I am watching the primary debates right now. Even though the candidates are each on the same “side” and will all move toward the middle during the general election, they are trying to highlight their differences. Rest assured that the media will amplify these differences and the headlines tomorrow will be about conflict and disagreement.
Whether or not this works well for political candidates is a discussion for another time, but, in general, focusing on our differences does not lead to good mental health. Instead, it leads to feelings of distance, loneliness, judgment, insecurity and/or superiority. These feelings are just the opposite of what research and personal experience tell us leads to happiness: social connection.
Most people rank their relationships with others as their greatest source of happiness, and this only increases with age. We are wired for social connection. There are hormones that our bodies produce (e.g., oxytocin) during positive social interactions that benefit us in myriad ways. Socializing is literally a drug for us. But you already know this – just imagine talking to one of the people you love most in the world. That good feeling you’re having…that’s the power of social connections.
Yet, think about how often we keep ourselves from connecting with each other by focusing on our differences. The human mind loves to classify, divide, and group. Who are we like, who is our age, who do we disagree with, who do we agree with, who is taller, who is richer/poorer, who is more charming, who has a better/worse job. We have categories for just about everything, and specific social classifications such as yuppie, baby-boomer, millennial, hippie, hipster, jock, nerd, and so on.
I believe that if we entered our social interactions by first thinking about our similarities, no matter how difficult to find at first, that our human connections would vastly improve and we would begin from a place of understanding, compassion, and shared history with our fellow humans. From that place, we could celebrate our diversity within a common experience of “sameness”.
Next time you find yourself with a random person you don’t know, give yourself a moment to think of all the ways this person may be just like you. Maybe they are feeling rushed or maybe they look a little shy and you can relate. Maybe they look utterly unperturbed and stone cold, but know that, they too, have been frazzled at some point in their lives.
Try this out a bit. You’ll give your mind a chance to be creative and you’ll probably find yourself feeling better.