I've got some legitimate skills: in no particular order, making pesto, finding lost LEGO pieces, and having debates in my head. That last one might be my specialty. I work for myself and by myself, tumbling around thoughts and words all day. But it doesn't stay at my desk. I get into internal beefs, turning imagined conversations and arguments over and over. I need to find ways to pull out of my head, to feel more connected and less isolated every day.
Getting out of your head
One difficulty is that it's normal to be in your head. "It's always there and comfortable. It's reassuring to you and makes you feel good," says Sara Lazar, PhD, assistant professor of psychology at Harvard Medical School. "We all have that voice. The problem is that voice is a distraction and drowns out everything else."
Engaging with others challenges your assumptions, she says. It forces you to say, "I never thought of that." Also, it diminishes some loneliness.
"You feel heard, seen, and respected," Lazar says. "It helps the other person feel connected to you, and with that, you feel less disconnected from the world."
A couple of years ago, I experimented with saying hi to 10 people for 10 days. It worked beautifully. People became three-dimensional. The place I live felt warmer and I felt more a part of it. I still try to keep it up, just to remain engaged. And I looked for other chances to feel more connected and less isolated with help from two experts.
- Thank people. Whether it's the bus driver or a person holding the door — which could be you as well — thanking people recognizes their existence and that things don't magically happen. "It reminds us we live in the interconnected universe," says Sharon Salzberg, co-founder of the Insight Meditation Society and the author of Real Happiness: The Power of Meditation.
- Pick up a conversation. If a person puts out a verbal fist bump, don't let them hang. Again, they feel visible, a good feeling to have, Lazar says. More than that, conversations beget conversations that beget commonalities. "It makes the world bigger but more intimate," Salzberg says.
- Take note of three things to appreciate throughout each day. People are wired to scan for threats, a necessary skill to avoid being eaten. But not everything is predator or prey. Having a different target reorients your perspective. "It focuses on what we do have rather than what we don't have," Salzberg says.
Connecting: The simple part and the challenge
None of these are complicated, but that's not the challenge. "It's not hard to do. It's hard to remember to do," Salzberg says. People get frustrated, anxious, tired. The phone and earbuds are attractive escapes. It takes a strong intention, and possibly technological assistance –– setting reminders on your computer or phone –– to create a habit.
These tips from Lazar can help smooth your path:
- Do what feels comfortable. Or more specifically, do what doesn't feel wholly uncomfortable because there's always a fear of the unknown. It could be saying hi to 10 people, but five or even just two might be more realistic. "It's baby steps," she says. "Start with where you are and what works for you."
- Play interactions out in your head. What's the worst realistic thing that could happen? The person doesn't say hi? Snaps at you? After you imagine the possibilities, they can feel less overwhelming.
- Begin with friendly faces. This can be people whom you know a little or people who work in customer service. You can sense who might be more receptive. "Start in the bath, not the ocean," Lazar says.
Connecting creates ripples
And here's one more thing to remember: a response isn't guaranteed. People are shy, dealing with their own problems, or just might not be ready. You also might not be into it at every moment. I recently didn't pick up a conversation because I didn't feel like talking about plastic cups in the ocean at 7 a.m. at the gym. But it's a big-picture pursuit. That person who didn't respond yesterday might tomorrow. Someone who saw the attempt could be motivated to connect with someone else.
"There are ripples," Lazar says. "What you're trying to do is build up your muscles so it becomes a habit. You're not going for a perfect score."