What Happened When an Introvert Socialised for 21 Days in a Row

April 12, 2019
Philosophy
Technology

It has never been easier to live alone — the advent of smartphones, social media, Netflix, and videogames, means that we can keep ourselves occupied for hours without the need for face-to-face human interaction — but that doesn’t mean that we’re actually living.

More People are Living Alone Than Ever Before

There are thirty-five million single-person households in the United States alone, with one-quarter of Californian households falling into this bucket. This trend has increased gradually since the 1960s with the number of single-person households having more or less doubled in the past half-century.

This increase is attributable to a number of factors, including people choosing to marry later (the median age at first marriage is now 27 for women and 29 for men — up from 20 for women and 23 for men in 1960). An unprecedented percentage of millennials are expected to remain unmarried through to age 40, according to an Urban Institute report.

Social attitudes towards marriage are shifting. According to Kate Bolick, author of an Atlantic cover story, All The Single Ladies, “it’s time to embrace new ideas about romance and family, and acknowledge the end of traditional marriage as society’s highest ideal”. The shift in social attitudes has helped to destigmatize divorce, with divorce rates now hovering at about 50%, with this number being even higher amongst certain generations.

In Australia, where I live, a similar picture is painted, with 24% of households belonging to single-persons, a statistic I’m contributing to, and have been quite comfortably and happily for several years now. I’m an ambivert who leans towards introversion and occupy myself with books, hikes, podcasts, gym sessions, cooking, writing, and of course, Netflix and social media.

Loneliness: Worse than Smoking

But here’s the thing, human beings evolved for genuine face-to-face social interactions. As Cal Newport put it in his book, Digital Minimalism, “social media doesn’t satisfy our innate need for face-to-face interactions”. While we might reach for our smartphones whenever we feel the internal desire for social interaction, firing off some 0s and 1s to your buddy via Whatsapp is simply no substitute, as far as your brain and chemical reactions are concerned, for the face-to-face, because it is devoid of eye contact, body language, subtle nuances and the energy of a face to face exchange. One study even found that internet communication cannot predict quality of life, but face-to-face interactions can.

In a world of single-person households, and social media being used as a surrogate for genuine human interaction, loneliness is becoming a bigger killer than smoking or obesity, due to numerous psychological and practical consequences.

Removing Distractions can be Revealing

Whilst I’m quite comfortable lingering in my own company, I recently began removing numerous distractions from my life — such as my smartphone and Netflix — which revealed a number of confronting realities.

I felt myself feeling varying degrees of the following:

  • FOMO
  • Bored
  • Irritable
  • Lonely
  • Melancholy
  • Inadequate

I tend to reflect, a lot, and journal every night, so whenever I notice a negative pattern — be it in my personal or professional life — I try to interject as soon as possible, rather than let it linger and compound over time. I try to get out of my comfort zone often, in order to expand my understanding of the world and of myself, having recently tried standup comedy, and learning how to surf (yes I’m Australian, but I’m a migrant family kid who grew up in the industrial suburbs, not the coast — surfing is almost as foreign to me as kangaroos might be to somebody from America’s midwest).

The Experiment

Given my recent revelations, I decided to run another experiment; socialize for 21 days in a row.

Why 21 days? Conventional wisdom suggests 21 days is how long it takes to form a habit (although the jury is out on this). Really though, 21 days was long enough for it to be challenging, but not too long that I would quit.

My hypothesis?
Socializing more often would improve my emotional state, create rewarding experiences without compromising my goals or values.

It’s critical that most things we do align with our values and where we want to go in life. If it doesn’t then we’re probably falling victim to instant gratification or not thinking through the longer-term effects.

So, what did my 21 days of socializing look like?

The 21 days included a mix of events such as entrepreneurship meetups, fitness classes, book launches, standup comedy shows (one of which I performed at… terribly), dinners with friends, live music gigs, rock clubs (one of which I DJd at…bettter than my standup), corporate junkets, and lunches with my extended family.

Attempting to do standup comedy.

After everything was said and done, I reflected on what I had learned, and it became apparent that there were both pros and cons to take out of the experience.

PROS

  • I did indeed allay many of the negative emotions I was feeling before the experiment.
  • I met interesting people and learned new things
  • I began to normalize socializing, to the point where doing required jumping a much smaller mental hurdle

CONS

  • I drank more alcohol, ate more )and less healthy) food, and got less sleep
  • I found myself becoming less creative, and having less breakthrough ‘aha’ moments that I could apply to my work
  • I was less productive, perhaps a byproduct of #1
  • I became quite tense and irritable halfway through the experiment, not having had considerable personal time to recharge, and also not getting enough sleep to regulate my mood
  • I did a lot less learning and reading than I normally would have
  • Ironically, I missed out on the Joy of Missing Out (JOMO)
  • I became less reflective and felt myself getting lulled into many of society’s false and less virtuous values

On this last point, Roman Stoic philosopher, Seneca, warned that:

“To consort with the crowd is harmful; there is no person who does not make some vice attractive to us, or stamp it upon us, or taint us unconsciously therewith. Certainly, the greater the mob with which we mingle, the greater the danger. … I mean that I come home more greedy, more ambitious, more voluptuous, and even more cruel and inhuman, because I have been among human beings.”

It also became more apparent to me that we normalize what we most often do, whether it’s socializing all the time, or spending exorbitant amounts of time on our own, what we do most often becomes our default option, and given that our brain has evolved to select the default option, we keep doing what we most often do.

So, back to my original hypothesis:

Socializing more often would improve my emotional state, create rewarding experiences without compromising my goals or values.

While socializing every day did indeed suppress a lot of the negative emotions I had been feeling, by the second half of the experiment, I was struggling to maintain the momentum and felt myself having to dig deep mentally in order to see the experiment through to the end — something I mentally primed myself for going into the experiment. I knew it would be challenging and that after a few days I would seek out my cocoon of personal reflection and productivity, and that I needed to lean into this discomfort.

As the Buddha said, the middle path presents a golden mean between self-indulgence and self-mortification and is essentially, ‘the way’. Anything taken to extremes can have negative repercussions, no matter how good it might be for you in small doses.

Balance is key here.

Seneca put it best (yes, I’m a fan):

“The best indication of a well-ordered mind is one’s ability to stay in one place and linger in their own company.”

Final Thoughts

With the experiment concluded, I’ve endeavored to change some of my behaviors. For example, I’m scheduling in more socializing, and events, in order to avoid my brain normalizing alone time too much.

I‘ve found it to be helpful, where possible, to lock these into your schedule — make plans with friends in advance, buy tickets to events so you feel a financial and psychological obligation to attend, lock things into your calendar — that way, you’re far less likely to get home from a day at the office and opt to pour yourself a glass of red wine and open a book. If it’s in the calendar, it gets done. At the same time, I‘ll actively schedule in time for said book and glass of red wine (or peaty whisky).

If you’re an extrovert, consider spending a little more time on your own.

If you’re an introvert, make sure to schedule time for socializing, meeting new people and trying new things.

But, as with most things, always opt for the middle way.

Steve Glaveski is the co-founder of Collective Campus, author of Employee to Entrepreneur and host of the Future Squared podcast. He’s into everything from 80s metal and high-intensity workouts to attempting to surf and do standup comedy.


Philosophy
Technology
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