Increasing social connection in a time of social distancing

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This is a podcast episode titled, Increasing social connection in a time of social distancing. The summary for this episode is: Social connection in psychology is based upon the perception of social support. You can have tons of people around you, but still feel alone. You can also be alone, but feel supported and connected to loved ones. On this episode, Shawn discusses how, by making some small positive actions, you can increase your brain's awareness of social support and feel more connected to others.
Happiness isn't turning a blind eye
00:08 MIN
Social connection is the perception of social connection
00:05 MIN
Have a meaningful impact on those around you
00:08 MIN
Write a two-minute email to someone
00:10 MIN
Write a text and ask how someone is doing
00:15 MIN
Altruism breaks your happiness ceiling
00:08 MIN
One of the largest selfless acts ever - social distancing
00:24 MIN

Hey everybody, and welcome to Mindset Reset, and I'm your host, Ben Newton. In these unprecedented times we're living in, it's pretty easy to feel overwhelmed. I don't know about you guys, but I do some days, and that's why we created this series. We wanted to bring a little sunshine through the clouds and hopefully lift a little bit of that burden that we're all navigating through right now. So to start with that, I'm excited to introduce my guest, Shawn Achor. He's a New York Times bestselling author. He's got three books: The Happiness Advantage, Before Happiness and Big Potential, which are all great books. He's winner of more than a dozen distinguished teaching awards at Harvard University. He's one of the most popular TED speakers with over 20 million views, that's amazing, and one of the world's leading experts on the connection between happiness and success. Welcome, Shawn.

Shawn Achor: Well, thank you for having me.

Absolutely. We're both doing our recording here sheltered in place. I guess It started for you last night. I've been in it a week now. So how are things going on your side?

Shawn Achor: It's going pretty well given everything that's going on. We've got our two year old and our six year old at home, so we spent the morning doing a Hogwarts homeschool for them. I even dressed up and had a little stuffed owl, and we did potions and spells. We're trying to make the best of it with the time that we have together.

I want to see pictures of that later. But really getting right into it, we've partnered with Shawn to bring you guys a four-part series, so this is going to be in four different parts, and really it's about focusing on mindset in the crisis. One of the reasons we brought Shawn into this is Shawn brings an amazing viewpoint that we found really impactful for ourselves and we wanted to share it with all of you. In each of the four episodes, we're going to cover a different topic where Shawn's going to share his experience and some practical suggestions about things that we can do every day to create a positive mindset and actually make a difference in your day-to-day. But before we even get started on that, to set a basis and get us into the right mindset, Shawn, talk a little bit about rational optimism and what that means and set the groundwork for everything else we're going to talk about.

I think it's fascinating. It's so important right now for us to realize that happiness isn't about turning a blind eye to the challenges that are going on in the world, but also do you think that happiness is possible right now? I got started doing all this research in the midst of the financial crisis in 2008, so my very first studies were with the banks as they were collapsing and they had no idea of whether or not they were going to be able to recover or if the economy would ever recover, and very quickly what we started to realize is that people were falling into two traps. They were either turning a blind eye to the world or sugarcoating the world and creating this irrational optimism that everything's going to be fine. We don't even need to worry about it. Let's not prepare for anything. And they didn't fare very well. The other side would see all the world seeming to collapse around them and they would become paralyzed, and they'd be like," Well, I'm not going to work until I see what's going to happen or what's going to occur in the future," and they become paralyzed by the crisis. What I've been researching and what we see that causes optimists to thrive in the midst of even high challenge or crisis is a rational, optimistic assessment of the world. So you start with realism. You start with looking at what's going on in the news and the projections of where this is going or how this is going to impact your family or the economy around you. You start with a realistic assessment of the present, but you maintain the belief that eventually my behavior will matter if I'm linked to the right people, virtually or hopefully eventually in physical spaces. But what that allows us to do is to not turn a blind eye to the problem, but it also allows our brain to believe that there are things we could be doing in the short term that actually make us more adaptive because what we're finding is that the irrational optimists and the defensive pessimists both end up making mistakes right now. What we're looking for is that path forward.

Wow, that's a really good way to set it up because I think it is really easy to feel trapped by things you can't control, and actually that's a pretty amazing balance between the two. So with that as the backdrop for our first topic, one thing we were just talking about now, we're both being told to social distance and that's been an adjustment trying to explain that to my kids in particular. One of the things that we struggle with that is maintaining social connection and all that because we don't want to lose that social connection, and I know, particularly as an extrovert, that's been a little hard figuring out how to do that, and so how do you think about social connection in a time like right now where you're actually being told to stay at your house most of the time?

Yeah, it was one of the things I was most concerned about was social distancing is that we know based upon this research, it's the cornerstone of the work that I do, that the greatest predictor of long term levels of happiness is our social support network. It's the breadth, it's the depth and the meaning in our social relationships. So unlike in other crises where we can band together and meet up and go to religious services together and go meet up in a nonprofit together and start to do this work, we're more isolated in the midst of this, and yet, exactly what we saw during the financial crisis, we're seeing an interesting trend start to emerge. We're actually finding social connection rising and in a surprising way. Part of it is that I'm now home with my kids. I get a lot more time with my kids than I ever have because normally I'm doing work but with very weak ties, people I go out and speak to that I might not ever see again. And instead, I'm spending all this quality time with my kids. In addition to that, the family unit, what we're finding is like just last night I spent three hours on FaceTime with some friends who are in Missouri, and we didn't have to get childcare to spend three hours with each other at eight o'clock at night. We actually got to do a double date but virtually, and we would never spend that long together, and we have another date we've got tonight with another couple. And when we're going out walking, we're walking so much more. We're starting to see all these neighbors that we've never talked to before start to open up and start to talk to one another. So what we're finding is social connection is the perception of social connection that matters. So what we're finding is that oftentimes we have these deep relationships in our life. We're just ignoring them because we're going through our inbox or we're doing the work that we have or we have so much going on within our lives that how often are we reaching out to our best friends from college or the friends that we haven't seen since we moved away from Virginia or the... I've been talking to my parents every single day. That normally is once a week. So what we're finding is I actually think social connection is starting to rise as people are reconnecting in the midst of this, even though it's virtually. It's a fascinating period of time, but one that actually I think is so crucial because this social connection will be the greatest predictor of our resilience and optimism and happiness during this time of challenge.

It's really interesting you say that. One question that kind of occurred to me because in dealing with my colleagues and some people I know, you and I both, we have kids, we have our family there, and it adds some work. Not in a bad way, but also there's an instant unit there. You have that social... Like you said, I've been spending a lot more time with them lately, obviously. But if you're single or maybe your roommates went and you're the one staying behind, there's a lot of different reasons why that might be, but if you don't have that immediate group around, what do we think is the best way to go about that?

So I think there are two things. One is an awareness that it's not just social connection, it's feeling that you have a meaningful impact upon the people around you. So there are some people that I don't even know. I don't know if they're single, I don't know if they have kids or anything, but they set up this bear hunt that's going on here in Dallas where, and maybe this is happening in other places, but there's a book about going on a bear hunt. It's a kid's book. And what they did was they know all these kids are stuck in their homes or going on these walks, and so what they did as a community is you walk around and you could see these bears stuck in the windows. So the kids as they walk around get to see these bears that might be put up by empty nesters or might be put up by people that are single living in these homes that are now contributing and feeling like they're having a meaningful impact upon these kids who are home. I think it's small things like that, but I think it's the small things that matter most during these big crises, and one of the great examples of that is that one of the things that I study is how we can make these small pivot points in our life that can raise our levels of happiness and social connection. One of them is, and this is one of the ones that I share when I give talks, is having people just write a two-minute positive email each day praising or thanking someone in their lives. Very simple action, right? And so easy to do now that we have fewer emails and we're separated from one another to just send a two-minute text message or email praising or thanking or reconnecting someone in your life. The reason that's important is that when you look at your mental map of your social connection, what oftentimes happens is we think here are my family when I'm going through a crisis and here are maybe my two or three best friends, right? If someone's single, they might not have that, or if someone's feeling isolated or alone or they're trapped in a certain part of the world away from their social connection, they might feel that they don't have that. Remember it's the perception of social connection. So what happens is as... We can try and get people for 21 days in a row to think of a new person and email them a two-minute thank you note or a piece of praise or reconnection. What happens is around day eight almost everyone feels like they've run out of people. They're like," Well, that was everyone. That's all my friends and family, and I already wrote to my mom twice." And then what you find is that you start to scan, and it's the scanning that matters for the brain, and this is the crucial and beautiful part is your brain starts to look for these other people in your life that you haven't been aware of consciously but that are there. I described how I wrote to a high school English teacher and said," You're the reason I fell in love with reading. You're the reason I wrote a book." Wrote her a short little email and she wrote back, and she shared it with her class and then we did a little video time for her students.

Ben Newton: Wow, that awesome.

Andwhatwasamazing was when I now think about my people, she lights up on my mental map. So those people are there, it's the perception. So if somebody's single, if they're alone, they have mentors in their life that have got them to where they are, they have people that they work with that they might not have connected to deeply, they have neighbors and people that helped in the community and people that are religious. Whatever it is, your brain starts to see it and you find more and more of them and you realize that there are greater levels of connection than you ever thought was possible.

That's really interesting when you talk about that, Shawn, because two things come to mind. One that I've definitely even noticed myself is there's probably a tendency to be a little lazy about this, particularly when you work in an office or you go into a setting, same thing every day, is you run into people and there's always that thing. It's like the people I have the strongest connection with are the people that I have a random connection with every day. Something I've definitely noticed is that you have to bring a purposefulness to your connections now. There's none of the" water cooler" stuff anymore, so you actually have to make time, put it on the schedule, which is interesting. That could really potentially have a pretty positive change on how we interact with people because it's forcing us to do it, right?

Ben Newton: Yeah. You know what? I think just like as we always say that we write eulogies for people after they die when we should've said that stuff to them while we're alive, right?

Shawn Achor: There's

Ben Newton: this moment that comes... I think we're in a moment now where we don't have these physical interactions that we took for granted. So there's an incredible, an easy move, as soon as someone listens to this, to write to the person that is the person that brightens their day every time they come into work or" You're my best friend at work and I miss getting to see you all the time," or" Every time I see you, whenever it's at work it cheers me up, soI definitely am aware of that positive impact you have on me." You immediately have this opportunity to share something that you've never shared before that we might have been needing to say earlier, and there's been that great research that found that if you have a best friend at work, your productivity rises dramatically. Your likelihood to stay with the company rises dramatically. That question that they thought was a throwaway question was actually one of the greatest predictors of happiness at work.

Ben Newton: Oh, that's pretty cool. Yeah, and I would definitely say for myself, the people that I sit around really bring you through the times when you've got a lot more going on.

Shawn Achor: Right.

BEN NEWTON: Yeah, but then it's easy to forget that, particularly with kids and everything going on, that I need to maintain that connection. One thing that comes to mind, I wonder what you think about this, is that for a completely different reason, I was involved in a class and it was about keeping connections with people in normal times, but he even encouraged us to just go down and spend some significant time and just write names down, and you literally go through the names and check them off, you get all the way through and then right back up to the top again. It was a really interesting exercise that helped me because it was like here's all the people that I have a connection with that I want to stay connected with. I'm just going to write them all down and then I'm just going to make a point of getting to that list on a certain period.

BEN NEWTON: Right. Yeah, I find even just checking in with people... I'm a little bit more on the introverted side, so to randomly send somebody a text, I kind of feel like I need a reason sometimes, so it's got to be good. I feel like I'm trying to get rid of that and just be like," Hey, I just want to find out how you and your family are doing. I'm thinking about you." This gives me an opportunity. I've connected back to so many people that have been on my list of people I wanted to connect with over the past week as I just sit at home with my kids. We have recess in our homeschool now. We call it Marine training, so I'm getting all their energy out. I pull out my phone and can write a quick text to somebody I haven't talked to in a while and be like," I'm just hoping you're okay, and I hope your parents are okay," and that little text starts these whole conversations that flower on the backside of it. That's what we saw during the financial crisis. We actually saw social connection rising, and that's partly because we trimmed back some of the work that was being done that allowed us to replace it either with more Netflix, which is definitely happening, but also with these great quality interactions that only seem to happen sometimes in difficult times. If you think about it, I've been doing some work with the military and they create these deep social bonds because they go through the hardest things together, right? They onboard you with boot camp so that you have these meaningful narratives to bond people together. I think that this is one of those bonding situations that we're going to talk about for years and years. I don't think anyone's going to talk about 2017 five years from now, but I think 2020 we'll be talking about for30,40,50, 100 years.

BEN NEWTON: Yeah, no, absolutely. One thing that you were saying that brought something to mind is one thing that I've definitely noticed is people helping each other out in the neighborhood. Not even just going out and talking to people, with the proper social distance of course, but also getting groceries and doing errands maybe for the people that can't really get out because they're one of the more at-risk groups or something like that, and it does seem to be really helping those people. And I know for myself personally, if I didn't have my kids and my wife that I could invest in here, I definitely think it would be more of a struggle. So why is that the case? Is that something helpful that people can do and why does that seem so helpful?

Altruism is one of the greatest forms of creating happiness because what we find is you get a ceiling effect if happiness is just about you. I've been thinking about a lot of this with my wife as well because, in the midst of this, we have no idea how long that this is going to last for nor do we know how bad it's going to be. We can try and make a realistic assessment, but there's the uncertainty that comes along with it, and I think that there are multiple responses. I think you go through all of them just like you go through stages of grief, so there's the anger phase and the denial phase. I think the United States went through the denial phase, and I think that there's anger, confusion, and frustration that all come. And so I think in the midst of this, you can start to feel paralyzed like," What is going to happen to my finances or to my kids or to the country?" and you can panic. Then there's another response above that I believe that you can hunker down with your family and make the best of it, and I think that that's a better response than a panic one, but I think that there's one... I think we're going to cap our levels of happiness if that's where we stop. We're trying to hunker down as a family and make sure that we're okay emotionally, spiritually, financially, but then if we don't move to other people, our happiness will actually stagnate or plummet because what we're finding is it's growth that causes our highest levels of happiness. Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs, right? It's not you're happy only when you reach self-actualization or once you deal with the basic needs; it's the growth up through the chart towards seeing who you really are. So once you've hunkered down, once you are okay, then it's time to start thinking about those other people, and so I think this is where heroes can come. It's the people that are healthy right now that are going out and bringing toilet paper to 80-year-olds so they don't have to go. I'm seeing so many people out in the neighborhood who are walking around and then they just stop, and they're six feet apart from one another, but they just sit there and talk for like an hour with one another. They're trying to create these deeper connections with people that feel shut in all the time. So I think that's where it is, is how can we find ways of being altruistic? It's giving something to somebody else. It's reconnecting to them. It's emotionally being there for them. Even on text message, we're finding that those things make us feel like we're part of a solution instead of paralyzed by it.

Ben Newton: Yeah. And I guess tying it back to the social support idea you had is through that altruism, you're increasing someone else's perception of social support, right?

That's it. Yeah. And if you want an even bigger one, I might get a little bit of flack for saying this, but I think that what you're seeing in the world as the governments are shutting down movement for this disease, this disease in large part doesn't seem to be impacting the young as much it is for the older people, so what we're finding is that a lot of what's occurring here is I think one of the largest selfless acts that have been done by the entire world all at once because my family and I are probably going to be okay, but we are staying home because we really want to care for that 80-year-old who is alone and feeling isolated who is susceptible or a 40 year old or her kid who has high levels of preexisting conditions. So what you're seeing is the entire world doing one of the most selfless acts together, and I don't want to make too positive on the backside of it because Ithinkit'sgoing to cause some economic downturns, it's going to cause a lot of challenges in the future, but if you're looking for social connection, you can see it even in the fact that we're staying home.

Yeah. Well, you see a lot of instances of that through history, that some of these big events like this, they bring out the best and the worst, and what we're about here is that you can make a decision to let it bring out the best in you, and I think that... Well, I think this is really great Shawn, and just to summarize for everybody listening, there are some really practical things you can do here. First, take that time to write down the people you want to stay in touch with, maybe the people you haven't stayed in touch with, and take that little time every day just to write a two-minute email, to send a text, to stay in touch, and that'll definitely reap rewards for you and for them. And then also think about how you can do something for somebody else. Do something altruistic and that'll actually help you change your mindset and also do something for their mindset as well. So I think these are really great practical ways of doing it, and I'd actually say the funny thing is as you were talking, last night I played Mario Kart online with my brother and my niece and my two kids, so there are all sorts of ways to increase social connection and it was actually a lot of fun. That was the most fun I've had in a while. Thanks, everybody for listening to this episode of Mindset Reset. This has been the first episode in a four-part series. In our next episode, learn how to inoculate your brain against anxiety and stress by building a moat around your day. So thanks for spending time with us and see you on the next episode of Mindset Reset.

BEN NEWTON: Masters of Data is brought to you by Sumo Logic. Sumo Logic is a cloud-native machine data analytics platform, delivering real-time continuous intelligence as a service to build, run and secure modern applications. Sumo Logic empowers the people who power modern business. For more information, go to SumoLogic. com


Social connection in psychology is based upon the perception of social support. You can have tons of people around you, but still feel alone. You can also be alone, but feel supported and connected to loved ones. On this episode, Shawn discusses how, by making some small positive actions, you can increase your brain's awareness of social support and feel more connected to others.