I had the shock of my life this year when I realized that I, like all human beings the world over, am social.
See, I thought I was more of a social cactus. Some cacti can go almost two years without water, and I thought I could go about as long without meaningful social connection. Since I regularly attended church, waved to other parents at school pickup, and grabbed coffee with a friend about once a quarter, I figured I was more than well watered.
Even though I knew the importance of friendship – I mean, I even wrote about it more than a year ago – I still thought I just needed social connection in teeny tiny doses.
Oh, how wrong I was.
From increased job satisfaction to better physical health, social connection brings untold benefits, even for introverts like me. This year, I’m learning firsthand just how priceless these benefits can be.
Lesson #1: Social connection makes work better.
I always thought my job satisfaction had to do with what I was doing and how much I was paid to do it. I did know firsthand that a toxic work environment could torpedo morale even if you were doing something you loved. But I failed to recognize how much a positive environment with meaningful social connection could improve my relationship to work.
When I thought back to some of my favorite jobs, I realized they were not necessarily the ones that combined great pay with passionate work. In fact, one of my favorite periods in life was when I had just graduated from university and was working two low-paying jobs: one waiting tables at a diner and another working as an AmeriCorps Vista at an adult literacy center.
Though I felt frustrated that I wasn’t making it big career-wise while my classmates left for big cities and signing bonuses, I remember feeling very fulfilled. A lot of that had to do with the company I kept at my two jobs.
At the diner, my coworkers were all ages and backgrounds. Some, like me, were passing through the service industry with the hopes of moving toward a different career. Others worked parttime or fulltime to subsidize their passions, like art or activism. Still others would make a lifetime career in the service industry, maybe even one day becoming managers or restaurant owners. Regardless of our reason for working at the diner, we all seemed to enjoy and support one another. I loved hearing my coworkers’ stories and laughing with them in the kitchen between serving up pancakes and burgers. And many of them helped me evolve from a clumsy waitress to a pretty decent one.
At the literacy center, I felt a sense of purpose as I organized volunteers for an English for Speakers of Other Languages program. I got to meet other AmeriCorps Vistas and volunteers, many of whom were driven by the same desire to help others.
I loved that one of the programs at the literacy center was run by a Black woman and a South Asian woman who were great friends that cheered each other’s accomplishments. It was empowering to see women of color in positions of leadership, and I loved how open, giving, and self-possessed they were while still making time to crack jokes and be joyful.
Over the years, I found my way to more jobs with fantastic, supportive, and hilarious coworkers – most notably while teaching high school in Vermont and participating in a Black employee network within a large corporation – but I rarely thought about how essential social connection can be to a work experience.
That is, until I began working from home. Though I love the flexibility, forming a sense of camaraderie takes time over Zoom. That has made keeping up with my off-duty social network even more important. Which brings me to my next lesson:
Lesson #2: I need to have conversations with friends more than once or twice a year.
Because I thought of myself as a social cactus, I was pretty bad about watering my friendships regularly. I often relied on happenstance to create social interactions. Maybe I’d see a friend at church, at the school playground as we watched our kids climb the slide, or at a book club gathering. But intentional friend get-togethers were few and far between. I might see a friend for coffee twice a year and send them texts or social media chats filled with exclamation marks. This seemed good enough.
But I started to notice a pervasive feeling of loneliness. I felt like I was friendly with a lot of people but didn’t really have a lot of friends. You know – people to laugh with, to go to a concert with, or to call up just to talk. The ones I did have, I saw infrequently. I realized that many of my friendships needed both greater depth and greater frequency.
Maybe that’s because friends and social connection are essential to our livelihood. According to researcher and Platonic author Dr. Marisa G. Franco, loneliness is as deadly to our health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. In contrast, social connection – especially those found in friendships – can be life-giving. That’s because with friends, you create a little sanctuary where you can exist as yourselves, where you can need and be needed, and where you can simply just be.
Ironically, though, when we start to feel lonely, we also start to feel like no one wants to be around us, Franco says. So, we withdraw and seek out others less. Then we feel again like no one wants our company. In this way, loneliness can become a never-ending cycle if we’re not careful.
I didn’t want this to be my fate.
I decided to view friendship as important to my health as drinking water or eating a wholesome meal. This meant I could no longer take my friendships for granted.
I started by trying to get together with a friend about once a week. Sometimes we go for a walk, have lunch, grab a tea, or just schedule time for a phone call. Sometimes (okay, one time) we get wild and go to a concert on a weeknight.
Being with friends more often has nourished my soul. There is something holy about being entrusted with someone’s story, and about finding someone with whom I can trust my own.
Lesson #3: Trying to make new friends isn’t as scary as I thought.
In my quest to form more social connection, I’ve started asking more people on friend dates.
This is a very big deal for me. First of all, I’m 40 years old. Second of all, I’m awkward and I cuss a lot. Third of all, my default has been to assume that no one wants to be around me, that everyone has better things to do than hang out with me, and that everyone has enough friends already. So, to start asking new people out for coffee? Well. That took some doing.
I had to remind myself that I’m not that bad. I’m fun! I’m encouraging! I can be downright delightful! (Am I convincing you to be friends yet?) I also reminded myself that though a new friendship date can be awkward for all parties, it can also be fun to talk to someone new. And if it turns out that we don’t click, that’s okay – that doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with me, or that there’s something wrong with them.
These little mental reminders allowed me to start stepping out of my comfort zone so I can reach out to women I admire to connect over tea or coffee. I’m still in the early stages. But so far, no one has told me they have better things to do, and no one has said they have enough friends already.
Maybe more of us are open to new connections than I thought.
Perhaps I’m more like a wildflower in a meadow – happiest when I’m well-watered and flowing in the breeze with my other wildflower friends.
Lesson #4: Social connection makes my world go round.
Though I am an introvert, I am not a human anomaly: social connection is as important for my soul as it is for anyone else’s.
Don’t get me wrong – I love alone time and sometimes fantasize about a month-long retreat into solitude. But I know enough about myself to understand that when I start to withdraw from social connection, that’s probably when I need it most.
Knowing this, I am trying to say “yes” to connecting with friends and people at work. I am working to cultivate a social network that supports and grounds me, and that, hopefully, I can support and ground, too.
So, I guess I’m not a social cactus after all. I’m not content to stand alone in the dry desert of untended friendships. Perhaps I’m more like a wildflower in a meadow – happiest when I’m well-watered and flowing in the breeze with my other wildflower friends.
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