Operation Social Butterfly

Can a self-professed "closed-door person" become more gregarious?

In one nine-year study, individuals with the least social connectedness were two to three times more likely to die.     Photo: Inga Hendrickson

FIT LIT

The Book: Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, by Claire Dederer (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $26)

THE SELL: A skeptic discovers the benefits of yoga.
DEDERER SAYS: "You can't do yoga and be perfect at it. It confronts you with the messiness of reality."
THE TAKEAWAY:
Yoga is relaxing. "You can let your mind wander, and it feels like you're meditating," says Dederer. "Nobody gets enough of that."
Fall down. "You are going to fall. It's not a disaster, it's just a fall. That can give you courage in other sports."
Yoga shows you where you're weak. "If a person has tight shoulders, it could be because his back is compromised, and his back could be tender because he has tight hamstrings. Yoga tells you what the problem is."
Yoga helps with stress. "When you're doing a really difficult arm balance, you're learning to stick with difficult situations."

—WILL TAYLOR

Hypothesis: Social people are happier and live longer
Time Commitment: 30 days
Researcher: Will Palmer

At Outside, we each have our own office with a heavy pine door. Whether someone's door stays open or closed provides a hint about that staffer's personality. Until last month, I was a closed-door person. This was true of my life in general: I didn't dislike people; I just preferred to keep to myself, maybe because I could control that situation. But after reading Dan Buettner's The Blue Zones, in which he describes the places on earth where people live the longest, I discovered that one of their nine shared traits is a strong social life.

There's an abundant body of science to back this up. In one study, Lisa Berkman, director of the Harvard Center for Population and Development Studies, found that individuals with the least social connectedness were two to three times more likely to die within the nine-year survey period. James Fowler, a UCSD political science professor and co-author, with Nicholas Christakis, of Connected, found that happiness (like obesity) spreads through a social network, so that even a happy friend of a friend of a friend increases your likelihood of being happy. I got inspired to change.

I called it Operation Social Butterfly. (My girlfriend preferred "30 Days of Liking People.") My experiment was about keeping the door open, and walking out of it as much as possible for face-to-face interactions. I announced my plan to every person I knew in town, saying: "Invite me out. Make me your last-minute replacement for a concert or movie; just don't make me dance, it won't be pretty." I vowed to use the phone instead of e-mail, and to stay out after work to see a lecture or get a drink with an acquaintance I'd lost touch with. It took a lot of energy, but once I made it a priority and stopped stressing, I slowly started to feel like I was getting a return on my investment.

I joined the Santa Fe Time Bank, the local chapter of a movement that promotes community-based modes of exchange (time instead of money), and it gave me a huge sense of being part of my town. I went to my friend Joanne's gallery show, a group of shadow drawings made from light passing through etched Plexiglas, and I realized that the most unassuming people often have the biggest talent. I made new friends at the Santa Fe Mountain Center, which gets city kids active in the backcountry; by going on morning trail runs with a buddy, I saw how conversation lightens the aerobic strain. I successfully avoided tango lessons. I sat in on a wine-tasting luncheon (boring), then later that week delivered food to poor families (a high point).

Buettner, whose new book Thrive garners lessons from the world's happiest places, told me that "there's an immediate tipping point when people volunteer. Neuroscience shows that the high in the brain that comes from altruism is as strong as it is with cocaine."

Now I was hooked. I stopped to talk to the homeless guy I used to drive past. His name is Roger, he has a wife, and they needed blankets, so I told him I'd drop some off the next day. I asked the guy who greets folks at the grocery store, Gene, what it's like to spend all day saying hello to people. He told me that his job has more to do with deterring shoplifters, then said he was a simple guy, just hoping he could save enough money to visit his daughter, who's in school back east.

Walking to the car, I thought about my own daughter, who'll be going to college before I know it, and realized that that common link with Gene was why the conversation had made an impact: it gave me a moment of real empathy. Two weeks into my program, I realized I wasn't so different from anyone—my empathy meter was getting stronger, which gave me more confidence being around people and finally changed socializing from work to fun.

By the end of the month, I had no desire to quit the program; instead I disconnected the TV and connected with more humans. I felt more alive, and while I had no scale to measure it on, I could feel the weeks piling onto my life span. Call it wellness or call it happiness—do I daresay awakening?—but I'd never felt so good in my life.

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