For vast eons our species spent many hours every day gathered around the fire circle, connecting. One anthropologist describes this ritual as an on-going encounter group. As the nomads related the events of the day, told stories from the past, played matchmaker, processed conflicts between the members, and planned the next day’s foraging, they learned the key skills required to emotionally bond with others. Such bonds were critical for their survival. The deeper their connections, the more they could rely on the support of others, should they need it.
So we evolved to enjoy relating deeply to others. While almost any sort of friendly connection feels good, the more intimate it is, the greater the satisfaction.
Yet many of us have social lives skewed toward shallow relating. There is nothing wrong with casual connections – they are obviously a source of real joy. The problem arises when superficial relating becomes excessive, consuming time that could otherwise be devoted to primal uppers such as genuine intimacy or walking in nature. Typical examples of such excess are the hours spent engaging in small talk on the phone, posting on social media, and chatting in bars and cafes.
A key reason for the prevalence of idle chitchat is its easiness. To develop deeper connections often requires some communication skills, such as disclosing feelings. But to do that we need to know what we are feeling. Yet most people lack such self-awareness, because civilized culture emphasizes knowledge of facts and figures rather than the deeper landscape inside.
So schools provide almost zero emotional education, and popular media provides little help. Consider the late night talk shows. The emphasis is on witty repartee, one-upmanship, light comedy, and sensationalism – rarely any open and honest dialogue. Few television hosts have the ability to navigate emotional territory, excepting, perhaps, Oprah, who pioneered a feelings-oriented style that ultimately proved very popular. In movies, the feelings most commonly depicted are anger and fear rather than the full range of human emotional expression. And few films show people actually talking about their feelings. Divorced from our emotional well, our relationships remain shallow.
Even if we have emotional skills, we may still favor idle talk because it is emotionally safe. Intimacy requires that you drop your defenses and reveal who you really are. To do this effectively requires a secure context such as the fire circle where our ancestors sat. But such emotional safety is absent from most of our social relations. Public places, such as bars or social media sites, are too exposed to potentially untrustworthy others to encourage more intimate communication. But even in private places, such as the home, communication may be superficial simply because there isn’t a sufficient level of trust between family members.
Shallow relating can be so dominant that it becomes a powerful habit. So we rarely notice the lack of anything deeper. Yet research shows that compared to unhappy folks, the happiest people engage in much less small talk and many more substantive conversations about feelings and relationships. (“Eavesdropping on happiness: well-being is related to having less small talk and more substantive conversations”, Matthias R. Mehl and others, Psychological Science, April 2010 21: 539-541.) People who get a taste for authentic connecting as a result of working with a therapist, or attending a personal growth workshop, or being a member of an emotionally intimate group, usually want more. They learn to place limits on shallow discourse.
To “get down” into the roots of intimacy requires practice and skill which is hard to get without training, and a safe place to connect deeply. Our ancestors got both around the fire night after night. But modern culture has no similar intimacy-building tradition. What we moderns really need to create intimate community is a rough facsimile of the fire circle.
Fortunately, one model exists: on-going small groups where people meet regularly, often for years, even decades, and develop much more emotional intimacy than is common in normal social relationships, even between close friends. I’ve been a member of several such groups for collectively more than thirty years and if you want a big boost in primal happiness I urge you to join one. They go by various names, but I call them support teams.