The Spark

Recent data almost universally suggest we’re in the midst of a loneliness epidemic.

Folks are spending less time with friends and acquaintances, more time wishing they were hanging out with other people, and are benefitting from fewer of the warm feelings we tend to associate with meaningful (and even casual) human contact.

I suspect this isn’t just the consequence of pandemic-era isolation: we’re being tossed about by a cyclone of novel technologies and communication mores that arguably formed in the early 2000s (with the emergence of the mainstream web, and then the initial release of smartphones in 2007), but which has only become more potent and disruptive since then.

This transition has not been a purely negative thing: the same technologies that have messed with our capacity to connect in the traditional fashion have simultaneously empowered us in many fresh and interesting ways.

But we are living through a grand reshuffling of habits, norms, and etiquettes, and this liminal moment is defined, in part, by the dissolution of the social glues and shared customs that held earlier eras together.

We’ve still got social needs, in other words, but the means through which we served those needs even just a handful of years ago are less relevant and reliable, today, and newfangled, healthful (and commonly accepted) standards haven’t yet materialized.

There’s an observational joke that goes something like this: men will really get together to start a podcast instead of just asking if their friends want to hang out.

This is kind of true, I think! And it’s not just men (though the podcast world is awash with “men just talking to each other”-themed shows).

I suspect this trend of “productive socializing” might be an interstitial norm, as it allows us to be around and build relationships with other people, but with an excuse—a justification—that seems okay through the lens of social media-amplified hustle-culture, while also providing us a face-saving way out if the other person isn’t keen (“I wasn’t trying to be your friend! It’s just business, don’t worry.”)

But it also points (I think) at our latent desire to have other people in our lives, to share experiences and thoughts and casual niceties with those other people, and to figure out socially acceptable methods (within the current milieu) through which we can pitch the idea of connecting and intellectually cross-pollinating to other human beings.

Kindling such connections can be tricky, though, and while recent research indicates strangers will tend to be happier to engage with us than we expect, that doesn’t mean it’s always going to be comfortable sparking such interactions. These can be truly vulnerable, “put yourself out there” efforts, and we’re awash in other experiences that superficially replicate the same sense of socializing and connection without that strain—so why put ourselves through that?

I’ve made it a personal goal to more consciously invest in these types of connections, with mixed results.

That said, attempting to expand one’s social circle tends to open up new opportunities, lead to new, interesting avenues of exploration, and nudge one into a more socially adventurous state of mind, so paying attention to these dynamics and asking oneself how one might refine and healthfully expand them, alone, will generally be worth the effort expended.

If you found value in this essay, consider buying me a coffee :)

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