Is Modern Entertainment Making Us More Lonely?

Is Modern Entertainment Making Us More Lonely? 1
Photo by freestocks.org on Unsplash

In the summer of 1996, when I was about 13 years old, my buddy Neil got himself a handheld video camera. For a group of impoverished teenagers, it was a thing of wonder, and the first thing that our group of friends wanted to do was to fake an embarrassing fall, so that we could post the video to entertainment show You’ve Been Framed. For those unfamiliar with the program, it features a string of home-video gaffes such as people falling off tables at weddings, dogs running headfirst into bushes, and children using footballs to splatter ice creams over their dads’ faces. If we were able to stage a convincing fall, where one of us trips at just the right time and bundles into the unforgiving concrete, we might become television stars!

The stage was our usual spot for playing football—a vacant, semi-detached house with a large windowless side, which we could blast the ball at without complaint. Most of the game was played in the road itself, with only the goalkeeper on the footpath, slightly raised up on a kerb. The plan was for Lee—the oafish, bravest lump of our friendship group—to line up a shot on goal, trip on the kerb, and crash into the pavement. It was full-proof.

With the camera rolling, the ball was passed towards Lee, and the confusion caused by the charade made him trip on his own feet, and his great mass of flesh was sent flailing into the air, followed by a spectacular clattering onto the footpath. We watched the clip again and again, until our cheeks and sides ached from laughter. The clip never did get featured on You’ve Been Framed, but it didn’t matter—that little moment of joy was what we really needed. I loved my group of friends, and wouldn’t have changed anything for the world.

Having close friends and spending time with them is arguably one of the best aspects of human existence, but despite being awash with technologies that allow us batter our chums with messages, photographs, and video clips, people around the world are feeling lonelier than ever. Nearly half of Americans claim to feel regularly lonely¹. A third of Britons say the same¹. In Japan, there’s half a million people under 40 who haven’t interacted with anyone for at least 6 months¹. A study from the General Social Survey showed that between 1985 and 2004, the people with whom the average American could discuss important matters dropped from three to two, and the number of Americans who had nobody to discuss important matters with tripled⁵. Since the 1970’s, American teenagers have been meeting with their friends significantly less—roughly half as much as they used to⁶.

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US teens who meet up with their friends “almost every day”. Image from The Conversation

The problem is so urgent that scientists have declared a “loneliness epidemic”, with great concern for the public’s health. Lonely people are 30% more prone to stroke, or to develop coronary artery disease². People who are blessed with supportive relationships have lower blood pressure, and reduced anxiety². Shockingly, loneliness carries a bigger risk for premature death than smoking or obesity³. The people sitting in their homes pining for human connection are 32% more likely to die than those who have friends⁴.

“A robust body of scientific evidence has indicated that being embedded in high-quality close relationships and feeling socially connected to the people in one’s life is associated with decreased risk for all-cause mortality as well as a range of disease morbidities.”

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, Theodore F. Robles, David A. Sbarra³

As a teenager in the 90’s, if I wasn’t in the mood for galavanting the streets with my friends, I stayed inside and entertained myself with reading, television, or Super Mario Bros. Eventually, I’d get bored and go out anyway. Today, we’re faced with an onslaught of solo entertainment, of anything we could possibly imagine. We can spend eight hours absorbing the spectacular neon storytelling of Stranger Things, or committing virtual murder on Call of Duty. We can listen to a fascinating Joe Rogan podcast, as he quizzes a guest about the spiritual benefits of ingesting magic mushrooms. We can shift into zombie mode and scroll through our Instagram feed, with an endless number of adorable puppies to light up our cute receptors. We can fire up a virtual music studio and compose a thundering techno track. Or we can strap on a VR headset, leave this cruel world behind, and forge virtual friendships instead. There’s a form of entertainment suited for everybody, and it’s becoming more and more accessible.

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Photo by Uriel Soberanes on Unsplash

With so much guaranteed entertainment at our fingertips, why bother with the effort of interacting with real people, with its risks of mediocrity? Human interaction is a roll of the dice—you might win and end up with closer friendships, or you might lose and lumber home dejectedly, after having bored your companions to sleep with stories of your dog’s anarchistic bowel movements. Being a conversation conjurer is a tough job, particularly if you have a problem with being vulnerable, or a burning desire to be always right. Even the most confident socialites fail from time-to-time, temporarily blighting the group with awkwardness, until someone in better form steps in to relieve the tension. Moments such as these can drive us away from our companions into the soothing arms of the latest Netflix sensation, pleasure all-but guaranteed, and not a social faux pas in sight. But despite its many excellent benefits, Netflix isn’t going to keep you warm at night, or lend a sympathetic ear for your creeping sense of sadness. It can’t offer concerned advice about your burgeoning drinking problem, or innocently tease you about the additional weight that has found its way onto your face. It can only entertain you, and while it’s a champion in its field, it doubles up as a devil that steals away the time needed to fortify friendships, and stave off loneliness.

Measuring up to modern entertainment is tough. My conversation doesn’t have the depth of an episode of The Wire. It doesn’t transport you to an entirely new world, weaving a beautifully-constructed narrative that portrays the precariousness of being a resident of Baltimore. It isn’t as thrilling as gunning down outlaws on Red Dead Redemption 2, nor does it offer the same sense of achievement. Reddit’s most popular posts are all funnier than me. Why settle for something subpar, when you can have something sublime? But as we hide ourselves away in our homes, distracting ourselves with all-singing all-dancing entertainment, our sense of loneliness swells. The descent into social isolation isn’t accompanied by a melancholy solo violin, but the optimistic chimes of candy being crushed, amusing you into solitude, one lemon drop at a time. In the small window of downtime when YouTube counts down to the next autoplay, you might receive a whispered internal reminder of your social isolation, followed by cravings of human connection, difficult to alleviate after years of rejecting invitations in favour of sofa-bound inertia. Can we be blamed? Social interaction can be a messy business—entertainment is anything but, and can even be addictive. One only has to witness the madness of a teenager having his World of Warcraft account deleted to get an idea of how important entertainment is for some people.

The advance of technology provides new opportunities to gratify us, with artificial intelligence being used to create even more potent forms of entertainment. As we happily sign up for brand new apps in exchange for unbridled access to our personal information, artificially intelligent systems are able to gorge themselves on our data, producing models that accurately predict the most effective way to entertain us. Data gurus PricewaterhouseCoopers predict 2019 to be the year of media personalisation⁷, with refinement and filtering of our entertainment becoming more popular, allowing us to curate endless hours of tailor-made fun. This is like injecting steroids into an AI system. As we endow it with unbridled access to our preferences, it can use that information to offer up even more enthralling forms of entertainment. Eventually, and oh-so-gradually, we might find ourselves transformed into the chair-bound blobs from WALL-E, thoroughly entertained, but lonely beyond belief.

Back when the world was black and white, our grandparents would huddle around the radio as a family. Since then we’ve gained access to the television, VCR, game console, online news, Compact Discs, MTV, the world wide wide, talk radio, DVDs, blogs, the iPod, social media, smartphones, and more. The plethora of entertainment now available to us has quashed the possibility of boredom, but makes the forging and maintenance of solid relationships a secondary thought, as though it’s more important to be entertained than loved. Nothing could be further from the truth. As we become exposed to even more forms of entertainment, bigger and better than before, we may find ourselves slipping further into isolation, delighted by rainbows of colour and sound, but estranged from the only thing that can offer us a treasured sense of belonging: our fellow humans.

**

References

  1. Neil Howe, 2019, ‘Millennials And The Loneliness Epidemic’, Forbes
  2. Selby Frame, 2017, ‘Julianne Holt-Lunstad Probes Loneliness, Social Connections’, American Psychological Association
  3. Holt-Lunstad, Julianne,Robles, Theodore F. Sbarra, David A, 2017, ‘Advancing social connection as a public health priority in the United States.’, American Psychological Association
  4. Sonya Collins, 2019, ‘The Loneliness Epidemic Has Very Real Consequences’, WebMD
  5. Olds, J. & Schwartz, R. S., 2009, ‘ The lonely American: Drifting apart in the 21st century’, Beacon Press
  6. Jean Twenge, 2019, ‘Teens have less face time with their friends — and are lonelier than ever’, The Conversation
  7. 2019 ‘Getting personal: Putting the me in entertainment and media’, PricewaterhouseCoopers

The Foolish Reason We Drift Away From Our Friends

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Complacency is one of the main reasons that we drift away from our friends. Photo by Austin Pacheco on Unsplash

Of the billions of people on our little blue planet, scattered across each and every craggy landmass, there’s only a tiny selection that you label as friends. Not merely social media “friends” with whom you’re yet to engage in a meaningful conversation, but genuine companions, who you’d trust with your deepest, darkest secrets—the select few who perceive the very substance of your soul; the people who recognise, appreciate, and love you in your most honest, unfiltered form, and with who you can be unequivocally, unapologetically, and unashamedly you.

“A friend is someone who knows all about you and still loves you.”

Elbert Hubbard

As social animals, immersed in an existence with no inherent meaning, friends such as these can provide the treasured value that makes life worth living. And yet, the people who are most important to us, with whom we share the deepest connections, are the people we’re most likely to take for granted. Our knowledge of their love, grounded in an unshakeable confidence, can lead to the perilous assumption that our effort is no longer required in order to maintain the relationship. We assume that our mutual affection for each other, developed over the course of many years, has gained enough strength to claim itself indestructible—an everlasting, unbreakable bond, joined with the hardiest of glues. This is an insidious notion, working as a passive and covert corrosive, which when harboured for enough time, slowly weakens the bond until it’s nothing but a measly thread. Complacency is one of the main reasons that we drift away from our friends.

Trite as it may seem, it’s worth repeating that all relationships require effort, especially those that we hold closest to our hearts, as these are the relationships that are most likely to suffer from the corruptive forces of unchecked complacency. The more comfortable we become with someone, the more likely we are to take them for granted, whether it’s a romantic partner, a close friend, or a beloved family member, and though they’re often quick to forgive us for our sloth-like apathy, their clemency doesn’t excuse our behaviour. These beautiful relationships can become the very reason for our existence, permeating our lives with priceless meaning, to be reinforced with frequent, determined effort, and a watchful eye on our inflated self-assurity. Though it can be tempting to arrive home from work and spend the entire evening staring open-mouthed at Netflix, offering only a few words to your wonderful partner, such negligence will only be tolerated for so long before your eventual separation, relegated once more to the throes of the ruthless Tinder battlefield, where people appear as dispensable as a used condom. To avoid re-entering such a dire situation, we can take cues from our behaviour at the start of the relationship, when we were eager to demonstrate our desirability, charm nob twisted to the max.

“Do what you did in the beginning of a relationship, and there won’t be an end.”

 Tony Robbins

The contented comfort that accompanies a solid relationship is undeniably tremendous. A calm, relaxed ease can be felt in each other’s company, with the stresses of life temporarily abated, for the good of both souls. But the universe in which we live obeys a fundamental rule—all things must change. Relaxation gradually warps into boredom, with thumbs that were previously still now twiddling madly. Comfort becomes agitation, and your favourite sunken spot on the sofa, shaped perfectly to your arse, doesn’t feel quite right anymore. This situation seems all too common, and can be abated simply by putting in regular bouts of effort. Isn’t your partner worth it, after all? Every wonderful aspect of a relationship develops from the willingness to show that you love them, which could be something as simple as putting your phone in your bedside table before they arrive home from work, and just listening to them as they tell you about their day. There’s nothing quite as precious as our own time, which when wholeheartedly committed to another person, is a testimony of our appreciation. It tells them that they’re worth every single second.

“The meeting of two personalities is like the contact of two chemical substances: if there is any reaction, both are transformed.”

Carl Gustav Jung

All personal relationships have the potential to be good, but that goodness can only grow from constant and repeated effort—a willingness to show the other person that they’re worth it. Without frequent work, we drift away from our friends quicker than Wilson after an ocean storm. Effort is what turns strangers into acquaintances, acquaintances into friends, and friends into lifelong companions. This is by no means a one-way process. As our love grows for the other person, so does the likelihood for complacency; the danger of becoming relaxed to the point where we assume that our friendship is secured forever. 

The people whose death would utterly crush you, their dazzling, illuminating vibrancy forever lost, are the people who you’re most likely to be complacent with, and though we’re sometimes too tired to be the perfect companion, only a smidgeon of creative energy is required to sustain the treasured closeness; to remain as affectionate confidantes, bonded in such a way as to make our stressful, obligation-packed existence worth it. Priceless, cherished subjects such as these couldn’t be more deserving of our efforts.

“I would rather walk with a friend in the dark, than alone in the light.”

Helen Keller

Why Laughing with Friends Is so Important

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Laughing with friends bonds us to them

The thought of being independent is appealing to many of us, to be able to act like the pristine lone wolf, roaming the rugged lands and fulfilling every need by itself. To survive autonomously is to be clothed in power, lacking the requisite of outside help. Such people are almost impossible to find within our species. We each have a stark dependency on others, whether it’s the food from our local supermarkets, the shelter of our apartment complexes, or our innate need for emotional closeness. The fields of evolution and psychology strengthen the idea of our social necessity, teaching us that in order to thrive in this world, we must get along with our fellow humans.

Of all the behavioural quirks that we exhibit as a species, there’s one that stands out as an accomplished bonder of people, an action that reduces our distance by wrenching us together in the most enjoyable way imaginable—humour. Laughter is a potent weapon in the battle for social acceptance; a razor-sharp cutlass, the nimble swishing of which makes ardent conquerors of us. It’s a universally adored behaviour with the power to turn strangers into friends, friends into lovers, and lovers into lifelong partners—the solid bedrock of many a successful relationship, and the foundational beginnings of new ones. A good sense of humour can transform our lives from a solitary and lonesome quest into a glorious fellowship—filled with playful nudges, digged ribs, and riotous laughter. With humour thrown into the mix, our dependence on each other is made not only palatable, but utterly delicious. It’s one of a small handful of things that makes life worth living.

“I love people who make me laugh. I honestly think it’s the thing I like most, to laugh. It cures a multitude of ills. It’s probably the most important thing in a person.” 

Audrey Hepburn

Some of our dearest memories are created from periods of turbulent, knee-slapping hilarity—that Sunday afternoon in a pub garden, the nip of the winter’s day fought off by the heat of amusement as your impish friends make joke after joke; an early evening spent lounging in bed with your partner, relentlessly teasing and chuckling until your cheeks hurt from smiling; the time after a festival when you used a traffic cone to mimic a cow, and the local creatures seemed convinced by your efforts to communicate. These moments are more valuable than all the sparkling diamonds of the world, and they come about by making a concerted effort to be funny.

Every attempt at humour is a gamble, with either a gain or a loss in social kudos; wide-grinned, beaming faces, in which a glorious victory has been won, or looks of hardened stone, eliciting bored apathy. A failed attempt at humour can be awfully embarrassing, and our aversion to loss can make cowards of us. But the gamble is worth it, because victory is nothing less than unbridled connection to our fellow humans; a shared sense of joyous camaraderie. Embarrassment is fleeting, but friendship is long-lasting. The only way to discover our particular kind of people is by having the courage to put ourselves out there. Jokes are friendship-detectors, which light up our future companions after every ridiculous quip that we dare to make. Who cares that our critics remain silent and stony-faced? We’ll probably never be friends with them anyway. When it comes to being humorous, the gamble is almost always worth it.

“There is nothing in the world so irresistibly contagious as laughter and good humor.” 

Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol

Attempts at humour can dwindle as we grow older and become more comfortable with ourselves, because we’re less inclined to impress others. This is a tragedy—when we stop laughing with our friends, our lives become dull, its colour desaturated until drab and dreary; an existence of humdrum seriousness, in which ambition positions itself front and center. We forget the absolute joy we felt in the throes of a tickle attack from our mother, or the time we hit our grandad square in the eye with a snowball, with him turning up later wearing a pretend medical patch. We swap our superhero outfits for business suits, and in the process, forget what’s really important—a tongue-in-cheek crack at your friend’s new tattoo; a return from holiday with every square-inch of your desk covered in tin-foil, or an uninterrupted, no-holds-barred re-telling of your brother’s insane party antics. The confidence that age brings is an undeniably good thing, but it can be accompanied by insidious complacency, in which we’re so self-assured that we no longer see the social importance of cracking a well-timed kitchen joke among colleagues, or putting a whoopee cushion underneath your grandmother’s worn-out armchair. These are the actions that make us truly loveable—every daring quip strengthens our bond with our audience, creating a wonderful sense of belonging. Laughter is the ultimate social adhesive.

“Laughter is wine for the soul – laughter soft, or loud and deep, tinged through with seriousness – the hilarious declaration made by man that life is worth living.” 

Sean O’Casey

When we’re laughing with friends, we momentarily love them. All cares fall away for the briefest of moments, as though we’ve been permitted temporary entry into a heavenly Nirvana, before stepping back into our anxiety-wracked bodies. There’s nothing quite as effective at bonding people than humour, and our efforts to make each other laugh can create formidable affinities, reinforced with every new joke. Our dependency on each other can be transformed from a position of hesitant obligation, to eager devotion, in which every snicker, chuckle and howl makes us appreciate each other a little more. The strenuous journey of life, in which the highest snowy peaks and lowest boggy troughs must be traversed, is made worthwhile only if we have companions walking beside us, and laughter is how we acquire them.

“Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can; all of them make me laugh.” 

W. H. Auden

Psychedelic Therapy with MDMA and Magic Mushrooms

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Why psychedelic therapy is making a comeback—Image from NY Mag

Back in the 50’s, not too long after Albert Hoffman discovered the mind-bending, consciousness-expanding properties of LSD, scientists starting conducting experiments into the therapeutic potential of the drug. It became a popular area of research, and by the mid-60’s had spawned six international conferences, and over 1,000 peer-reviewed clinical papers¹.

Meanwhile, the first sparks of the acid revolution had been lit, spearheaded by passionate acolytes such as Timothy Leary and Ram Dass, who believed that the drug held the key to shifting our global consciousness, to create a more peaceful, loving human species. It’d be tough to find a loftier, more noble objective.

Then it all went to shit. Governments across the world became concerned about the widespread, casual use of such a potent substance, particularly one that caused its users to doubt and criticise the power structures within their society, often calling for a freer, less restricted world. LSD was promptly banned by governments, forcing chief manufacturer Sandoz to halt production in the mid-60s¹. The first era of psychedelic therapy was over.

Thankfully, there’s been a resurgence. Governments are once again becoming receptive to the therapeutic potential of “party” drugs such as acid, psilocybin, and MDMA, whose reputation has been tainted in part by the greedy fear-mongering of the popular press. Scientific studies based on psychedelic therapy are becoming increasingly common, some with astounding results. The gold-standard treatment for PTSD is prolonged exposure therapy—MDMA has been found to be twice as successful². Psilocybin—the psychoactive chemical found in magic mushrooms—had an 80% success rate in breaking a smoking habit, compared to 35% for conventional treatments³. It’s also been shown to cure severe depression⁴.

“Perhaps to some extent we have lost sight of the fact that (LSD) can be very, very helpful in our society if used properly.”

Robert Kennedy

Though the hardened conservative will undoubtedly raise his eyebrows in disbelief, the people who have spent their lives taking illegal drugs such as MDMA, LSD, and magic mushrooms may be unsurprised at the results. It’s obvious that these drugs have incredible potential for our psychological health. The pristine empathy and compassion one feels in the midst of an MDMA experience tells you everything you need to know. How could such an emotionally positive experience not have therapeutic potential?

In my late teenage years, I found myself surrounded by friends in the comfortable living room of one of our parents, each of us high on ecstasy. Uninhibited conversation was flowing, and upon reaching the topic of our fathers (Freud’s spirit nestled in the corner, glowing with anticipation), for the first time in his life, one of my friends opened up about his difficult relationship with his dad. He expressed sheer, unalloyed pain at his dad’s early departure from the family, followed by the brutal indifference that he exhibited towards him in the years after. There were floods of tears, but no awkwardness from anybody—just pure compassion and sympathy. Afterwards, he seemed as though a weight had been lifted off his shoulders, finally able to talk about something that had created anguish for years. It remains the most beautiful moment I’ve ever had with my friends. Though we didn’t know it at the time, our drug-taking sessions were a form of self psychedelic therapy.

“What’s unique about MDMA is that it’s actually stimulating but decreases anxiety…it could help people feel calm and comfortable enough to explore painful things that are hard to talk about.”

Julie Holland

The bonding power of MDMA cannot be understated, even with people who you’re already close to. Everyone tends to emerge from a session with a feeling of heart-warming emotional closeness, and a fiercer sense of loyalty towards this magnificent bunch of people with who we’ve spent the last eight hours. Time spent on MDMA can be flawlessly authentic, offering a state of mind that encourages you to delve into profoundly meaningful topics that you’re usually too wary to approach.

As a shy and cautious teenager, I’d often have trouble interacting with people who weren’t my friends—the gut-wrenching awkwardness was too much to bear, so I wouldn’t bother trying. MDMA helped to bring me out of my shell, and not just for the duration of the high, but extending far into the future. The rush of empathy one feels while on the drug, mixed with the feeling of immaculate love towards people around you, taught me not only to more easily identify the inherent good in other people, but to realise that I was worthy of their company and friendship. It accorded me the courage needed to speak and act without restraint, teaching myself—little-by-little—that I was more than capable of being a funny, interesting person, whose company people were eager to keep. By improving my emotional intelligence, MDMA has undoubtedly helped to shape my personality into something better.

Psychedelics such as LSD and magic mushrooms also have a reputation for changing people profoundly. In Michael Pollan’s incredible book How To Change Your Minda treatise on the beneficial effects of psychedelics—he reveals that many people who take these kinds of drugs describe it as one of “the most meaningful experiences of their lives.” Psychedelics dampen our Default Mode Network, which is suspected to be the creator of our ego. As our sense of self dissipates, we can feel a profound sense of unity with the world around us, and our brains are temporarily permitted to make brand new connections, illustrated beautifully in this diagram from the book.

This is why creatives in Silicon Valley are spending their work days microdosing—it unfetters their naturally restricted brains, allowing them to be more creative than ever before.

“I’m glad mushrooms are against the law, because I took them one time, and you know what happened to me? I laid in a field of green grass for four hours going, ‘My God! I love everything.’ Yeah, now if that isn’t a hazard to our country…how are we gonna justify arms dealing when we realize that we’re all one?”

Bill Hicks

There’s a big difference between the occasional drug-taking experience, and using substances as a coping mechanism for the pain in your life. Highly-addictive drugs such as cocaine and heroin are a completely different beast, and should be avoided at all costs. This kind of escapism rarely ends well — it’s usually much better to face your suffering head on, with as much courage as you can muster.

“Taking LSD was a profound experience, one of the most important things in my life. LSD shows you that there’s another side to the coin, and you can’t remember it when it wears off, but you know it. It reinforced my sense of what was important — creating great things instead of making money, putting things back into the stream of history and of human consciousness as much as I could.”

Steve Jobs

When it comes to MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin, it’s no wonder that people are willing to break the law in order to experience them. They can function as a form of self-therapy—a vehicle for fundamentally changing your brain, quicker and more effective than any other method. Since the discovery of LSD back in the 50’s, scientists have suspected its therapeutic benefits, kickstarting a field of research that has shown incredible results. But for the general public, stringent scientific experiments aren’t needed to tell them what they already know: MDMA, LSD, and psilocybin—when used for the right reasons— have the power to improve our lives. This is why millions of everyday people are willing to position themselves on the wrong side of the law. It’s not just about goofing around with your friends—laughing but also terrified at the clouds wiggling and shifting into new shapes—it’s about being equipped with the courage needed to leap over personal boundaries—a shift in consciousness that can teach you how to be a better person, with opportunities to encounter the world from fresher, more fluid perspectives. These drug can equip us with the potential to break out of our tired, restrictive moulds. Scientists have known this for years, as have regular, law-breaking users.

It isn’t a question of whether these drugs have therapeutic benefits, but a question of when our governments will be able to get past their antiquated views and embrace them as valuable weapons in our medical arsenal. Great progress has been made with marijuana. In time, and as more scientific evidence emerges, perhaps the same will happen with MDMA and psychedelics.

 —

Some words of caution
MDMA, LSD and psilocybin are still illegal in many countries, and as such, their production lacks quality control. Drug testing kits are essential to test their purity, and obvious discretion required if you’re willing to take the necessary risks to acquire the drugs themselves. This article is by no means an advocation to do so. It’s also worth noting that these drugs aren’t for everyone, particularly for those with serious mental illnesses.

References

1. Wikipedia, Psychedelic Therapy 
2. Jesse Noakes, Psychedelic renaissance: could MDMA help with PTSD, depression and anxiety?
3. Magic Mushrooms” Can Help Smokers Break the Habit
4. Sarah Boseley, Magic mushrooms lift severe depression in clinical trial

The Magical Power of Small Talk

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Image from Preply

Throw unacquainted humans into a close-knit social gathering, and observe the plentiful, awkward small talk. Though often uncomfortable, such events can be important to one’s social life, so we must trudge through them, in the hope that we’ll exit the building having skilfully skimmed the surface with our conversation, never diving too deep, committing social taboos, or generally upsetting people with overly-intimate topics.

Small talk has a reputation for being banal, and for good reason. Pointing out the fact that it’s raining seems as ridiculous as pointing out the fact that you have a head—you’re fully aware of both things, and don’t require an outsider to confirm them. But despite being obvious and often painfully dull, small talk has an important role to play, allowing us to leap over a number of social obstacles towards improved, meaningful interaction.

“It would seem that the variability of the weather was purposely devised to furnish mankind with unfailing material for conversation.”

Emily Post, Etiquette

Humans can be sensitive souls. We each have our boundaries and lists of potential upsets, which when breached, cause us to either gently back away to an alternative position in the room, or become angry at the infraction. Small talk is first and foremost a way to test the waters with an unfamiliar person, so that you may better understand their temperament. When finding yourself positioned closely to a person who you know little about, it’s much safer to point out the rain-soaked sky than to launch into a political tirade about your views on transgender pronouns. Until you know the person more intimately, heavier topics should probably be kept under wraps, lest you find yourself on the receiving end of a cold, offended stare.

“[Small talk is] the human equivalent of dogs sniffing butts.”

Intrapersona on the Philosophy Forum

Though trivial, small talk still has great revelatory power. When talking with fellow humans, much of our soul is exposed through non-verbal communication, despite our fear of being vulnerable. A response to “how was your weekend” can unveil much about the person’s character. The length of their response might indicate their level of confidence; the tone in their voice an indication of friendliness; their slightly lowered head–as if protecting themselves from attack—a exposé of a regrettable history of bullying. As a species we’re excellent communicators, and though small talk might seem bland, it’s the ideal way to learn about a person with who you’re uninformed.

As more of a person’s character is uncovered, we have the insight needed to determine whether to broach more meaningful topics—the things that we actually want to talk about. Few of us have passion for banal small talk; as soon as we understand someone more intimately, our inclination is to talk about subjects that are meaningful; questions that latch onto our soul and don’t let go. Conversation is a great educator, and deep conversation creates lasting bonds with our fellow humans, forging precious friendships that paint our lives with vibrant colour. Such friendships begin with small talk.

“What is a friend? A single soul dwelling in two bodies.”

Aristotle

We cannot conceive of a new person fully without modest first steps; the necessary, cautious introduction to somebody’s soul. Great friendships have small beginnings— profundity is preceded by much insipid natter, whether it be about the city-darkening rainclouds, the football results from the weekend, or the latest remarkable idiocy from Donald. Shallow topics are an invaluable stepping stone to greater things.

“Thomas’s mistake, like most of the behavior he leaked into the world, had been avoidable: to join another human being in a situation that virtually demanded unscripted, spontaneous conversation, and thus to risk total moral and emotional dissolution. Death by conversation, and all that.”

Ben Marcus, Leaving the Sea

Small talk is also a way to communicate that you’re interested in somebody—idle chat that reveals a desire to understand the person a little better. This may be painless for an extrovert, but for those crippled with shyness, the process can be formidable. In light of the importance of friendship and meaningful connection, those of us naturally blessed with confidence should always make the effort with introverts, despite them often coming across as coldly closed-off. Underneath the restrained exterior is a lion wanting to roar.

Then there’s awkward silence to consider, a vacuum so dreaded that we’ll say anything to fill it, sometimes with amusing consequences:

“Have you always had a moustache?”

Abigail’s Party

We abhor silence around others because it seems to communicate the following: I’m not interested in what you have to sayWhen we’re thrust into a cramped situation with another human being, with nothing else to entertain us, not saying anything seems rude. We’re making a conscious choice to stay silent, and that decision can be interpreted as antipathy, or even animosity, towards the other person. Deep down we all want to be liked, and to be surrounded by caring friends. Small talk provides the initial steps towards this goal. Our hopeless, 21st-century addiction to mobile phones acts as a deadly poison to friendship-forming—it’s so much easier to assume the role of an unsociable screen-zombie, staring blankly at our devices instead of having the courage to ask about somebody’s day.

For some people, small talk seems the summit of their capability; a result of a lack of education, exploration, and daring in their lives. Progressing to meaningful topics is impossible if you aren’t aware of them. We need to read books from insightful authors; consume penetrating, thoughtful YouTube videos, and board sky-bound Airbuses towards remote and exotic destinations, if we want our conversation and personality to progress past mundanity. Rarely does Facebook, Instagram, or any other insipid social media platform offer us the content we need to become more intriguing.

“He was permanently impressed by the most irrelevant banalities and impossible to impress with real novelty, meaning, or conflict. And he was too moronic to be properly self-loathing–so it was my duty to loathe him instead.”

Jonathan Lethem, Motherless Brooklyn

Most of us become guarded when encountering unfamiliar people, in order to protect ourselves from hurt. Their personality is obscure from the outset, and though there may be potential for a deep, meaningful relationship, until we know them better, we keep them at a safe distance. Small talk offers us the means to be necessarily vulnerable, at a slower, more agreeable pace. It’s the precursor to treasured human connection. So the next time you find yourself in close proximity with an unfamiliar person, commenting on the weather might be one of the most valuable things that you can do.

I don’t like you – want to come to my party?

daniel-pascoa-253357-unsplashPhoto by Daniel Páscoa on Unsplash

There’s certain people in this world who I just don’t like very much. My antipathy could be a consequence of their incessant, dronesome tales of work and how badly it affects their victim-like lives. It might be a result of a boastful tale of stealing somebody else’s boyfriend, in which they found no wrong. They could be overly aggressive and confrontational, which scrapes the meeker aspects of my personality. It might be all of these things and more.

Whatever the gripes, being in such a person’s company is hard work – conversation is shallow and awkward, emotions are forced, and I suspect that both of us want to be as far away from each other as possible.

So if you’re planning a social gathering, and that person happens to float within the social circles of people who you do want to attend, should you grit your teeth and invite them?

I’m hardly a high-flying socialite, but this question has still plagued me on multiple occasions. My distaste of the person and my selfishness makes it hard to extend an invite, while the kinder aspects of my nature yearns to do the right and gracious thing. 

Being fake is rarely good, and spending time with someone we dislike requires it unless we want to end up sneering at each other from across the table. Becoming an object of hate doesn’t do much for the self-esteem, so the alternative is shitty small talk, in which our phones develop an unprecedented allure. As much as we desperately want to make some kind of connection, if only to expel the wrenching tension, neither of us can say anything that interests the other. Our hobbies, TV habits, music preferences, senses of humour and morals are completely misaligned. It’s like a teenager trying to have a conversation with an old person – they may as well be from different planets. The person in question probably doesn’t even want an invite.

“I don’t hate you.. I just don’t like that you exist” — Gena Showalter, Seduce the Darkness

It also feels like a waste of time, which I could be spending in the company of people who I enjoy. The gravity of those folk is strongest for us – we’re gladly drawn into their comfortable, socially-pleasing orbit, as opposed to being propelled away by unpleasant and jarring conversation. We only get one chance at this life – why the hell should we fritter it away with people who irritate us? Friendship circles are born from similarities – the objected person is unlikely to fit in, so it seems a waste of their time too. Your friends might also be wondering why you invited such an abrasive person, with your hard-won reputation taking a hit in the process.

On the other hand, I don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings, as I know how awful it feels. I’ve spent some hours on a dark and lonely lunch-time bench, head down, wondering why I was such a despicable loser who not even a mother could love. Being left out can seem an insult to your personality – the very thing that defines you. Inflicting this kind of hurt onto somebody is painful in itself.

Kindness is a wonderful thing, and putting the person’s needs before your own is a genuinely nice thing to do, even though every aspect of your soul revolts against it. The simple decency of inviting the person might help them to make new friends – finer gifts are difficult to find. The favour might even be returned, giving you the chance to meet new people and form beneficial, lasting relationships. Stone-cold exclusivity, while infinitely more comfortable, doesn’t yield such benefits.

As people, we can be awfully judgmental. The aversion that we feel towards certain humans is a direct result of our judgments about them, and though they may be shared by others, and based on solid reality, they still darken our lives. Once a dislike judgment has been made about someone, the good becomes imperceptible, even when on display. Unless (and even if) the person is a psychopathic mass-murderer, they still have some undeniably good aspects to their character. We have to force ourselves to see them, and by doing so, we’re demonstrating admirable compassion, with an increased appreciation for the person as a result. Judging sabotages friendships; it’s the arch-enemy of much-needed human connection. While advocating complete non-judgment would be foolish (we need it to prevent ourselves from being harmed), a lessened approach is infinitely  more humane and loveable.

“When we dislike someone, or feel threatened by someone, the natural tendency is to focus on something we dislike about the person, something that irritates us. Unfortunately, when we do this–instead of seeing the deeper beauty of the person and giving them energy–we take energy away and actually do them harm. All they know is that they suddenly feel less beautiful and less confident, and it is because we sapped their energy.” — James Redfield, The Celestine Prophecy

Sticking with the same old people can also become dreadfully boring. That objectible person who you’re so averse to include might be refreshingly stimulating, if you abandoned your judgments and gave them a chance. Difficult to do, but an undeniably worthy pursuit.

The next time that you’re drawing up a guest list and you find yourself in this sticky situation, tap into your compassion and try to see the good in people. Ruthless and relentless judging is valuable for nobody. By keeping an open mind, and practising non-judgment, you’re opening yourself up to greater emotional connection with the world, even those who you’ve already lumped into the dislike group. With luck and a little effort, you might form a lasting friendship.

How to talk good

rawpixel-236143-unsplashPhoto by rawpixel on Unsplash

For the first time since we’ve been together (2 years), my girlfriend recently used her telephone to call my telephone. I stared at the device in silence for a solid five seconds before picking it up, and intentionally applied a miffed tone to my opening words. I didn’t have a clue what to make of this diversion from the norm, and I wanted her to understand, in no uncertain terms, that I was far from comfortable with it. After some seconds of conversation, it became clear that she didn’t have a solid reason for choosing to call instead of text. I suspect that she just wanted to irritate me a bit.

It goes without saying that texting is all the rage these days. People who socially communicate by calling are often to be found sporting tartan slippers and really-quite-lovely beige cardigans, the perfect casual-wear for nestling into the sofa while they catch up with their middle-aged son, who is silently resenting them for not texting. Perhaps it’s their gnarled, arthritic hands that rob them of the dexterity needed to text. Or maybe, in their infinite wisdom, they understand that talking is a much better form of communication.

The problem with texting is that you’re missing out on two major elements of communication: tone, and body language. Have you ever tried to convey sarcasm in text message? It’s fucking difficult, even with the use of emojis. Your jokes are destined to be met with a stony-expression, and your subject left wondering when it was that you became mentally disabled. This form of communication is literally retarded, missing two crucial aspects of something that is, quite frankly, difficult at the best of times. We need every tool available to us if we’re to successfully transmit the thrilling tale of how we got a chunk of bacon stuck up our nostril as a child. Text message just isn’t up to the job when it comes to such important stories, and they are important, when you consider how much they bond us to our fellow humans. A well-told bacon-anatomy story could be the difference between you being flush with chums, or alone with a noose around your neck. Millennials may be able to hold four text-conversations at once, but it’s unlikely that any of them will have any real depth. This can only be achieved with time, and the full use of your brain.

Another reason for our obsession with texting is our love of distraction and feeling busy. We anticipate every dopamine-releasing ding of our phones, as it means that we can do something easier for a little while and put off the difficult thing in front of us, whether that’s a challenging project, or using our actual mouths to talk to a friend.

Sherry Turkle – a social psychologist at MIT – believes that actual conversation makes us better empathisers, more creative, and more fulfilled. It’s obvious really – of course we’re not going to be able to empathise as well when we’re missing key aspects of communication. Our creativity is bound to be stunted for the same reason – there’s less stimulus for us to react to. Being more fulfilled speaks to the effectiveness of face-to-face or vocal communication in making ourselves known to our interlocutor.

When it comes to romantic relationships, research found that students who spent a lot of time texting were less satisfied with their partnership than other couples. Texting lacks the intimacy that comes with seeing your partner’s face while you’re telling them about your shitty day, or explaining to them why it isn’t acceptable to use the last batch of coffee beans and “forgetting” to replace them. You may be able to get away with that shit over text message, but not face-to-face. Maybe one of the reasons we like texting so much is because it’s a less effective way to communicate, keeping our abysmal secrets safely cloaked. We’d rather be guarded than vulnerable, because there’s less chance of our uncountable negative qualities being revealed. Not only is face-to-face communication more exposing, it’s also more mentally demanding, as our answers must be delivered almost immediately. There’s no social points to be won with awkward ten-second silences while we think of the “perfect” response. Texting is simply easier, but at a cost of decreased intimacy and affection with those around us.

If you have a request to make of someone at work, you’re also shooting yourself in the foot if you don’t do it in person. A Harvard Business Study found that a face-to-face request is a mammoth 34 times more effective than email. This is due to the frequency of email scams, and the trustworthy, non-verbal cues that are conveyed during a regular old-fashioned conversation. Our faces are much more assuring than a dodgy link in an email.

The next time you’re about to text a friend, give them a call instead. It’ll be less convenient, and they’ll probably think you’re a fucking weirdo, but you might become closer to each other as a result. Even better, meet up with them in person, risk embarrassment and social awkwardness, and gain a potential companion instead of a distanced associate. Communication began as face-to-face grunts, and while we may have advanced a little since those hairy, savannah-dwelling days, that method of discourse still reigns supreme.

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