In Search of Connection and Belonging in a Hyper-connected World

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Somewhere in the past, walking down a dark alley in my head, I experienced what it must mean to feel socially isolated. I felt decidedly disconnected from everything outside my home life, except my work, maybe. My career filled a void that good friendships generally and normally fill up. This was an unexpected feeling because I had a loving family life and wonderful colleagues to work with.

I had been feeling the void of my social disconnection, but had pushed this vague feeling away as a professional hazard of having a busy life and a busier career. Who had the time or the energy, or even the inclination, to forge real, deep and lasting connections? Didn't that take time? Exactly what I didn't have or so I convinced myself. Not to mention, where did I even find these people to meaningfully connect with?

Not sure if there is a perfect number of close friends, but I heard this long back - if when we die we have seven friends whom we can trust implicitly, then we have lived a good life. By that benchmark, mine was heading for a disappointing one, for sure.

What made matters more cruel was that I had the most 'friends' on social media that I'd ever had, maybe. To not have an even remotely proportionate number of people in real life to confide in, or chat for long hours with, really hit me hard and affected me deeply.

Genuine non-virtual friendships are crucial for our social connectedness outside of our immediate family and away from our busy work lives.

Perhaps, you might relate to some of this. I've had my phases with experiencing friendships. I've been particularly awkward, stilted and hesitant with my online ones. I've swung from my earlier enthusiastic and embarrassingly descriptive updates about my mundane life to maintaining a stony silence about noteworthy events that deserved a mention. It would be safe to say that I hadn't yet found my FB groove. I am not sure about that one even now.

It wasn't until recent years that I began to understand that social media can be insidious in a way that is heartbreaking when it comes to finding real connection and meaning.

An insightful book I've been reading on these lines is called 'The Happiness Effect - How Social Media is Driving a Generation to Appear Perfect at Any Cost", by Donna Freitas. The author is a social researcher, but never set out to write a book on happiness as she quizzed university students on their experiences with social media.

Freitas writes, "Social media has become the dominant force in young people's lives, and each day seems to bring another shocking tale....or a lament that young people feel compelled to share their each and every thought with the entire world. Have smartphones and social media created a generation of self-obsessed egomaniacs?" She argues that this is far from the case, "these alarmist fears are drawing attention away from the real issues that young adults are facing. Young people are overwhelmingly concerned with--what they really want to talk about--is happiness. They face enormous pressure to look perfect online--not just happy, but blissful, ecstatic, and fabulously successful. Unable to achieve this impossible standard, they are anxious about letting the less-than-perfect parts of themselves become public.

I am far from a university student and their social habits, and yet, her research feels disturbingly close to home. While I can confidently say that I no longer feel the urge to share every moment of my professional and personal life online, I am not so sure about the happiness part. I can still relate to the insecurity of feeling if our lives might be less than fulfilling compared to the person whose photos we avidly flip through or read about yet another achievement of theirs.

The painful arguments we have, or the meltdown that was a long time coming, generally never make it to our social media updates. Why share uncomfortable stuff about life when you can selectively share the shiny parts of life? So we sit behind our screens in isolation and read about people's best times while we go through our worst phases.

Rationally, we know that comparing someone's happy times with our unhappy ones makes zero sense, and yet, we do it, over and over again. Everyday. Several times a day.

Life is not lived on social media in 140 characters as it appears, at times. Instead, we are compelled to live it in the here and now through long, often boring and rambling, paragraphs that go on endlessly.

What if we shifted our attention to relationships in the present moment with people we can meet and sit across from? People who value listening to paragraphs, with whom word limit isn't a constraint, especially, when we choose to share our deepest fears and happiest times.

People who share our sense of vulnerability because we are face to face, not despite it, are the ones that add to our mental wellbeing. It is those kinds of relationships that can help us feel complete and content; real people who can reflect back the flawed lives we all live and don't care if put up a brave face or not.

It so happens that lasting and deep connectedness springs forth from sharing our defects, our failures and the shame and embarrassment of a million missteps that life delivers at our doorstep.

We don't write social media posts about that stuff. We don't have to, and that's not what this is about.

My realisations about creating connectedness and belonging are about facing up to the unhappy parts of my life when they come up. Confronting the fears and failures that I can't and don't want to sweep under the rug anymore. I try and turn to a real person and tell them how I feel, then I listen and invariably this is how it goes. When I share my fear, pain and embarrassment, I never feel alone, because the other person has their story to tell me. Together, we walk the path that should feel unfamiliar, but feels strangely intimate. Our lives lived so differently, aren't so different at all. We are often fighting the same demons. It helps to know that you've met mine. It makes me feel safe and confident. Together there's a greater chance I can slay mine and defeat it forever. Maybe, that might help you slay yours. On my own, I doubt how I'd fare. Or how you'd fare, for that matter.

My life's craving is this then - to have people around me whom I can bare my soul to and know that they won't judge me harshly even if they knew this one was on me. Also, to have the courage and compassion to listen when they search for their answers.

But I can't have any of those fulfilling and soul healing experiences if the world only saw carefully curated and successful parts of my life. Why is that even interesting for me, or anyone else who cares to listen? Life is intriguing and a story is worth telling if it has human frailties woven through it. A successful life is not necessarily a happy one, and a life lived through failures or suffering is not always an unhappy one.

Connectedness and belonging lie on the other side of admitting first to ourselves, and then sharing with others, that we are flawed and far from continual happiness as our social media lives might have others believe. It's a weight off my shoulders, trust me.

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