We live in an age of incredible irony.
Thanks to technology, we are without a doubt the most connected group of human beings to ever live on planet Earth.
This should be a good thing. As humans, we are social animals. Not only do we thrive on social bonds, but our success as a species can in part be explained by our propensity for connection.
We also know that bonding creates more productive teams and therefore better businesses.
And yet, in our social media obsessed world, where we focus more on individualism, self-expression and taking selfies than we do on community, actual human connection feels like it’s at an all-time low.
How can this be? Why is chronic loneliness at an all-time high in America when it’s easier to communicate with people than ever before? Why does it appear that we have political candidates who care more about protecting their ego and personal glory rather than serving our nation’s interests?
The first answer is that there’s a big difference between being connected and connecting. One is fleeting and addicting; the other helps us establish long-term connections and feel true joy and fulfillment. And we’re doing more of the former than the latter.
Here’s how I learned how to focus on connecting, and the incredible benefits it’s had for my life and business.
Raised to Be Individuals
In some respects, our culture and education in the U.S. conditions us to be suspicious of human connection.
When I was growing up in northern Michigan, like many kids, I was very self-conscious. Although I put on a façade and acted like I didn’t care, in reality I deeply cared about what people thought about me. I struggled with self-compassion, even into my 20s.
To help me cope with my condition, one of my mentors gave me this advice:
“Sean, when you’re in your 20s, you care deeply about what other people think of you. When you’re in your 30s, you start to become surer of yourself and care less about what other people think. When you’re in your 40s, you realize people were never thinking about you in the first place.”
There’s definitely wisdom in this statement, but it was lost on me.
I thought if people weren’t thinking about me, then I had to make sure I was thinking about me. I felt as if I was on my own, and in order to make my mark, I had to put my head down and outwork everyone. I sprinted forward with the old mantra, “If you want a thing done well, do it yourself.” (Side note: This quote is attributed to Napoleon Bonaparte, one of history’s worst narcissists. Not someone you want to emulate when it comes to human connection.)
After graduating from Columbia University, I decided to test the entrepreneurial route in my early 20s. I pushed forth with my misguided worldview: me against the world. Although I was focused on creating social good and making it easier for people to eat healthily, I couldn’t help feeling isolated. I had dozens of employees, a business partner and many acquaintances, but many times I felt alone. And looking back, it’s no wonder I felt the way I did:
- I spent a lot of time helping others, but almost always for selfish purposes—so they could help me.
- I didn’t ask people for help when I needed it, because I thought that was a sign of weakness.
- I put on a façade and acted perfect, as if I had everything figured out because that’s what I thought people wanted to see in a leader.
- I would see other people’s accomplishments as taking away from mine—why didn’t I achieve what they did? Why wasn’t I good enough?
- I was incredibly judgmental of myself, struggling deeply with self-love and self-compassion, which in turn made me very critical and judgmental of others.
Sounds like a really fun guy to hang out with, huh?
But this is who I thought I was supposed to be. And crazily, this is who I thought people wanted me to be. In many ways, it’s who my upbringing and formal education taught me to be.
Addicted to Selfish Chemicals
To top things off, I learned that I had become something I never thought I would be: a drug addict. A biological drug addict, that is.
In order to understand what I mean, we must understand the biochemistry that goes on inside us. Like how our brains produce four different “feel-good” chemicals that drive our behavior.
The first two are “selfish” chemicals: endorphins, which are released to mask pain; and dopamine, which is released in numerous scenarios, but is especially tied to the feeling of accomplishment. (The reason it feels great to check something off your to-do list or achieve a goal is because your body releases dopamine when you’ve achieved something.) These chemicals are selfish because they can be experienced when you’re completely alone—you don’t need anyone else involved to experience them.
The problem with dopamine isn’t just that it doesn’t last (nobody gets excited about the goals they achieved last year) but also that it doesn’t discriminate as to the impact of the accomplishment. For example, you know that feeling you get when someone likes your Facebook or Instagram post? That’s dopamine. As we all know, it can be very addictive, and in our society today, we have way too much of it.
On the flipside are the social or “selfless” chemicals: serotonin and oxytocin. These can only be experienced in the company of someone else.
Serotonin is released when you feel pride and respected status in a group. It’s serotonin that allows great leaders to sacrifice for the good of others, to allow a social bond to take precedent over self-interest. Serotonin overpowers dopamine. Once you have status and respect in a group, you maintain it until you do something to change it.
The other social or selfless chemical is the most powerful of all: oxytocin. Oxytocin is released when we feel a deep loyalty and trust with someone. It’s what makes love so powerful and seductive. It’s released through all aspects of human touch (it’s why things like high fives and hugs feel so awesome). The best thing is that once you have an oxytocin-laden bond with someone, it will produce itself next time you see him or her. It doesn’t go away.
The amazing thing is that these chemicals are far stronger and last much longer than their selfish counterparts.
When reflecting back on my 20s, and for that matter, most of my life, I realize I was addicted to selfish chemicals while truly yearning for social chemicals. My suffering, I discovered, was the result of focusing too much on myself. I’ve since learned that almost all suffering is the result of selfish thought, and the quickest way to relieve this suffering is to focus on contribution and benefiting others.
Data shows that when people experience low degrees of connection, they experience significantly increased degrees of depression, anxiety and violent behavior. Even at the cellular level, low connection produces an increased inflammatory response, leading to poor health. When we think about physical health, we very rarely think about our social connection, when in fact, according to a landmark study, low connection impacts our health more negatively than obesity, smoking or high blood pressure.
To add to this, strong social connection has been shown to increase chances at experiencing longevity by 50 percent. When people are healthier, happier and feel better, they also perform better and are more helpful and more resilient.
The evidence is simply overwhelming. Connection is great for life. Connection is great for business. Connection is the answer.
Selfless Giving Is the Key
Now that I know the answer, or at least a strong component of it, I’ve learned to approach work, life and people a bit differently: with a voracious thirst for social chemicals (obtained naturally of course!). And my goal is to help others find this alternative reality that I’ve recently discovered. A reality where connection, compassion, empathy and love dominate. Where we connect first and do business second. Where we approach each person we come across—including in the workplace—with a wild sense of curiosity, an unreasonable benefit of the doubt and the thought of I love you in our hearts and minds.
Is this way of life, this behavior, possible? Is it possible for us to create workplaces and environments where…
- We help the people around us without self-interest, purely for the sake of contributing to someone else’s well-being and the joy it brings.
- We’re comfortable asking for help and saying “I don’t know,” recognizing that people don’t want us to be perfect; they want us to be present.
- We can show our vulnerabilities and recognize the ability to do so as a strength, allowing us to relate and connect with people more deeply than ever before.
- We see other people’s achievements as a benefit to them, to us and to all of mankind, and witness the world from a perspective of abundance.
- We place loving ourselves first, knowing that only in saying I love me are we able to love those around us as they should be loved.
My belief is that this is not only possible, it’s what people deeply, deeply want, even if they don’t know it, as was my previous case. In fact, it’s one of the main inspirations behind my company, SnackNation: to help evolve our work environments and office cultures and get people to think differently about what their work lives can be. Yes, maybe millennials thirst for this more than most, but this reality serves us all. It makes all of us better, happier and more fulfilled. It makes us better employees, better leaders, better friends, spouses, sons and daughters. This is the environment where we’re able to become who we are supposed to be. It’s the environment that allows us to achieve our true purpose.
Going back to the quote my mentor previously taught me, I understand the sentiment much better. But now I recite it a bit differently and it serves me much better:
“In your 20s, you care a lot about what other people think. In your 30s, you start to care less about what other people think. And in your 40s, you realize, all that really matters is how you make other people feel.”
Related: 15 Inspiring Quotes About Giving
Sean Kelly is the CEO and co-founder of SnackNation, a healthy food-as-a-service company that helps make healthy snacking fun, life more productive and workplaces awesome. SnackNation provides thousands of offices across America with a curated selection of healthy snacks and emerging brands on a recurring membership basis. The Los Angeles Business Journal named the company one of Los Angeles’ Best Places to Work in 2016 (#35).
Sean is also the co-founder of HUMAN (Helping Unite Mankind And Nutrition), an Inc. 500 listed healthy vending machine and micro-market company, and the host of The Awesome Office Show, an award-winning podcast that helps people-focused executives and HR pros become better leaders and create more inspiring organizational cultures. Forbes magazine called him one of the top 30 leaders under 30 and one of America’s most promising CEOs under 35, and he’s been recognized as a top 25 young entrepreneur by Businessweek and a “Generation Next” entrepreneur by CNN. He holds a degree in Biomedical Engineering from Columbia University, is a member of the Young Presidents’ Organization (YPO), and lives in Santa Monica, California, with his wife and college sweetheart Shannon.