1 Big Idea to Think About

  • In a world that is ever-increasing in loneliness, it is our essential relationships, the vital few, that are more important than ever. Focusing on these vital few relationships will bring us greater satisfaction and fulfillment.

1 Way You Can Apply This

  • Develop a heightened awareness of the lost art of deep connections around you.
    • How often are you on a phone when people who matter to you are there around you?
    • How often are you on a screen instead of looking face-to-face with someone?
    • How often are they at their times when all of you are on screens instead of interacting together?
    • How often are you prioritizing connection with people miles away from you, perhaps people you don’t know at all and are very unlikely ever to know, over the relationships that are essential, vital, the vital few?

1 Question to Ask

  • How would an essentialist foster deep relationships despite the challenges of this non-essentialist world?

Key Moments From the Show 

  • The epidemic of loneliness (4:14)
  • What we really want is deep, meaningful connection (6:03)
  • The Harvard study of adult development (11:26)
  • Relationships matter (13:55)
  • The impact of technology on our social connections (16:49)
  • Your homework assignment: Develop a heightened awareness of the lost art of deep connection (23:38)
  • How would an essentialist foster deep relationships (25:42)

Links and Resources You’ll Love from the Episode

Greg McKeown:

Before we get started with the podcast today, I wanted to tell you about a completely free 30 day email course that I have been creating, actually for months, for you. It comes with a printable workbook. It’s called Less, but Better. It includes ideas and practices from both Essentialism and Effortless, and it’s really designed to help you know where to start, and for all of us, we always have to start somewhere, whatever our experience with these ideas has been to this point in our life. So you go to gregmckeown.com it’s on the homepage, it is completely free and it is designed for you, and you can sign up in less than 10 seconds. So just go to gregmckeown.com it’s on the homepage for the new and beautifully designed course, Less, but Better.

Welcome everyone to a new podcast series. The series is called Fewer but Deeper: The art of meaningful connections. In this series, we’ll be delving into an essential yet often overlooked aspect of our lives, the profound impact of cultivating deep, meaningful relationships in a world increasingly dominated by superficial connections and non essential distractions. In each episode, we’ll explore the contrasts between an essentialist approach focusing on fewer but richer relationships, and the pitfalls of an increasingly non essentialist lifestyle, where quantity of relationships often overshadows quality. We’ll bring you surprising insights and conventional strategies and thought provoking discussions that challenge the norm. Our journey will take us through the realms of technology, psychology, personal experiences, examining how the modern world’s complexities can so easily lead to shallow interactions, isolation and loneliness. From the intriguing concept of AI managed relationships to the pitfalls of digital only connections, we’ll unpack how today’s society inadvertently fosters superficial bonds. We’ll also offer unique, actionable advice in every episode on building and nurturing relationships that truly enrich your life. So, join us as we uncover the essence of what it means to connect deeply in today’s fast paced world. although really I should say relentlessly reactive world. Whether you’re looking to transform your personal relationships or understand the societal shift towards shallow interactions, or simply seeking a more meaningful approach to your social life, fewer but deeper will be your guide to rediscovering the art of meaningful connections. So let’s get to it.

Now, remember, in this series especially, to not try to take the journey alone. Bring someone along with you, bring your whole team with you, bring your whole family with you, your extended family with you, so that when you get together you’re not just talking reactively about whatever is going on. You’re meeting and talking intentionally. So share what you learn in this episode with somebody else within the next 24 to 48 hours.

So how are you doing? I mean, how are you doing really? That follow up question catches people off guard. We are so used to offering our rote responses to that casual question, but I found almost every time it nudges people from the surface into a deeper, more fulfilling interaction, and we could all use a bit more of that.

Recently, I read a report on loneliness. It’s no surprise at the surface that loneliness is increasing in the developed world and its effects are far reaching from mental and physical health to economic and societal concerns. You can read the article yourself. It’s called “Loneliness and time alone in everyday life”. It’s written by Danvers and Effinger, professors, as I understand it, in Arizona, and it was published in the Journal of Research in Personality.

It’s an extensive study to try to investigate the relationship between these subjective feelings of loneliness and the objective measures of social isolation. The study employed electronically activated recorders, EAR for short, to be able to objectively measure time spent alone, providing a novel approach to assessing social isolation. The research revealed that, while there is a correlation between loneliness and time spent alone, it’s weak. This indicates that subjective feelings of loneliness are not always directly proportional to the actual amount of time spent in isolation.

So a key part of the finding and perhaps a surprising one is that being in isolation is not the same as being lonely. In fact, they found that the cutoff is about 75%. People can be in solitude and enjoy that solitude to around 75%, and that without feeling isolated. This research helps to establish that what people want is not just more time around people, not just more interaction although of course, if you’re in total isolation that’s going to be a problem. What people really want is deep connection, real connection, meaningful connection, and the trouble with that finding is that our modern world is so tilted towards the shallow interaction, the non-essentialist relationship, let’s say, because the irony of this loneliness epidemic is that we live in a time where it has never been easier to connect or reconnect with family, friends, old friends and an almost infinite supply of people. Still, many of us feel more isolated than ever because, as it turns out, the solution to feeling more connected is not more social interactions, it’s more meaningful interactions. So it appears that the essentialist design ethic of less but better applies to relationships too, where we might say fewer but deeper.

The Harvard study of adult development is another study, and it’s one of the longest running studies of adult life ever done. It’s a remarkable study. It began in 1939 and tracked the lives of 724 men for over 75 years. Over the decades, researchers collected a vast range of data on their physical and emotional well-being, work lives, family lives and more. Robert Waldinger, a professor at Harvard University and the current director of the study, distilled its extensive findings into a simple truth Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.

So this is a conclusion that underscores the fundamental importance of social connections and relationships in contributing to long-term happiness, health and overall life satisfaction. And the study’s insights reveal that it’s not just the number of friends or social connections that matter. Whatever Facebook and Instagram and every other social media platform wants you to believe, it is the quality of close relationships that has a powerful influence on our health. People who are more socially connected to family, friends and local community are happier, physically healthier and live longer than people who are less well connected. The study also found clearly that it’s not just the presence of relationships, but the quality of them that counts. As absolutely everyone who has ever lived in a high-conflict marriage knows, it’s not just about presence of people. It’s not just whether you’re with people or not. It’s what that interaction is like. Is it safe, is it protective? Is it damaging? The same, of course, is true in a work environment. Anyone who has ever been employed in a situation that would be described as high-conflict knows what that experience is.

So this research offers a crucial message about our fast-paced, often individualistic societies. That is this nurturing deep, meaningful relationships is a key ingredient, perhaps the most important ingredient, for a fulfilling life.

Something I have found, as I have shared Essentialism with people all over the world, is that people bring their own bias to the book. They read it through whatever dominant lens and dominant logic they have before they come to the book. If they are, which is not so surprising these days, deeply entrenched in the idea that the highest objective in life is self-actualization. That is radical individualism, where the goal is to just achieve what you want in life and get what you want, and design a life, not that really matters, but to design a life that just, well, sounds like a designer life. They can read Essentialism in a way that was certainly not intended. In fact, they can read it in a way that it isn’t even written, because core and deep inside the essentialist philosophy is the idea that people matter, that relationships matter and that some relationships are disproportionately important. That is, that each of us is responsible to a few people in a way that we are not responsible to everybody.

And here’s the thing as we have moved ever towards the digital world, forget even getting to the metaworld that Zuckerberg wants to create, just as we have endlessly moved towards more digital interaction with other people. It is not a neutral journey. Technology is not neutral. It is not, as so many people seem to think it is, amoral, because the designers of the technology underneath the stack of the interface that you actually use and under the full technology stack below it if you could even see the data centers with their forests of machines below all of that and perhaps entirely invisible both to the designers and to us as users are a set of beliefs, a worldview. And if that worldview were, for example, to be very individualistic, or if that worldview were to be something like we want to maximize the amount of time that people spend on this service, which clearly is a presumption of all of the social media companies, then what might you create?

Technology has a complex impact on our social connections. Of course, it does offer opportunities for connectivity, but it seems to have, for the last 100 years, to have accelerated our ability to connect with people a long way from us. Add to the cost, add the trade-off of relationships closest to us, and in all of this the risk is that it can erode the quality of our interactions. Just think of the meeting inflation that has happened since the lockdowns. Technology was so important in being able to bridge human connection when we were literally forced in many countries in the world to not be able to see people, and the ramifications of that, I think, are still profound and will continue to echo and boomerang through the world.

So many people did not meet this 75% standard. They were not having connection with other humans for 25% of the time, and for some people that was true for months at a time. For some, in the worst hit scenarios, could be in that situation for a year or for two years effectively. But with that change, as we got that technology so ubiquitously available to us, it means that our face-to-face interaction with people has been narrowed even further. So it’s simply true that there are now more meetings than there were before the lockdowns and more people are invited to those meetings, because it’s easier to invite them, and because people feel anxious if they haven’t been physically seen, so they want to be seen in those meetings. And so you have more meetings with more people in attendance at those meetings, sometimes with people attending two meetings at the same time, or even three, just to be seen.

Well, that is almost the definition of superficial interaction. Social media, instant messaging often encourage brief, surface-level interactions that lack the depth and emotional richness of face-to-face conversations. These platforms prioritize quantity of interactions over quality, leading to a proliferation of shallow connections. Of course, we know what I’m about to say, but it still warrants a reminder. The constant distraction, the ubiquity of smartphones and other digital devices means that people are often distracted during in-person interactions. Have you not done that to somebody in the last 24 hours? Has someone not done that to you in the last 24 hours? That constant state of partial attention naturally and obviously hinders the development of deep, meaningful relationships and conversations.

Add to this the echo chambers and polarization. Online platforms YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, I could go on and on, often create echo chambers where people are exposed mainly to views similar to their own. So there is this social polarization and a reduced ability to connect with and understand those that hold different views from us. As we become more extreme, we perceive others as becoming more extreme, and the cycle continues.

Technology has impaired social skills, especially for younger generations growing up with this ubiquitous technology and especially those that went through those lockdowns and became almost of necessity, consumed with digital interaction. There is not just a risk but evidence that they have not developed the essential social skills that previous generations have taken for granted.

Non-essentialist relationships are everywhere. There’s the false sense of connection. Virtual interactions can sometimes create a false sense of being connected, masking the underlying loneliness and social isolation an individual might feel. There’s all the comparison and envy, as people feel the inadequacy and decreased life satisfaction which can impair genuine social connections. And then, in what at least 10 years ago seemed an extreme scenario, but seems more prevalent as gaming has become so consuming for so many, you have substitution for real relationships. Virtual worlds and online games can become a serious substitute or I should say an unserious substitute for real world relationships where people can escape to what feels easier and more rewarding than navigating complex real life social dynamics.

There’s the true story of a man who’s spending 10 hours, 12 hours, a day, in a virtual world where he gets married to his virtual partner while still being married to an actual woman in the actual world. Of course, the virtual world was easier because you’re not dealing with any of the complexity or the layers, all the vulnerability, that make personal relationships close at home so challenging and so rewarding.

So this is just part one of the series. This is an exploration into the lost art of deep connection. We’ve reviewed briefly the research “Loneliness and time alone in everyday life”, and also the Harvard study of adult development, the longitudinal study that we discussed, and we’ve contrasted what we’ve learned from that research with the dominant reality of the digital worlds that have been created for us, that we have entered, sometimes really unknowingly, and we’ve contrasted the insights and knowledge from those studies with the rules built into the digital world that we have entered, often naively, unknowingly, without really seeing the trade-off, the cost that is involved.

So here’s your first homework assignment. It is a simple one.

I want you to develop a heightened awareness to the lost art of deep connections around you. I want you to wake up, as it were, for the next week to just notice, just look around you, look at your behavior, stand apart from yourself and look at yourself. How often are you on a phone when people who matter to you are there around you? How often are you on a screen instead of looking face to face with someone? How often are they at their times when all of you are on screens instead of interacting together? How often are you prioritizing connection with people miles away from you, perhaps people you don’t know at all and are very unlikely ever to know over the relationships that are essential, vital, the vital few?

I’m not asking you to make a big shift in your behavior. That may happen, naturally, this week. I just want you to see, because this has happened so fast and so ubiquitously, that is, everybody seems to be behaving this way that we don’t really see it anymore. We are, as we’ve discussed before, like fish who discover water last. It’s everywhere. This non-essentialist reality and how it affects our relationships is so normalized that we don’t even see it anymore. And if you can’t see a problem, if you’re in complete denial of it because it’s invisible, then of course you can’t change anything, you can’t do anything about it. But that is not the same as it not having an impact on you. Not being able to see the way that non-essential relationships hurt the essential relationships is not the same as it not doing it. And a question to go with your observation: How would an essentialist foster deep relationships despite the challenges of this non-essentialist world? I’m not even asking you to implement that change in this conversation. I’m just asking you to reflect on it, to try to contrast what you see with what an essentialist might do.

An essentialist would surely prioritize relationships actively, choosing to prioritize meaningful interactions over less important commitments, making conscious decisions about where to spend time and energy, focusing on relationships that are truly valuable and enriching. Essentialists would choose quality over quantity, focusing on the quality of the interactions, not just the quantity of them. Of course, if there aren’t any happening at all, you have to start with quantity as well. But an essentialist in general would prefer deep, meaningful conversations with a few close individuals over superficial interactions with many, however many those people are. Essentialists would set boundaries. They would establish clear boundaries to protect time and space for the relationships that matter most. They’d be saying no to excessive work commitments or even some social engagements that don’t contribute positively to their highest point of influence, which would be with those people who matter the most. Essentialists would communicate intentionally. They’d be checking in with the important people in their lives in a meaningful way. Essentialists would emphasize a certain kind of listening and pathic two-way communication to truly understand and connect with each other.

But again, as we just come to this conclusion now, the homework assignment isn’t to try and implement everything I just described. It isn’t even really to implement anything I just described about how an essentialist would develop meaningful relationships and deep connection in the world. It is simply, this week, to observe, to see the effect of non-essentialism on your relationships right now, to observe it around you, to see it, and that’s it. Maybe, if you want to go even further with it, write a little in your journal. That is, don’t keep a time log, but to keep a log of where you see non-essential habits affecting your relationships. That’s the homework assignment awareness. And I think if you stop to see that, you will see the relevance of making a shift and the relevance of this whole series.

So that’s part one of this Fewer but Deeper series. This is the art of meaningful connections. What is one thing that has stood out to you in today’s episode? What is one thing that you can do differently as a result of it? Well, I already gave you the homework assignment, but maybe something else really caught your attention and you should start with that and who can you share this conversation with? How can you take this conversation here and turn it into a meaningful connection with somebody else, so that they also can start to increase their awareness of the effect of non-essentialism on the relationships around them? Thank you, and I’ll see you next time.