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Motivate Yourself 118: Social Functioning & Evolution

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Have you been on holiday this year at all?
Being happy in my work I forget sometimes that my family might like to get away from things for a while and so we decided to go away with a large group of friends for a week to Torquay.
We did a lot of different things and visited lots of places but there is one particular event that still sticks in my mind almost a month later.
Quite simply, a friend and I nipped into the local pub for a couple of pints and to listen to some live music.
All these weeks later we still mention it when we see each other, but why?
What was so special about those few hours out of a whole week that had such an effect?

Well, whenever we talked about it, we tended to refer to the interactions with other people above everything else.
The 76 year old Jamaican clarinet playing poet who just called himself “Why”.
A fellow who calls himself Sandy Man who draws wonderful intricate pictures on the beach in the sand for donations, and refuses to claim benefits despite not having a job.
The bass player called Nigel that everyone seemed to forget about because the lead guitarist was the centre of attention.

It was meeting new people that made the night memorable.

Research into mental health has shown, time after time, that good social functioning is vital. But to start talking with complete strangers in a pub takes either confidence or at least an ability to handle anxiety.
We need a strength of mind to prevent negative thinking that can come from worrying about what someone might think of you.

Maybe its a fear of silence!
There was some research once that showed that 4 seconds of silence in a conversation between strangers was enough to make someone say something just to fill the gap.
On the 5th second, someone in the group would just blurt something banal out such as “Crikey is that the time already!” or “I wonder what the weather’s doing!”

More and more research backs up the fact that feeling included in society wakes up the happy part of the brain.
It probably goes back to evolution. If you’re a lone sheep in the field, and a wolf comes along you’re a dead sheep!
But if you’re in a herd a flock, a tribe then you’re safe.
Thing is in the 21st century, despite what the media says to try and frighten us into buying newspapers, the world is a much safer place.
We don’t have wolves prowling around us, and so don’t necessarily need the instinct to stick together to prevent fear, but it still has a benefit, so we may as well use it to our advantage.

Yet if you were to ask someone who is about to board a train whether they’d be happier to sit and silence and relax in their own thoughts or to chat with a stranger they almost always say “Sitting in silence, that would make me happier.”
But would it?

Well, no. Probably not.
Research has been undertaken a few times by asking train commuters to fill in a quick emotional wellbeing form to see how happy they are at that moment and then again later in the day.
When they sit in silence the scores don’t change. But when they chat to a stranger for a few minutes it goes up.
Just having a chat with a stranger for a few minutes helps us to become happier people.

So it goes against everyone’s expectations.
Because of 21st century anxieties of worrying what people think of us we avoid contact with other people and that may well make us feel worse.
Especially if you already have a habit of feeling judged by everyone anyway.
Going back thousands of years, the fear of rejection is a big issue, to be banished from your village, from your tribe, your herd, your flock meant you were going to starve or be eaten.
Which is maybe why, rather peculiarly, by exposing research participants to situations where they are being rejected you can see the effect that pain killers can have on the emotional responses!
Turns out that rejection hurts in the same way as genuine pain!
It uses the same neural system in the brain.
Rejection actually hurts.
So it’s no surprise that the biggest fears that people seem to have are about making sure that they aren’t rejected.
But just because there’s an evolutionary benefit to fearing rejection or of being judged, it doesn’t mean we have to hold onto it.
There’s an evolutionary benefit to eating fat and sugar but that doesn’t mean we all do, it just means that we have to work a little harder to make the opposing behaviour or thought process second nature.
But it can be done!

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