Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam famously declared that our excessive individualism had produced a society where people go bowling alone. David Brooks wrote this morning that “we live in an individualistic age.”
In a multicultural world where people do not have the same customs, the same manners and the same mores, it is inevitable that they feel alone and isolated. In a world where therapy has long touted the advantage of getting touch with your own feelings, it is not surprising that people suffer from anomie.
For some people it manifests itself as social anxiety. While trying to glory in their transcendent individuality they feel anxious about going out in public, about having to deal with other people. They fear these encounters, perhaps because they expect to be greeted with hostility or even to be ignored.
One suspects that psychiatrists have a pill for this, though it is not obvious that the pill does anything more than allay the anxiety. It does not get you up and out and into the social whirl.
Some therapists will tell you to activate your emotional intelligence by getting in touch with your feelings and by trying to tune in to the feelings of other people.
Of course, the more you introspect the more you will be detaching yourself from other people. If the best you can do is to feel their feelings and to want them to feel yours, you will be avoiding the commerce that constitutes human interactions. Thus, you will be aggravating your condition, not treating it.
Now, Melissa Dahl reports on new research that suggests a not-too-surprising treatment for social anxiety: be nice to people.
But she does not really mean: being nice in the being nice sense of the term. She means, as the researchers suggest, doing something nice for someone else, doing what used to be called good works or good deeds.
We should not emphasize whether you are or are not nice but whether you perform certain actions that count as nice. Being and doing are not the same thing. If the best you can do is to be nice, in the sense of having warm fuzzy nice feelings for people, then the treatment will not work. But if you perform good deeds toward other people and do it whether you feel it or not, you will benefit from the activity. You will benefit more when you make it a habit.
You will see that I am faithfully presenting Dahl’s thought:
…social psychologists at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University recently found that when socially anxious people were encouraged to perform little acts of kindness — doing a roommate's dishes, mowing a neighbor's lawn — they reported less daily social anxiety one month after starting the little experiment in niceness, when compared to others who did not undertake the doing-good-deeds assignment.
Jennifer L. Trew and Lynn E. Alden split 115 undergraduates into three groups: one that would seek out ways to be kind to others; another that would confront their social anxiety by doing the very things that made them nervous (like striking up a conversation with their neighbor, or asking someone to join them for lunch), in a kind of exposure therapy; and a final group that served as the control condition, who were told to keep a record of their daily lives for one month….
In the end, the people who had focused on kindness for the month experienced the biggest drops in social anxiety, when compared to the exposure group and the control group; the kindness group also reported bigger drops in avoidance after the duration of the experiment.
One would have expected that the exposure group would also experience a drop in social anxiety, but it makes sense that they did not improve as much as did those who made a habit of doing acts of kindness. It’s not so much about overcoming fear as learning how to interact with other people on the most simple level.
Also importantly, people who focus on themselves, who ponder their emotions, who get in touch with their feelings, who work on themselves, become more anxious. You might even believe that certain forms of therapy are designed to produce social anxiety.
Previous research has indicated that there is a kind of symbiotic relationship between self-focused attention and social anxiety, in that anxiety makes people more likely to draw their focus inward — likewise, focusing on yourself seems to increase anxiety. This new finding may point to a way out of that vicious, anxious circle. Doing small good deeds for other people naturally turns your focus outward, which may leave less room for obsessive self-reflection.
The funny thing is: there is nothing new about this idea. Western religions have been recommending this for millennia. One suspects that social anxiety is one of the prices of an increasingly secularized world.
As for the religious basis, note Proverbs 21:3:
To do what is right and just is more acceptable to the LORD than sacrifice.
And Jesus said in Matthew 5.16:
Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.
And from the Epistle to James 2:24:
Ye see then how that by works a man is justified, and not by faith only.
Of course, these precepts have been subject to controversy. Debates have raged about whether good deeds or faith put you on the path to Heaven. Perhaps we can agree that doing good deeds toward other people produces a sense of community and works because it fulfills another Biblical injunction: Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
After all, your kind gesture toward another person makes it far more likely that the other person will reciprocate with a kind gesture. One understands that not everyone returns favors, but if you make enough kind gestures you will likely to find other people to be more welcoming. They will look forward to seeing you, not dread your presence.
This suggests that those who withdraw from the world to contemplate their feelings are sending out a “don’t tread on me” signal to others. Their social anxiety might reflect unfriendly looks and gestures they receive when they refuse to interact with other people. For all we know they might have more control than they think over how they are received in society.
Arthur Brooks makes some similar points in a column he penned for Thanksgiving. He too recommends that you make kind gestures and do good deeds regardless of whether or not you are feeling kind, nice or grateful. And he suggests making it a habit.
Make gratitude a routine, independent of how you feel — and not just once each November, but all year long.
What deeds would count as kind. Brooks lists some:
Next, move to “exterior gratitude,” which focuses on public expression. The psychologist Martin Seligman, father of the field known as “positive psychology,” gives some practical suggestions on how to do this. In his best seller “Authentic Happiness,” he recommends that readers systematically express gratitude in letters to loved ones and colleagues. A disciplined way to put this into practice is to make it as routine as morning coffee. Write two short emails each morning to friends, family or colleagues, thanking them for what they do.
We should understand that different relationships with different people require different gestures of gratitude. It helps that the recipients of said emails have actually done something to deserve the gratitude. Yet, Seligman and Brooks are saying that the good deeds need not be extravagant. They need merely be nice… like bringing your wife flowers for no reason. One understands that giving flowers to female colleague does not mean the same thing.
Brooks continues, advising us not to follow our feelings:
This Thanksgiving, don’t express gratitude only when you feel it. Give thanks especially when you don’t feel it. Rebel against the emotional “authenticity” that holds you back from your bliss.