Live Long and Master Aging podcast

Episode

252

The Science of Friendships: Explained

David Robson, Science writer

BY PETER BOWES | TUESDAY JUNE 4, 2024

David Robson has always found forming new connections and meeting strangers challenging. As a science writer – and confronted by his own insecurities – he decided to delve into the research that suggests forging new relationships has a direct impact on healthy aging. Indeed, strong social connections are often cited as a key pillar of human longevity, alongside diet, exercise and sleep. The result is Robson’s latest book, The Laws of Connection: The Scientific Secrets of Building a Strong Social Network, which reveals how people impacted by serious illnesses fare much better when they have people around them.

Robson’s insights challenge our perceptions about forming meaningful relationships. His book provides strategies to help build a stronger social network. It’s a timely exploration given our increasing dependence on digital interactions.

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Read: The Laws of Connection: The Scientific Secrets of Building a Strong Social Network

Past books: The Expectation Effect: How Your Mindset Can Change Your World | The Intelligence Trap: Revolutionise your Thinking and Make Wiser Decisions

Connect with David Robson: Website | Bio | X | LinkedIn

Photo credits: TEDx Den Helder 2022 & Kirill Kozlov


DISCOUNTS & AFFILIATION DISCLOSURES: This podcast is supported by sponsorship and affiliate arrangements with a select number of companies. The income helps to cover production costs and ensures that our interviews, sharing information about human longevity, remain free for all to listen.


CHAPTERS (time stamps go to YouTube)

  • 00:00 Introduction and Personal Motivation – how real-life social connections are crucial for aging well, similar to important health factors like diet, exercise, and sleep.
  • 01:51 Impact of Social Connections on Health – How being socially connected can reduce susceptibility to serious illnesses.
  • 03:20 Understanding Social Connections – The psychological component of social connections, which includes feeling supported and having shared realities with others, beyond just physical presence.
  • 05:33 David’s Personal Experience and Previous Work – David’s previous book “The Expectation Effect”, which focuses on mindset and positive thinking. David talks about his own journey from being pessimistic to recognizing the power of mindset changes.
  • 09:45 Changing Pessimistic Mindsets Strategies such as cognitive reappraisal for viewing stress positively and practical steps to shift pessimistic mindsets, thus improving social interactions and resilience.
  • 12:50 Public Speaking and Social Confidence Public speaking as an example to demonstrate how changing one’s mindset about stress and social interactions can lead to better outcomes. 15:19 The Liking Gap The concept of the “liking gap”, where people tend to underestimate how much others like them after social interactions. Realizing this can help overcome social anxieties and encourage more engagement.
  • 21:28 Practical Applications: Complimenting and Showing Appreciation – Expressing genuine appreciation and compliments in social interactions can strengthen connections, showing the other person that they are valued and liked.
  • 23:09 Avoiding Phubbing: Phone Snubbing How being distracted by smartphones during conversations (phubbing) can harm social connections, stressing the importance of paying full attention in social settings.
  • 27:28 Sharing Vulnerabilities – Contrary to fear, sharing personal failures and vulnerabilities can strengthen connections by fostering trust and empathy, known as the “beautiful mess effect”. 31:17 Social Connection Benefits Across Generations [00:] – [00:] Having social interactions across different generations can challenge stereotypes and contribute to positive aging perceptions, enhancing both mental and emotional well-being.
  • 38:55 Improving social connections – emphasizing the importance of bravery in social interactions and using simple techniques like asking for help to strengthen relationships.

TRANSCRIPT – This interview with David Robson was recorded on May 30, 2024 and transcribed using Sonix AI. Please check against audio recording for absolute accuracy. (Time stamps below)

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David Robson: Just meeting strangers, like forming new connections always felt like an incredibly big challenge. And then when I, as a science writer, when I came across all this research showing just how important our connections are for living a long and healthy life, I kind of wanted to know, well, how can I change that? What could I do to become personally more socially confident and to kind of strengthen my relationships with the people around me? And, you know, can I teach that to other people, too? And so that was the inception of the laws of connection.

Peter Bowes: David Robson is a science journalist and the author of The Laws of Connection The Scientific Secrets of Building a Strong Social Network. And we’re not talking about the digital social networks that, for better or worse, we have become accustomed to these days. These are real life connections with real people, the kind of connections that are crucially important as we grow older. Being with other people, it’s an aspect of our lives that increasingly is believed to play a key role in healthy aging. But some of us are better at it than others. Hello again. Welcome to the Live Long and Master Aging podcast, I’m Peter Bowes. This is where we explore the science and stories behind human longevity. David, it’s good to talk to you.

David Robson: Yeah. Thanks so much for having me on the show.

Peter Bowes: And David, is that a fair assessment that connections, social connections, we are understanding that they are crucially important in the aging process almost, you could say, as important as our diet, as our exercise regimes, how well we sleep, our interaction with other people really has a bearing on how we age.

David Robson: Yeah, totally. I mean, that’s what I find so fascinating by, about this research is, you know, there have been, uh, you know, hundreds of these studies that have, uh, you know, most of them are longitudinal studies, uh, tracking people’s, aging, you know, how susceptible they are to certain illnesses, things like Alzheimer’s disease, cardiovascular disease, stroke, heart attack, diabetes, even the common cold. You know, all of these things. And what you find is that people who are more socially connected, so they feel they have that kind of understanding and support from the people around them, and they just fare much better. They’re less likely to die of all causes. And then you look at these individual illnesses that we might associate with aging and, they’re just less likely to develop them. now, when you compare the effects of social connection to the effects of other lifestyle factors, things like obesity, whether you drink or smoke, how much exercise you do, what you find is that social connection is right up there with all of them. You know, it’s as important as some of the, you know, most essential things for good health.

Peter Bowes: And maybe it’s worthwhile just defining what you understand by social connections. Certainly the phrase social networks, as I just implied, has been somewhat hijacked by the the digital world, the Facebooks of this world. But as you talk about it in your new book, how would you describe what social connections really are?

David Robson: Well, yeah. So I mean, in these kinds of studies, the epidemiological studies, you can look at connection from all different angles, using all different kinds of measures. You can look at the sheer number of connections people have. You can look at the quality of those connections that whether people feel supported or, or not supported by the people around them, whether they you feel that you’ve got a kind of mutual understanding, whether you feel isolated, you know, whatever way you look at social connection, it’s important for our health. And that’s one of the reasons why this research is so robust. now, I do think, like, it’s really important to kind of to recognize that, like, it’s, you know, it’s simply isn’t like whether you’re surrounded by people or not. because I think we all know, of those famous cases of, like, celebrities who, you know, might have, like, millions of fans on social media, you know, adoring fans all around them, you know, lots of members of staff, but they still feel very lonely. Uh, they just don’t have the psychological component of connection, even if they do have the physical presence of people.

David Robson: And so this psychological component of connection is really that sense that, that you’re close to people who have the same kind of world view as you who are processing events in the same way. And we call that a shared reality. you know, it’s obvious to us when we do find a shared reality with someone, we start kind of finishing each other’s sentences. Uh, we might start saying the same things at the same time. We might find that we laugh at the same joke or have the same emotional response to a work of art or, a piece of music. And what you find is that the more of those events that you have with someone like the, you know, they might just be, very temporary events, but the more that they occur, with another person, the closer you feel to them. And so having a shared reality is the foundation of social connection. And when we lack a shared reality with people, that’s when we would have what I would call as existential isolation.

Peter Bowes: That’s fascinating. I want to dive into all of that with you, David. But first of all, a little bit about you. And I should say that you and I have known each other for. It’s about a decade now. We worked together at the BBC. You have. Since focused your work on your writing, writing your books. The expectation effect was, I think, your last book, which is all about mindset and how and it was fascinating. Read about how certainly positive thinking can affect the way that we live our lives, how the placebo effect can affect us as well. In other words, thinking we’re going to achieve something without actually, I suppose, doing something tangible to achieve it, but we still achieve it anyway. Fascinating read. It also has implications for human longevity and the aging process. So I think, let’s hear a little bit about you yourself. And maybe this is the key question from me. What is it that drives you to be interested in these subjects? Does it come from personal experience? What is it?

David Robson: Yeah, I mean, uh, it is very personal. Like each of my books has kind of been something that, you know, really mattered to me. It was answering questions that I personally wanted to know the answers to, and I can’t really imagine writing a book where I didn’t feel like that. but yeah, I’m a science writer, you know, have been for the last 18 years now. And so, you know, I do tend to view, I view kind of all questions in life through a scientific lens. Like I love kind of incorporating culture and philosophy into my writing. But, you know, I ultimately think that having, like, a good evidence base for, life’s big questions is really important to me. And so with the expectation effect, you know, I was just like, I knew that in the past I’d had this very pessimistic kind of mindset, like, I was famous for it, with my friends for, like, always seeing the worst and in things. And so, you know, I was fascinated them to find all of this scientific research showing that actually, you know, that is creating bad outcomes. And if you switch that mindset, so you have the kind of more, I would say still realistic, but just like, positive, uh, positive expectations of life. So you’re not fooling yourself, but you’re just, trying to look a bit more objectively and recognizing that, you know, if things are probably not as bad as you assume they’re going to be. they’re just that single mental shift in your expectations can have huge implications for everything from how you respond to surgery to how well you, respond to exercise, to the way you digest food.

David Robson: And, like you said, even to how you age. So, yeah, that, you know, that was in itself, like transformative for me. Like it basically did help me to get out of like a period of depression in my life. And, you know, like just writing about this research is so good for you to, for me to kind of process it and internalize it that, uh, that I found that, you know, gave me, uh, just so much more psychological resilience. Uh, but then the laws of connection really comes from something that I’d carried through my life, from when I was a small child. And that is this kind of shyness. So even though I, you know, from when I was a teenager, had, like, very close friends, just meeting strangers, like, forming new connections always felt like an incredibly big challenge. And then when I, as a science writer, when I came across all this research showing just how important our connections are, for living a long and healthy life, I kind of wanted to know, well, how can I change that? Like, what could I do to become personally more, uh, socially confident and to kind of strengthen my relationships with the people around me? And, you know, can I teach that to other people, too? And so that was the inception of the laws of connection.

Peter Bowes: Just going back to what you said about being the kind of person who perhaps always saw the the dark side of things, or you could describe it as being a glass half full, or is it glass half empty glass, half empty kind of person? The opposite is a glass half full. Obviously, being of that mindset, is it possible to change? I mean, you do the research, you delve into it, you try to find the reasons why’s to and in many respects to determine how you live your life. But I’m just wondering if there are some characteristics of life always potentially seeing the the negative side of something that we actually can’t change. And it’s an intrinsic part of our personality.

David Robson: Yeah. I mean, so some people are definitely more pessimistic than others. but it is something that you can change. and so that’s what the book really was trying to like, delve into the kind of psychological tools that we can use to, uh, prevent us from having that kind of overly negative mindset. And, I mean, what I found especially encouraging is the fact that your overall pessimism isn’t as important as maybe your expectations about each individual situation or context, which makes it feel more manageable. And you’re trying to change your outlook on outlook on life. It’s like, you know, I would read the research about, say, how you view stressful situations. And then that immediately gave me practical strategies that I could use to. Changed my mindset about stress. so just to give a bit of context to that, the effects of stress are often a self-fulfilling prophecy that what we kind of believe them to be. So people who see stress as being debilitating and bad for their health tend to have worse outcomes than people who see stress as energizing and something that can actually enhance your growth. now the interventions can be very simple, like actually just teaching undergraduate students about the role of mindset and letting them know that actually the stress response revolt evolved for a very good reason. Like it’s, you know, beneficially adaptive, you know, the changes that you feel, that discomfort of your heart racing. Well, you know, it might not be pleasant, but it’s actually pumping a lot of oxygen to your brain.

David Robson: Cortisol leaves you feeling kind of a bit wired and on edge, but actually it’s thus helping you to respond more quickly to events. So if you’re kind of public speaking on stage, it’s better for you to have moderate levels of cortisol than like none at all, because it’s helping you to focus on what’s really important and the challenge that you’re facing. Now, what the research has shown is that simply recognizing and reminding yourself of those benefits can actually shift your stress mindset, and then that in turn, helps your body to cope better with this stressful situation that you’re facing. and that just being of a kind of analytical, uh, temperament, I think just, you know, realizing that actually I didn’t have to, like, repeat some kind of mantra to myself. It’s not like I was having to fool myself into believing things that were weren’t true. Like, I could still recognize that the stress was, when I was public speaking, say, was uncomfortable. But I could also just learn to think, well, like, fine. His discomfort, but is a bit like the grit in an oyster is actually necessary and there for a good reason. And so that that’s just one example. But that’s the kind of mindset shift that I’m kind of, uh, advocating, really. And I think it can be that’s much easier, I think, than say, going through life with like a vague intention to just be more positive.

Peter Bowes: Public speaking is a fascinating example, isn’t it? Especially if you go through your life and I’m using myself as an example here, someone who does a very public job talking into cameras and microphones. But as soon as you have to do that where you can see the audience, I think that is the the crucial factor that strikes fear into a lot of people, that you might be delivering whatever subject or speech that you’re well used to delivering. But the fact is, you’ve got that real time reaction you can see into people’s eyes. And again, that goes to the heart of, I suppose, the social connection, part of things, that the equilibrium changes when you’re in the same room as, as other people.

David Robson: Yeah, totally. And so to give one example of why I think the shift in mindset that kind of we call it cognitive reappraisal works in that situation is because if you’re kind of standing on stage and you’re suddenly imagining all the worst case scenarios, I mean, it’s like the very worst thing would be that you faint or you like, uh, piss yourself on stage.

Peter Bowes:  that would be bad.

David Robson: Yeah. If that’s running through your head, then then that’s like adding just like another layer of stress to you. And the more stressed you feel, the more you start panicking and thinking, well, oh my God, this is like closer to happening now. Whereas if you see your stress as a potentially good resource and you recognize but you know, despite the discomfort that is actually just helping you to perform better, it just removes that extra layer of stress. It stops you going in that kind of spiral of negative thinking. And that’s all you need sometimes, is just to stop the, the downward spiral, to enact the change. And then I found that, like, actually, uh, you know, it’s always the case with these things that the kind of the more you practice it, the better you become at it. So you can kind of build on your previous successes. Like once I’d found that that was helpful on my first talk, then the second talk became a little bit easier. I had more positive feedback from that, and so is the trajectory that I was really focusing on that.

Peter Bowes: So in the laws of connection, you start initially by writing about something called the liking gap, which as a phrase I hadn’t heard before. But as soon as you dive into it, there’s a sort of aha moment in your mind that it makes total sense. So why did you start with that and explain what it is, and what is the significance of this phenomenon that clearly affects so many of us as we’re interacting with other people?

David Robson: Well, so, in simple terms, the liking gap is a phenomenon where you, you meet someone, you, you have a good conversation, you really enjoy their company, but you go away from that conversation feeling that you liked the other person more than the other person liked you. Now, I think we’ve all experienced that, but we assume that we’re kind of unique. That actually there is something unlikable about ourselves, maybe. Or we just focus on the kind of clumsy things that we might have said. And we we don’t realize that actually the majority of people are experiencing this. So statistically, you know, you think that the other person doesn’t like you as much as you like them. The other person is probably thinking exactly the same thing. That’s what the study shows that we’re, you know, we’re most likely to be underestimating how likable we were with the other person. So understanding that for me personally, was very important for overcoming my social anxieties, because, you know, so many of the times I would kind of leave conversations and I would, you know, I’d always be playing out like, in my mind, like all of the things that I said that I wish I’d kind of phrased slightly differently, like, you know, maybe just a slight awkward silence that there was and you kind of put the blame on yourself.

David Robson:  but reading about the liking gap, I realized, you know, that’s not that’s not unusual. And it’s probably not true. Like those worries that we have are unfounded in the majority of the cases. and that just was incredibly liberating. It really helped me to realize that, you know, just I could be a bit braver in these interactions. Like after meeting someone who I really liked, I could just reach out to them again and say, like, do you wanna meet up for coffee? Or, you know, in the woke workplace that you want to collaborate on this project? Like, I think you’d have good ideas. I think that’s emblematic, really, of the laws of connection as a whole, uh, because it shows how we have these psychological barriers which are kind of like these, uh, these false intuitions. And by just removing those barriers, we can actually find that connection is just so much more achievable. and, you know, it’s a very empowering message for me.

Peter Bowes: And just to clarify, and actually, I think you just have by mentioning the workplace, but when you’re talking about liking the other person, this isn’t necessarily a physical attraction type scenario. This is a liking situation that could apply to the workplace. It could be a professional engagement. It could be two people meeting for an interview. It could be two people meeting, meeting in a shop or whatever it is. It’s two human beings connecting and liking or appreciating or respecting each other.

David Robson: Yeah, exactly. And so the questions that are often used in these questionnaires, you know, it’s not about physical attraction, but it is about like like literally like rate how much you like the other person rate how much you’d like to spend more time with the other person rate how likely you think it is that you’ll become friends with the other person. And you know, when you combine those measures, what you find is that people, give pretty high scores themselves for the person they’ve just spoken to, but they think the other person is going to, give them personally lower scores. So they’re just underestimating how much the other person would want to spend time with them and would want to be friends with them.

Peter Bowes: And so a big part of overcoming the liking gap is, is simply understanding what it is.

David Robson: Yeah, I think awareness is crucial once you realize that and that it’s a kind of common experience. you can also use these other psychological strategies to try to, uh, just kind of remind yourself in the heat of the moment that maybe things aren’t as bad as you thought they were. one of them is a technique that’s called defocusing. And essentially, you know, I described earlier how we often, like, get really hung up on, like, just one tiny little event in a conversation, you know, like where we used the wrong word and we feel a bit stupid for having done so. The problem is that it’s called, the kind of focusing bias because we’re just like, we’re ignoring all of the other kind of things that are going to affect how much rapport you have with someone and their impressions of you, some of which are completely out of your control. So you know, the person’s underlying mood is important, how much sleep they had, also just their personality. Like they might just be, you know, a sociable person or a kind of more introverted person, which could determine how they come across to you. And what Defocusing is asking people to do is to just consider like that. All of these factors are important. It’s not simply the words that you said, certainly not the precise like one word that you use that you think was a bit clumsy. There’s going to influence the impression that they had of you. And when you teach people about this technique and just get them to broaden their understanding of the social situation, what you find is that that does just help to relieve some of those anxieties.

Peter Bowes: I think what’s interesting is how we have, especially in the last 3 or 4 years, become accustomed to not being in social situations and not having those conversations. And there’s a little example, and I think I mentioned this to you. You and I met a few weeks ago. We met face to face the first time for a long time in a cafe. And I told you the story of how I was just picking up a cup of coffee at a cafe local to me popped. Then order the coffee and was waiting for it. And someone, another guy was just waiting for his coffee and struck up a conversation, which actually doesn’t happen a huge amount these days. But it struck up a conversation telling me about how he’d just been rear ended. Another vehicle had gone into the back of his, and he said he was kind of upset by it, not too upset. He said it was the second time it had happened this year. And I said, well, was it serious? No, it wasn’t serious at all. It just happened. And, you know, it’s kind of a bad start to the day. And we talked for about 90s and he was clearly okay. We talked for about 90s. My coffee arrived and and off I went. And as I was just about saying goodbye, all the best of things, he said thank you for the conversation, which really struck me and stayed with me. And I thought about it as I was walking away that this person really did actually just want to talk.

David Robson: And, you know, I think like the fact that he thanked you for that conversation, you know, I think this is an important tool that we can use actually, because so the liking gap is that it’s important for me personally to realize that I might be liked more than I think, but we always have to remember what the other person is probably going through those kind of doubts as well. And so just at the end of a conversation, just making it clear to people that we, you know, enjoyed what they were saying, we appreciated it. We admired them. just making that explicit, I think, can reduce some of those doubts that they might be experiencing. And I think that will then make it much more likely that they will contact you in the future. You know, if it was the kind of situation where you had exchanged numbers or, you know, you were in the same workplace. so just with very egocentric creatures, our thinking is always based on what we feel, and we assume that our feelings are more transparent than they really are. So if we really enjoy talking to someone else, we assume that they’re going to understand that. But the liking gap research shows that’s not the case. And so anything we can do to verbalize the good feelings that we’re thinking, that we’re experiencing, that can just be another good way of just enhancing the connection in that moment.

Peter Bowes: And in terms of enhancing the connection or the the art of having a good conversation. You write in your book about phubbing or phone snubbing, which again was a new expression to me, but again, once it’s explained, is is very clear that we pretty much all of us do it at one point, and that is becoming distracted by our smartphone during a conversation.

David Robson: So, you know, when you look at the art of conversation, one of the most important things you can do is to signal your attention to the other person. And if we go back to the idea of having a shared reality where you can only really create a shared reality, this mutual understanding of the world, if you’re listening to what the other person is saying and taking it on board and then responding appropriately, to validate them, to agree with them. the problem is that smartphones can just be incredibly distracting, and we often don’t realize just how distracting they are. So in these studies where they’ve kind of observed people in coffee shops or kind of engineered experiments in laboratories where people start these conversations, they found that just having a phone present is often enough of a distraction to reduce that attention that each person is paying to the other person. And so that is harming that shared reality. It’s kind of making it more unstable and that, you know, that’s bad for connection, that that’s something that we want to avoid. so that’s phubbing and as a general conversational habit is just a complete no, no, like put your phone in your bag, turn it off, whatever, while you’re having a conversation or if you really need it to be on because you’re expecting some important message, just explain to the other person what that is. Because at least once, they know that like your best friend is pregnant and might be giving birth at any moment, at least then they can understand that it’s nothing to do with their conversation. It’s not your lack of interest in them, but there’s a very good reason for your behavior.

Peter Bowes: You’ve just made me feel a little bit better, David, about when we met, because I had my phone on the table because I was expecting to meet someone else immediately after you was waiting for a text message. And I then read your book and read this particular chapter, and I thought, aha, yes, that’s what was going on in that, that social situation there. But it is a dilemma, isn’t it, for a lot of people, I guess, because we have become so accustomed to the smartphone and everything that it gives us, whether it’s indication that the next person you’re meeting is just around the corner, or a reminder that you have to be home by 6:00, whatever it is, or indeed a distraction that is more interesting, which is a more sort of serious aspect of this. But dragging yourself away from that now that we’ve become so accustomed is easier said than done, isn’t it?

David Robson: Yeah it is. And like, I know there’s a lot of discourse now, this very negative about, uh, smartphones and cell phones and blames them for all kinds of social ills, including isolation and loneliness. And, you know, I think phubbing is one example of the ways that. Uh, the cell phones are kind of damaging, social connection, but I don’t think it’s it’s not in the grand scheme of things. It’s not like a really big problem. It’s just something that we should avoid if we can. and there are obviously huge benefits to the technologies that we have. So, you know, we can be talking. We can be talking and, like, seeing each other’s faces during this conversation. If it wasn’t for all of the amazing technological developments that we’ve had over the last, uh, decades, and that’s something that we should be thankful for. Actually, you know, video calls are improving social connection for many people. They’re allowing us to have these, uh, these interactions that simply wouldn’t have been possible. And the same with cellphones, you know, less, just sending a message, like, even just a gift to, like, one of your closest friends. that in itself is like a moment that can be cherished. Like, we don’t have to feel bad about that if that is stopping you from meeting them face to face, that’s a problem. But if that’s just a kind of additional bonus, I think that’s a great thing to do.

Peter Bowes: And a lot of this revolves around how the other person is going to think about you, whether it’s your behavior with your phone, whether it’s how you interact during the conversation. And one of the things you write about is people’s fear of being judged in a negative way because of your failures, because of things that perhaps you haven’t achieved, or an acknowledgment of a failing in your life. Whether it’s, I don’t know, you haven’t passed an exam or you’ve just ended a relationship and perhaps acknowledging that it was your fault. Whatever the the failure is in your life, there’s this worry about what other people think about you, right?

David Robson: We kind of assume that, sharing our failures or our, uh, or our vulnerabilities, that it’s going to be seen as a sign of weakness, that people are just going to focus very much on the negative information that we’re conveying, and they’re going to be kind of alienated by it. They’re not going to want to connect with you once they know that you’ve made these mistakes. that really, you know, those like with the liking gap, those assumptions are just too pessimistic. People are very likely, actually, when you talk candidly about something that you regret or something that’s causing you anxiety and is worrying, you are people are more likely to see that kind of declaration as an act of courage, because it is brave to be able to talk about something that’s personal and upsetting. and what’s really crucial in those kinds of interactions is that, uh, to create this shared reality, we we’re really depending on each party being honest and open. You can’t. The shared reality will crumble if you think that the other person is hiding something from you or, exaggerating their successes and minimizing their weaknesses.

David Robson: And so when someone talks about a vulnerability, here’s a sign that they trust you, and it’s a sign that you can trust them, that you do trust them. so that’s partly why it’s so beneficial for connection to actually be more open about the things that might be causing us shame. And when you do so, uh, when people hear what you have to say, you might just be really surprised with the amount of empathy that you receive. Because we’re all human, we’ve all made mistakes, and people then feel better able to share their experiences. So that stops you feeling lonely where your failure might have made you feel very isolated, like you were the only person going through that breakup, or the only person to have lost their job, or to have made some kind of huge mistake with their family. When you open up and you hear that other people have had similar experiences, that in itself is is letting you know that you’re not alone, that you are more connected to humanity as a whole.

Peter Bowes: So it’s about, to some extent, embracing our vulnerabilities. Is there a danger of perhaps exploiting our vulnerabilities, hoping for the the opposite response that we might have otherwise feared? In other words, using a vulnerability to get a a more positive response?

David Robson:  yeah. So, this. Phenomenon is called the beautiful mess effect. And I do think like, people could like theoretically try to use that quite manipulatively they want to see more relatable. So they yeah, like describe their vulnerabilities just to kind of seem maybe to seem less threatening. And then actually they’re going to exploit that later on. And that is a danger. I don’t think that is very common. but I do think we just have to be aware of like who we’re talking to in general with my book. Like, I try to emphasize that the laws of connection should be used ethically. Like, I don’t think there’s any benefit to trying to use these laws in a machiavellian, Machiavellian manner, because. You’re gonna be found out sooner or later, and then that is just going to destroy all of the trust that you’d gained. So you’re going to find yourself more isolated, and you’re not going to get those transactional gains you might have hoped for by acting in a manipulative manner. Well, the research really shows me is that actually, by being open, by being honest, people are likely to respond in kind and often, you know, all of that support just comes naturally without any form of of manipulation at all necessary. You just the more you kind of give out to the world, the more you kind of receive from people as well.

Peter Bowes: So connecting this to the aging process and some of the issues that occur as people get older, a primary issue, which has been highlighted by a number of organizations recently, is loneliness, the the fear of being left alone if you actually manage yourself to achieve a great age. And I guess the and there’s a tremendous amount of research that connects social connections with positive aging. I guess the challenge here is to master the art of social connections, and the kind of people that you have connections with to use it to counter potential impact of, of loneliness as you get older.

David Robson: Yeah, exactly. It’s like a resource that you’re kind of building. I think your social connection. so it’s, it’s probably better to start as early as you can, but I think also if you are, in the later years of your life, like, it’s not too late to start, social connection, you know, just looking for those opportunities to create social connection. I think it can be valuable at any age. One of the other psychological barriers that we can have, especially as we get older, is believing that it’s kind of going against the grain of our personality. We believe that we’re just not wired to be sociable, but the research shows that’s not really true. You can look at, the personality spectrum of, introversion and extroversion, for example. lots of introverts, might just believe that they’re not really cut out for being kind of gregarious. but the research shows that when you encourage people to be, uh, to be more sociable, to talk to strangers, to be more talkative with the people around them, uh, to open up. Everyone benefits no matter where they were on the introversion extroversion scale. and I find that very encouraging. And the view from science now of our personalities is that they are influenced by genetic factors, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not fixed and they can’t be changed. And personality is really better seen as a kind of pattern of thoughts and behaviors that we carry with us. And through practice, we could just shift the shift that constellation of thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors.

David Robson: One way that we can do that is just to set implementation intentions, which is just very specific plans for how we’re going to carry out the new behavior that we want to enact and with social connection to get more social connection. That could just be as simple as thinking, like, when I’m next at a coffee shop, I’m going to talk to the person who’s next in line to me, or I’m going to help someone with their groceries. If they’re struggling to carry their shopping at the supermarket, or next time I see a cute dog in the park, I’m going to talk to his owner and just ask like what breed it is, how old it is, all of those, you know, all of those natural questions that just emerge as soon as you, see someone’s pet. Uh, the research shows that when you set those goals for yourself and you conduct, uh, conduct it regularly every day, it takes just five days for people’s expectations of those interactions to improve. So where they might have been worried about the conversation being awkward and difficult and thought they’d be pretty unpleasant, that they might be rejected by the end of those five days, people have updated their beliefs so that they have more confidence that, they have the social competency to carry out those conversations that the other person, on average, is likely to be pretty nice, and that they and the other person will just enjoy the interaction.

Peter Bowes: And the point being that, let’s say the example of chatting to someone in the park about your joint interest in cute puppies is it will invariably just a momentary interaction, a momentary conversation. This isn’t necessarily going to be the beginning of a long term friendship. It might be, but it’s unlikely. But it’s the impact of just that. Like my 92nd encounter with a guy in a coffee shop who I’ll probably never see again. It is that social connection in the moment and how it makes you feel, maybe for the rest of the day.

David Robson: Yeah, that’s exactly it. Like, we know that all kinds of social interactions are beneficial. So, interactions with weak ties like the one that you described, you know, that still brings a wellbeing bonus to us. It’s still improves our mood and it can last, like you said, for the whole day, if you’re doing that day after day, it’s just going to improve your overall mental resilience. But like you say, there’s also there is the chance that this is going to. That from that seed of a connection that you’ve built with someone, there’s something better, might or more lasting, might flourish and grow from that. We just don’t know. But the more the the more that you practice this, the more opportunities you’re giving yourself. So just the more chance that over the 100 interactions you might have over a year, that one of them might lead to a lasting friendship, or more than one of them might lead to a lasting friendship. If you just hold yourself back, you’re avoiding all of those opportunities. You’re depriving yourself of those chances.

Peter Bowes: And I think one of the challenges for older people, or indeed for all of us as we move through the generations, is to develop and especially develop new social connections with people who are younger than ourselves, in other words, from a different generation. And I know a lot of people as they age find that extremely difficult. There are all sorts of potential barriers there that we have different pop culture references. Talking about music and movies isn’t always as easy with someone from a different generation. But again, I think the research shows that those kinds of cross generation connections are so valuable to us.

David Robson: They are I mean, I think they’re valuable to each party. So for the older person and the younger person, so when we were speaking about the expectation effect, one of the chapters that I looked at was about how positive views of aging can, increase our longevity, through various mechanisms. And one of which is, is just that the more vulnerable that you feel as you get older, if you associate aging with kind of illness and decline, the more stressed you’re going to feel every day. And it’s a kind of chronic stress that is bad for us. So that does accelerate the aging process. but what we find is that people are much less likely to develop those negative views of aging. If when they were younger, they had a lot of, interactions with older people that could lead them to question the kind of stereotypes that are so pervasive in our culture. You know, if you had a great relationship with your grandparents and you know, your neighbor who was 90 when you were five, but, you know, you played together in the garden or whatever, you realized that actually these assumptions that aging automatically comes with, uh, terrible vulnerability and a kind of lack of purpose, you know, you’re just less likely to believe them. so it’s really important, you know, to, to build those positive role models of what it means to age well, is to have these intergenerational friendships. And that’s something that we have been losing in Western society, is that, older people tend to be a bit more isolated physically, like, where they live from other from people of different ages. And so it’s kind of breaking down. There’s something that we can consciously try to avoid if we make an effort to, to just ignore someone’s age, because the fact is, there’s probably more that you have in common than a different taste in music or film.

Peter Bowes: Totally agree David. It is quite a personal book and you’ve reflected that already. It’s based on your own insecurities to to some extent, and your fascination with yourself and in terms of tackling some of these issues. So I’m curious in terms of having written the book, having done the research, are there aspects of your everyday life now that you have changed and adapted because of what you know, because of your understanding of of some of these issues, and especially if they apply to which is what interests me is, is the aging process. And as we as we if we do indeed aspire a great longevity, how it might affect that.

David Robson: Yes, so for man, I think it’s especially a problem. there’s something called the friendship recession that as we get older into kind of our 40s, 50s and 60s, we find that we’ve lost, some of our friendships and we don’t really know how to build them up again. and, you know, our shyness actually increases as we get older. I’m 38, you know, I’m approaching, uh, that part of my life. And so something that I fight against, and reading about all of this research and, uncovering these laws of connection has just given me a lot more confidence, to kind of do that because a feeling, the liking gap. even if I got on with, like, acquaintances, you know, not my best friends, but like, people who I kind of had met at work or, uh, through a friend of a friend, you know, if they would invite me to a party, I would like. I’d just turned down the invitation. I’d make some excuse because I’d been. They were only asking me out of politeness. and now now that I know that, you know, our expectations are negative, and there’s no real rational reason to believe that someone is not being genuine there. I just accept a lot more invitations. and even if I felt nervous going to a party where I don’t know many people. Well, now I know that actually with practice I can build that social confidence. And so the more I push myself out of my comfort zone and make me and make myself talk to people I don’t know, the easier it will become. And so that, you know, I discovered that very early on in the writing of the book, and it’s definitely had a lasting impact for me. there are other techniques that I just love to apply that I think could work for anyone of any age. just complimenting people more is one of the kind of basic lessons of the book. We often bite back our compliments because we don’t have the faith that we’re going to express them in an elegant way. We think we might seem a bit kind of cringey when we tell someone how much we admire them. but the other person doesn’t really care on the exact phrasing that you’re using. They’re just pleased to hear that you’re saying something warm and kind to them. so we can just be a lot more confident in, in expressing our praise and to to make sure we do say it. We do verbalize what we’re feeling. uh, yeah. You know, just all of these techniques really. And I think just like reaching out to those older friends who maybe we are losing contact with. The research shows, again, that we have these irrational fears that if we send a message to, uh, someone who we haven’t spoken to for a couple of years that they they’re going to be a bit annoyed with us, they might just not respond or they’ll respond rudely. So we just don’t bother. but they’re probably feeling the same way. They really wanted to get in contact and they just haven’t had enough time or or had been feeling too shy to do so. And so just like being the first person to make the move, is going to work out, uh, like it’s going to work out well more often than it’s going to work out badly. And so I just do that more. I just, a bit braver, I guess, in every social interaction that I have.

Peter Bowes: Yeah, that’s really interesting and certainly resonates with me. I live in California, obviously, I’m from the UK originally, which is clearly over the decades that I’ve been here. But, uh, I was going to say a strain on relationships and friendships. Maybe strain isn’t the right word. It’s just a lack of connection because of geography and and time away from each other. But what I find is when I do reach back to those friends who I’ve known for several decades now, the connection is always the reconnection is much easier than I’d expected, which goes right to the heart of what you’re saying, just on the point of going to parties. And I suspect my personality is quite similar to yours. I’ve never been a party person. People say to me, you’re in Los Angeles, you must go to lots of parties. And I say, no, I don’t. And but what’s changed for me, which is kind of the opposite to what you were saying, is I now as an older person, I’m 62 now. I’m quite happy to acknowledge that I don’t particularly find parties fun. I enjoy sort of one on one meetups. I enjoy a coffee with people or a small gathering or a dinner, but a big noisy party just isn’t for me. And whereas once I might have gone anyway just to be friendly, I now have no qualms about saying, ah, it’s not for me. I’m going to give this a miss.

David Robson: And that’s, that’s another thing that I really want to emphasize is there’s no kind of one, you know, one no one size fits all. there’s no correct way to be socially connected. it’s going to be individual. Like some people will prefer to go to parties, others will prefer to meet people one on one for those deeper conversations. Neither is more beneficial than the other. What’s important, though, is just that if you feel that you’re not getting enough social connection, that you do, try to look for those opportunities in whatever way suits you and feels right and authentic for you.

Peter Bowes: David, we’re almost out of time. Is there just concluding one point or a couple of points that come to mind that you would most like people to take away from your experience and what you write about this in this book, you cover a lot of different phenomenon that many of which I hadn’t heard of, but fully resonate with the way that I’m thinking. But is there something you’d like people to take away with them?

David Robson: It is so there’s one very simple technique that I haven’t mentioned that I think we can all use and is very useful. essentially, we often feel worried about asking for help from other people because we believe we’re going to be a burden and that it’s, going to alienate them. But actually, there’s a phenomenon called the Benjamin Franklin effect, based on what he had written in his autobiography about how asking for a favor from someone can actually strengthen the relationship. this phenomenon is well known in Japan. There’s a word for it called a-mei. and it’s something that we can all use ourselves. So whenever we feel that we’re struggling to cope, it’s okay to ask for help. And actually, you might just find that it strengthens your connection with the person. there, you’re asking for the favor. secondly, it’s a broader point, and I just think, you know, all of this research, what it adds up to is just showing that we all have an amazing potential to connect and whatever individual way we go about that. we, you know, the support that we need really is within our reach. And, if we just try to be a bit braver, um, we’ll be really surprised by, by the benefits that we receive.

Peter Bowes: Really fascinating. David, I’m going to put a link to your book. There’ll be a full transcript of this conversation in the show notes. Really interesting. I hopefully will reconnect with you very soon. Maybe we’ll have another cup of coffee next time. I’m in London. All the best with the book and thanks for talking to us.

David Robson: Thanks for the great questions.

The Live Long and Master Aging (LLAMA) podcast, a HealthSpan Media LLC production, shares ideas but does not offer medical advice. If you have health concerns of any kind, or you are considering adopting a new diet or exercise regime, you should consult your doctor.

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