May 14, 2020
Human relationships are primary in all of living. When the gusty winds blow and shake our lives, if we know that people care about us, we may bend with the wind… but we won’t break. – Mr. Rogers
My favorite professor in the U Penn Positive Psychology program, the late, Christopher Peterson, closed his lecture by saying, “If we were to distill the research on happiness into one phrase, it would be: other people matter.” I can still remember the way he leaned toward us with twinkling eyes as he elaborated those words, Other people matter.
Mattering to others – and showing others they matter – may sound like an obvious facet to a rich, fulfilling life. But, if it were truly easy, why would problems, such as isolation and loneliness continue to skyrocket in our society?
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Maybe we’re too squeezed for time, or preoccupied with our to-do lists, to be genuinely present with each other.
Pause for a Reality Check
Or, perhaps the pace and pressures of modern living create more distance and disconnect than we realize – or want.
In any case, it’s vulnerable to admit that we need each other to survive – and thrive. But, that doesn’t mean we should pretend otherwise. So how do we use mindfulness to create that connection we’re born to have?
Perpetually Hurried – and Disconnected
At Princeton University in 1973, The Good Samaritan Study (Darley and Batson) looked at how theology students would respond to an impaired person on their way to deliver a presentation on the Good Samaritan, of all things. They divided the participants into three groups and gave different instructions based on how much time they had to get across campus.
In a nutshell, the study found that the students who were told to hurry were less likely to stop and help the injured person along the way. Those that weren’t instructed to hurry, however, were 53 percent more likely to stop and lend a hand!
Short on Time, Much? The Science of Disconnect
Take a moment to reflect on the relationship between rushing and connecting in your own life. Do you tend to be more or less attuned to others’ needs when you’re hurried or worried?
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Even if your first impulse is to slow down and listen, or show kindness in some way, it’s not easy to act on it when survival mode is at play.
You see, when the smoke detector of your brain, the amygdala, detects a threat, such as having too little time to accomplish an important task, your system swiftly shifts into survival mode. Your heart rate increases, focus narrows, and breathing quickens. Your job, so to speak, is to survive, not look out for others or prioritize connection.
The problem isn’t necessarily that you hurry or worry, it’s that you can easily get stuck in these states without knowing you’re stuck in them.
Let’s say, for example, you had no choice but to hurry to a meeting after a morning call ran over, but afterward you have a relatively open block on your calendar. Presumably, you could take your time responding to emails or enjoy a few moments of connection with a colleague.
Instead, your system is still operating in survival mode, and, without even knowing, you fly through emails, scarf your lunch, and barely look up from your computer to notice anyone.
Adrenaline rush, anyone?
On the one hand, it’s a blessing that we’re gifted with a nervous system that prioritizes survival at the sign of a threat. On the other hand, the brain isn’t great at distinguishing between life-threatening threats, such as dodging an erratic car, and non-life-threatening threats, such as an inbox full of unread emails.
Over time, and with mindfulness, however, you can help your brain – and body – re-establish a relationship with the present moment in order to interrupt needless hurrying (and surviving). As you slow down to get your bearings, you’ll have a better chance to see what’s truly called for now, including showing up for others in an openhearted, authentic way.
Here’s How to Use Mindfulness to Pause for a Reality Check
One way to begin the reprogramming process is a little – and literal – reality check…
Practice noticing where you are at times of low stress. Engage your senses, and take in your surroundings. For example, look out the window and allow the eyes to land on physical objects – ideally those you’re interested in – such as a palm tree bending and blowing in the breeze or a car parked in the driveway. It may sound frivolous, but it actually signals to the brain where you are, ie. not in the jungle being chased by ferocious tigers! You may also engage your tactile sense by feeling the heaviness of your body resting on the sofa or the cool air blowing on your skin.
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As you reacquaint yourself with the safety, maybe even pleasantness, of your environment, your nervous system will find greater settledness and ease. Over time, you’ll do this naturally and during more challenging circumstances.
Prioritizing presence by orienting to your environment over and over again lays the groundwork for a well-regulated nervous system, which sets you up to stay connected to your deepest values, and live as the caring, connected human you truly are.
How will you make someone feel like they matter today? Hint: Start where it’s easy!
Written by Breon Michel