudo connections available on every interface these days. We get the high of hearing fresh news and the numbing effect of a screen, all without looking another person in the eyes. Over time, we choose digital disconnection over real-life relationships habitually, using it to numb feelings of loneliness or anxiety instead of taking the social action to heal those real-life ailments. Ouch.
Many people say they feel too different, shy, depressed, anxious, or insecure to connect meaningfully these days. Others find it difficult to trust people, or they make themselves too busy to maintain healthy friendships. Even physical ailments make some people reluctant to open themselves up to others.
Our insecurities cripple us before we even make an attempt at starting or strengthening a relationship, in much the same way that overfilling your schedule or having kids eats away at your opportunities to connect. It’s as much an internal struggle as an external one, and it’s a vicious, self-fulfilling cycle. Here’s how to break it.
How to Ditch Disconnection in the Digital Age
Social anxiety and shyness rear their ugly heads on all of us from time to time. Whether your party-loving self freezes up at professional networking events or you die inside at the idea of going to that wedding next month, if you feel like social anxiety is getting in the way of your social health, do something!
1. Narrow Your Focus & Prioritize Your People
When it comes to the number of stable relationships that you can maintain with others, there’s a limit as well as a biological imperative. They call it “Dunbar’s number.” Social scientist Robin Dunbar studied humans (and our biological cousins) to conclude that we’re only designed to maintain 150 stable relationships at any given time. Only 50 (or so) of those people are ones you’d consider “close.” Fifteen would be your closest confidants and allies, and roughly five would be your family, be they biological or chosen.
We don’t usually quantify our relationships in real life, and social norms have taught us that the “polite” way to interact with friends is to be inclusive of everyone. The truth is, that’s just not realistic. Now that you know you have a natural social capacity, you get to narrow the list a bit.
Take into account your social capital — how many people can you realistically get together with in a week or a month without completely burning yourself out? This part is completely personal to you, whether you’re naturally more introverted and need time to recharge, or you’re just plain busy.
Now, organize your people into those three circles of closeness, roughly 50 people, 15, and five. Remember, you’re not ranking your friends and family — you’re prioritizing them! You’re already doing this, but if you’re not doing it consciously, it might look like a lot of half-hearted commitments, “sorry I missed it!” messages, and general social stress. You’re about to get way better at investing your social capital in the people and gatherings that truly matter most to you.
2. Track Your Connections to Stay in Touch Regularly
So you’re getting intentional about how often you want to connect with the people who are most important to you. Do you have a way of keeping track? It’s too easy to forget when you last connected or let their big moment slip through the cracks because you didn’t set a reminder for yourself. Whether you download a social wellness app or get diligent about adding calendar events, reminders, and notes, commit to a consistent system for keeping track of your people.
Out of sight, unfortunately, sometimes does translate to out of mind. Don’t stress if you have been inconsistent in the past! That doesn’t mean you have to lose the people who are important to you, even if you’ve moved away or changed jobs. People almost always appreciate the friend who reaches out first, no matter how long it’s been.
3. Remember the Little Things & Show up When it Counts
So you’re taking notes and setting reminders, but how’s your social follow through? The key to success on the social front without burning yourself out or becoming riddled with social guilt, is to say yes only as often as you know you can follow through. Avoid maybes. Make conscious commitments to the people you’ve prioritized into your circles of closeness.
With great reminders comes great responsibility. If they truly matter to you (and you know because you prioritized them into your top 50), don’t let them slip through the cracks by ignoring your reminders until you’ve conveniently forgotten them all together. Whether you track your relationships in a calendar, an app, or a notebook, create a system for yourself in which you’re accountable for your best intentions as a friend, partner, and family member to the people you care about most.
This Works, We Promise
Our digital-age addictions take over without strong relationships to remind us that we’re humans who need other humans. That’s not to say you can’t snuggle up for a sweatpants and popcorn streaming sesh from time to time, but you might consider inviting a friend or adding a little community service to your schedule to keep your you time in check. You’re communal by design, and the more involved you are with the people around you, the greater your sense of community will be.