Getting Uncomfortable #10: Connecting for a Happier, Longer Life

6 minutes
Haley Stomp

Adam Grant Slapped Me

In this week’s Getting Uncomfortable, Adam Grant slapped me in the face, metaphorically. It wasn’t a hard slap, more like a Nerf bullet to the cheek. Flipping through his book Think Again and hoping to osmotically gain a fraction of his intelligence, I ran across this statement: “When we’re searching for happiness, we get too busy evaluating life to actually experience it. Instead of savoring our moments of joy, we ruminate about why our lives aren’t more joyful.”

This struck me for two reasons. One, I’ve done a ton of ruminating on my life over the last few years. I have several sticker-filled, deep thought journals to prove it. I started a blog and I’m writing a book based on all this rumination. I’ve ruminated so much I’m almost a cow (this is a technical cow anatomy pun for my animal friends and anyone who wants to learn more about bovine biology).

Second, many times over the years I’ve found myself thinking about where I’d rather live, how I’d rather live, how glorious my life would be if I could wake up and walk in the mountains or along the ocean every day. What if my career was this? What if my career was that? If I’d been born in a Greek fishing village, would I look like Jason Bourne’s girlfriend at the end of Bourne Identity, all beachy and healthy on the Mediterranean Diet instead of a Midwest mom who eats the occasional fried pickles with ranch?

I’ve mentally chased a lot of “what if’s” and aimed high on travel destinations and adrenaline experiences, none of which I regret, except for anything to do with skiing. All this discovery has informed and shaped my life, but it hasn’t always brought more joy or meaning. Sometimes, it made me lonely. Grant says wisely, “It’s our actions — not our surroundings — that bring us meaning and belonging.” Touché.

Grounded By COVID

We couldn’t change our surroundings much during COVID quarantine. We were forced to experience the life we had in the place we were. For me, this was a chance to finally address the “check engine” light I’d been ignoring for several thousand miles.

As research for the repairs, I read an article that said women in their forties were already the loneliest, sorriest group of people — wilting wallflowers — due to the dominant activities in this stage of life: demanding career, demanding kids, friends and partners with similar demanding careers, and no time for friends or fun (I have a feeling that men in this stage feel similar). I’m not sure if I took it as a challenge or if working from home left me starving for connection, but I’ve been consciously working on prioritizing friendships, rethinking existing relationships, and looking to form meaningful connections to increase the moments of joy in life. It’s not rocket science, but Harvard agrees.

Harvard Says You Need Friends

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, a study started in 1938 and ongoing today, has followed more than a thousand people over the course of their lives to identify what factors support a healthy and happy life. One clear conclusion is the quality of our close relationships drives our happiness and longevity. In Robert Waldinger’s TED Talk “What Makes A Good Life? Lessons From The Longest Study On Happiness,” he concludes, “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.” It seems like loneliness is a “disease” worth fighting.

Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, the persisting, stepwise theory about what drives human motivation, concurs. Maslow believed humans first need basic physical and safety needs met, followed by belonging and love. Maslow’s theory indicates that without satisfying our needs for belonging and love, we struggle to get to the highest level of our potential. Like The Grinch, The Joker, Darth Vader, or Hans Gruber — when you are a lonely, albeit successful, villain and try to skip over the belonging and love, you don’t usually survive to the end of the movie, unless you are brave enough to realize your mistake and are forgiven by a nice family in a magical village.

Both Waldinger and Maslow lead one to believe that, without enough people who love and understand us, we end up with a big, sad, hole in our lives and a not so healthy trajectory. Or, as the Beatles summed it up, “All you need is love.”

What I’m Doing to Fill My Meaningful Connections Bucket

Ok, fine, so how to improve relationships? I am not an expert, but I can tell you what’s been helping me have more moments of joy and feel more connected:

  1. Look around your house. These people already agreed to live with you, or you created them. What can you do to enjoy them more and for them to enjoy you more? There are endless opportunities. Recently, I got tired of everyone complaining about my meal choices, so I made a categorized worksheet and had everyone write down their favorite things to eat. Now I can Venn diagram the s#@% out of the grocery list, everyone feels engaged, and I no longer feel alone in meal planning.
  2. Work on existing relationships. Work on our close relationships is perpetual and sometimes extremely hard. Does someone need you, but they might be afraid to show it? Be the one to break the ice or model the way by asking for help. Is there an elephant in the room blocking progress? Point it out and figure out together how to move it back to the wild. No elephant, but not sure how to find time? Make it a weekly or monthly habit to reach out and connect. Put an appointment on your calendars. And see #3….
  3. Invite your people to do your favorite things with you. Have a favorite workout? Invite someone. Wordle? Invite someone to share results daily. Really like cruising the Costco samples? Invite someone. Pedicure? Invite someone. (I saw a retired couple getting a pedicure together this week. It was the husband’s first one, and he was doing it to spend time with his wife. Pretty cool.) Want to talk about obscure sports statistics? Invite someone besides me (unless fried pickles and ranch are included).
  4. Say yes to new people (and your best people). If someone says, “We should get coffee or go for a walk,” open your calendar right then and there, make a date, and then show up for it. However, if you don’t feel a connection with this person, move on to make time for your best people. If your best people ask you to spend time with them, find a way.
  5. Find people who meet your needs. I’ve been missing my global travels and overseas friends, and I’ve been lucky to find two walking buddies who are originally from other countries. It’s given me a chance to make new friends, talk about topics that really bring me joy and fill an important void.
  6. Who is your friend that shares all your best “remember the dumb things we did in our twenties?!” secrets? Reach out and reconnect. You might find you’re both out of the fog of early careers and families and ready to pick up where you left off.
  7. Our kids are friends? Chances are we could be also. Look for people with similar interests or in similar situations. If your kids are in sports or activities, every one of those other parents have something in common with you. Spend the time to get to know them. You’ll find most people are as hungry as you to have these connections. My son’s youth baseball family has been one of the best things to happen to our family in the last few years. It’s a wonderful community of truly great people who love and support each other and support every one of those young men.
  8. Put out in the world what you want to attract. If you want to attract friends, put those vibes out in your actions and words. If you want your spouse to spend more time with you, ask them. Join the conversation, take the first step to engage and then listen for common ground. It’s a little uncomfortable at first. But, hey! We are getting uncomfortable on purpose! People need people, no matter what age or stage.

Grow Where You Are Planted

Not to sound like a “Live, Laugh, Love” sign, but I’m working right now to grow where I’m planted. Thanks to COVID, I’ve looked around my community and found more meaning and belonging. I can honestly say I’m happier and I’m grateful for the people in my life and the moments of joy we are creating together. The best part is, hopefully, my work is making others feel more connected, too.