August 1, 2021
I've been thinking quite a bit lately about “shared experiences.”
My pondering on this matter was sparked by a conversation I had during my recent podcast with Aubrey Marcus in which we discussed the idea that men, in particular, tend to bond and form friendships over shared experiences such as hiking, frisbee golf, paddleboarding, pickleball, tennis, jiu-jitsu, triathlons, obstacle course races, hunting, fishing, and the like—even more so than women, who—gosh-darn-it—seem to be able to walk into a random cocktail party or coffeeshop and form friendships by simply being social together, with no crawling under barbed wire, sweat, blood, or tears necessary to develop a bond with a fellow human. Obviously, this is a bit of a stereotype and paints both sexes with a relatively broad brush, and also obviously, shared experiences between males don't have to involve sports per se, but can also include music, food and cooking, movies, yard work, volunteering, a night out on the town, and the like, but the relative comradeship nature of male bonding has indeed been studied and verified for decades. Compared to most females, us fellas just seem to do a better job forming friendships by hitting each other in the face and then going out for a beer afterward.
Perhaps one reason for the power of shared experiences, and, in particular, the power of shared experiences that involve the type of pain, challenge, and discomfort that men seem to be more attracted to, is related to an experiment performed a few years ago in which researchers had a group of people experience a painful situation together (eating a hot chili pepper), while a control group experienced a neutral situation together (eating a relatively less “painful” hard candy). People who shared the negative, challenging, or painful experience together turned out to be more likely to perceive a social bond and were keener afterward to cooperate with one another compared to the people who shared a neutral experience, reporting more trusting interpersonal relationships and increased perceived bonding with the other “strangers” in the experiment.
But I'll leave the psychology and science behind male vs. female social bonding for another day because in this article, I'd like to instead focus upon the practical aspects of what I've personally learned and experienced after dwelling upon this idea of shared experiences a bit more after my podcast discussion with Aubrey (video clip of that section below).
The Discomfort Of Shared Experiences
Let's start here.
I have identified that I have a problem.
See, I'm a loner. Always have been. I describe this issue of mine in great detail here, but, in a nutshell, I'm just one of those guys who doesn't need to be with people or be around people to be happy.
A social butterfly I am not. At least, that's the story I've been telling myself for a long, long time.
Perhaps it’s genetics or perhaps it’s because I was homeschooled K-12 in rural Idaho. Whatever the case may be, I’m “that guy” at busy conferences who ducks away to my room to go recharge my batteries every few hours—something I can only accomplish by escaping the crowds and being entirely by myself. I thrive on long walks, multi-hour hikes, and extended bike rides—usually alone. I become exhausted at networking events and cocktail parties and often slip away early to sleep, to curl up with a good book, or simply to meditate and breathe. Even at group and family events, I can often be found off in some quiet corner reading or strumming on my guitar or ukulele.
As a matter of fact, when I was a child, my parents had to coax me, persuade me and yes, even threaten me with punishment, to actually get my nose out of my book and be gracious enough to ever-so-briefly emerge from my bedroom to say a quick hello to any guests we had at the house, after which I would subsequently rush back to my room and curl up once again with my book (I’d often read until 3 or 4 am and consume several books each day and night!).
For the longest time, I've justified such activities as evidence of the purity and nobility of my independent, self-sufficient spirit, even going so far as to lord the superiority of my introversion by citing books such as Susan Cain's The Power Of Introverts. Yep, I don't need to waste time sipping wine with you unproductive Epicureans, because I'm hardwired to be hyper-creative, focused, productive, and not dependent upon social interactions for happiness.
But upon much self-reflection of late, I've realized that I was, for the most part, wrong.
Sure, I'm a little bit introverted. Maybe more than a little. That's OK. Sure, I'm happy as a clam off by myself doing my own thing without any other human beings, and in moderation, that's OK too. But here's the important realization I've had: I now believe that the root of my hyper-introverted, self-sufficient, loner status was not fully a special sort of genetic hardwiring or psychological tendency, but rather…
That's right—my powerful tendency to introvert has been partially based upon the highly problematic emotion of fear. Fear of being vulnerable. Fear of needing to impress others. Fear of introducing the unpredictability of other humans that threatened my fear-based desire to control as many elements of a situation as possible. Fear stemming from my childhood as a homeschooled kid who would wander into social scenarios slightly unsure of myself because I was often the “odd one out” and who would, as a defensive mechanism, either create an impenetrable and arrogant shield of confidence about myself that would keep me from needing to be emotional or vulnerable or simply duck off on my own to do my own thing, justifying such activities as noble introversion.
Of course, this is the same emotion of fear that Dr. David Hawkin's describes in his Map Of Consciousness book as one of the lowest vibrating emotions that exists, in which one sees the world as dangerous and unsafe and often feels paranoid or trapped if they cannot control a scenario or engage in highly predictable activities.
In other words, I've lived much of my life scared of shared experiences with my fellow humans.
The Importance Of Shared Experiences
What exactly do I mean by that?
Look, this isn't rocket science. A shared experience is exactly what it sounds like: experiencing, seeing, hearing, feeling, or doing the same thing as someone else, usually with someone else (although, arguably, one flavor of a shared experience could also include sharing the same experience, but not together, such as when you call your friend on the phone to talk about the same fantastic meal at the same restaurant that you both had the pleasure to experience that week). Just like that thrilling aforementioned experiment of eating hot sauces together, shared experiences tend to strengthen the bonds we feel for one another because we participated in a bonding activity together.
A shared experience is taking that first bite of a juicy ribeye steak as you lock eyes with your buddy across the table who is suddenly having the same taste bud orgasm you are. It is not sidling up to the steakhouse bar solo and telling yourself you can enjoy a fantastic steak meal all-by-yourself-while-you-watch-the-basketball-game-on-TV-thank-you-very-much.
A shared experience is an icy sunrise plunge into a river with your friends, the morning after you all had a few drinks out on the town. It is not the daily, loner foray into your cold plunge where nobody can bug or bother your attempts to achieve nervous system nirvana.
A shared experience is screaming at the top of your lungs with your fellow fans as your favorite team wins the championship—whether you're watching from a giant TV in the neighbor's basement or wiping hot dog mustard off your face in the actual stadium. It is not monitoring the game from your phone while working overtime in your office.
A shared experience is crossing the finish line of an obstacle course race with your co-workers, covered in caked mud, callouses, scrapes, and barbwire wounds. It is not months of isolated training and a day of battling obstacles all by your lonesome.
A shared experience is watching the newest thriller adventure movie while snuggled up with your family on the couch. It is not watching it by yourself on an airplane.
Look, there's nothing inherently wrong with mowing down a steak solo at the end of a long day, an early morning isolated cold plunge, viewing a sporting event from your digital device, competing all-on by yourself, or viewing entertainment in the absence of others, but I would argue that all those activities completed without the presence of other humans are deprived of their full dopamine-inducing, human-connecting potential.
Shared experiences have proven positive influences on emotional well-being and connectedness, and make life more enjoyable too. Heck, science says…
…in one study, for example, participants viewed a series of positive and negative images. In some trials, their friend simultaneously viewed the image, but in other trials, participants viewed the image alone. Participants reported enjoying images more when a friend simultaneously viewed the image, and show increased activation of the neural reward systems in the brain during a shared viewing experience. Another study similarly found that individuals enjoy photographs more when viewed together with a friend.
There is also an amplification of our emotional response to an experience when we share it with others. One study demonstrated that shared experiences can increase enjoyment of tasty foods and decrease enjoyment of bitter unenjoyable foods. Another study demonstrated that individuals viewing positive images with another person find the images even more positive compared to viewing them solo, but they also found negative shared images more negative, scary videos scarier, and sad videos sadder. Further research demonstrates, for example, that the disgust you might display when tasting an unpleasant food is a disgust you'll display in a far more animated fashion when tasting that unpleasant food with your homies. Misery loves company (though, of course, the opposite applies, too—the “oohs” and “ahs” you mutter when sipping a wildly flavorful red wine are going to be a bit more ooh-ey and ah-ey when sipping with others).
Interestingly, a recent seven-experiment study on shared experiences found that it's not really the amplification of emotions or increased enjoyment that seems to be at the core of the human desire for shared experiences, but, rather, social connection.
That makes sense when you think about it. If God designed humans to have an enhanced neurochemical and neurotransmitters response when sharing experiences with others, He may have, in the same that many of our ancestral tendencies are wired up, have intended this natural response as a bit of a built-in survival mechanism too. And indeed, neuroscientists actually identify loneliness as a state of hypervigilance with origins that lie in our own hunter-gatherer past. Much of the original research in this field was led by John Cacioppo, at the Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience in Chicago. In his book Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World, the author, Vivek H. Murthy, explains how Cacioppo’s “evolutionary theory of loneliness” originated with an observation that we humans—and primates too—need to belong to an intimate social group, a family, or a band, in order to survive. Once separated from a group and finding yourself alone or amongst strangers, you experience a fight-or-flight response because your body understands that being alone without the protection of your friends or camaraderie of your village, or being with potentially unpredictable or threatening strangers, is classified by your internal physiology as an emergency. This hypervigilance in response to isolation is embedded in our nervous system to produce the anxiety that we now associate with loneliness. We breathe fast, our heart races, our blood pressure rises, we don’t sleep, and we experience a defensive—you guessed it—fear. In a sort of negative feedback loop, this fear can drive away people who might actually want to help and stop us from doing what would benefit us most in a lonely situation, namely, reaching out to others.
In other words, if you got banished from the village a long time ago, it could result in near-certain death. Thus, your biology is hardwired to not want that isolation to happen—even if, these days, that lonely banishment is instead a night on Facebook Messenger rather than being out at a restaurant with your friends.
Even the Bible, which, as I write about here, forms the base foundation of all my wisdom-seeking and thus is my go-to guide whenever I'm tackling a personal issue or researching how I might become a better human, discusses the concept of koinonia, which is a Greek word defined as fellowship or sharing or participation with fellow Christians to form a mutual bond, and, in this case, not only shared experiences, but a deep, eternal relationship with one another. This ultimately results in, as pastor John Piper writes about in this article on needing each other, “a profound and eternal relationship of love that should express itself in joyful and affectionate service to for each other’s good.”
Related to this concept, I was recently reading the book of Hebrews, and, in Chapter 3, came across this saying in verse 13: “Exhort one another every day—while there still is a day—that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.”
This is important.
Because shared experiences not only amplify the joy and meaning and connection in our relationships, but also allow us to encourage each other to be better, to challenge each other to rise to a new level of physical, mental, and spiritual health, and yes, even to hold each other accountable and to nudge a brother or sister when they're being a fool, making a poor decision, or erring from the straight and narrow path of peace, joy, love, and goodness that allows us to become more like Jesus Christ each day.
In the presence of this kind of camaraderie, it's pretty difficult to become a depressed and lonely introvert, isn't it? At least, that's what I've found to be true for me. How about you?
How To Have More Shared Experiences
So let's now briefly dive into the nitty-gritty.
Though of course it would seem intuitive to simply begin to go out of you way to invite friends and family members to join you in activities that you may have in the past embarked upon in a self-sufficient, solo manner, I'd still like to leave you with a few practical tips for “fabricating” more shared experiences in your life, especially if you—like me—find yourself pulled towards solo, loner, and introverted activities and have identified—also like me—that much of that tendency is due to a desire for control, fear of vulnerability, and a selfish resistance to want to open yourself up to the messy unpredictable nature of shared experiences with other imperfect humans.
First, don't use media as a way to escape from people. I'm as guilty as anyone else of skipping a lunchtime meeting or business dinner so that I can work, but halfway through work, find myself checking out a few YouTube videos because work suddenly becomes to stressful to do while consuming a meal. So as relaxing as it can be at the end of a long day to flip on a documentary, movie, or TV show to quiet the mind from the stress and business of life, try not to let media replace real human interactions. Though I'm not a huge Hollywood fan and, for the sake of productivity, don't watch many movies or TV shows, there is definitely something special about digesting this type of entertainment together, and—rather than walking away silently—sharing your thoughts with your fellow viewers about the story, character, personalities, cinematography, and other elements of a visual feast. So save that Netflix special to watch with someone special, and not by your lonesome.
Second, though if you're introverted like me, you probably like to learn new skills by yourself and often do best when practicing solo, try to weave at least a few group learning experiences into your life, even if that means opening yourself up to the vulnerability of other people seeing you fail, seeing you struggle, seeing you lose, seeing you guess, and seeing you flustered and frustrated. That's OK. You'll find that a tiny (or gluttonous) bite of humble pie can often draw you closer to your fellow humans as they realize that you're not an impenetrable rock of a self-sufficient loner, but instead, a faulty, clumsy, messy human being just like everyone else.
Third, compete and exercise with other people at least once a week, rather than constantly hitting the gym by yourself or merely engaging in solo sports like swimming, cycling, running, paddleboarding, hiking and the like. I challenge you to choose at least one sport to bring into your life that is pretty much impossible to do without other people, like tennis or basketball or soccer or ultimate frisbee. Yes, yes, I realize that compared to simply sneaking into your home basement gym to swing a few kettlebells or quietly slipping into the lake for a brief paddleboard session, it's annoying to have to herd cats, find a time to meet up with people, schedule a drive to a gym or park, and engage in all of the logistics necessary for “group exercise”—not to mention all the chit-chatting afterward when all you want to do is get back to your “life”—but I've found it helpful to think about it this way: consider the inconvenience of introducing people into your precious fitness or competition habits a way to love and bless others, even if it's means a bit of self-sacrifice. Who knows? Maybe the whole reason God wanted you to skip the gym and instead go on a hike with a group of friends was to give you an opportunity for that one important, meaningful, inspirational conversation or that one piece of wisdom or encouragement you might be blessed to give or to receive. Don't worry: there will be plenty of other times for you to exercise all by your lonesome.
Fourth, make meals together. Many chefs, including me, like to have full control over the kitchen—performing all of the prepping, chopping, blending, mixing, boiling, grilling, baking, and plating ourselves. But, whether it's with your family or with friends, roommates, and the like, begin to establish a habit of inviting others to prepare a feast along with you. Of course, the precious bonding of breaking bread together afterwards can make this an even more meaningful shared experience. For example, if you're throwing a dinner party and having a group over to share a meal with you, consider inviting everyone over an hour earlier than usual so that you can all cook the meal together. Is somebody going to mess up and burn your world-famous sweet potato fries? Quite possibly. Are you going to laugh about it as you dip crispy burnt fries into mayonnaise to make them a bit more moist and palatable, and laugh about that experience afterwards in a manner far more meaningful than you may have if presented with a perfect plate of fries? More than likely.
Fifth, don't necessarily feel pressure for a shared experience to include deep conversation or intense personal interaction. There is nothing wrong with inviting a friend to the park to read books together for the afternoon, or to go to a coffee shop together to study, or to go paddleboarding or on a nature hike as you and your companions silently appreciate nature together. As a matter of fact, a few years ago I decided to write down a description of myself as a boy. This is actually quite a powerful exercise that can enable you to foster a deeper connection to your core, natural self that you may have erred away from over years of peer pressure or being who the world expects you to be rather than your true, authentic self, and is also a powerful exercise for helping you to form your life's purpose statement. I'll show you below my own description of myself as a boy, with the important component relevant to shared experiences in a bolded font:
“He has very high interpersonal and musical intelligence and a vivid, creative imagination. Hopelessly romantic and falls in love with people and things very easily. Highly responsible. Reads people quite well and likes to study them. Loves the hell out of stories and books. Sees the world as a book that is to be read chapter by chapter, and likes to tackle tasks with that same approach. Digests and learns new information at extremely rapid pace. Excellent storyteller, for both entertainment and education. Judgemental editor with sharp eye for errors or imperfections. Likes clearly defined boundaries and rules but generally shuns authority. Takes great pride in personal appearance. Prefers privacy but not solitude. Cares deeply about the health of others. Disciplined and very competitive with self, and also quite self critical. A unique combination of physical culture and intellectualism. Loves God, family and all things spiritual.”
By “prefers privacy, not solitude,” what I mean is that I sometimes like being around other people, but often prefer to be inside my own head while I'm doing so. You may be the same. For example, when given the choice to, say, study or write at home vs. studying or writing at, say, a coffee shop with the buzz of other people around me, I'll choose the latter. Or if I'm headed out on a long hike for silence and meditation in nature, I actually don't mind having a companion soaking in the beauty along with me vs. hiking all by myself —with no pressure to chit-chat the entire time, but to simply share the experience together. See what I mean? It's perfectly fine to give yourself permission to share experiences together without necessarily feeling as though you have to talk and interact the whole time.
Fight for a cause together.
Join a tribe or meet up together.
Root for the same sports team together.
Go to new restaurants together.
Could I keep on going with more examples?
Absolutely, but I think you're getting the idea.
In a nutshell, try to spend the next week or two analyzing everything that you currently do by yourself and ask yourself if you could instead share that activity with other people. That's exactly what I've been doing for the past couple of weeks, and I've realized that A) I'm not quite as introverted as I thought I was, and; B) despite the mild inconveniences that have arisen around sharing experiences with other people, such as scheduling times to meet up, the inevitable “cat herding” that occurs when trying to get people together, missing out on the precious podcasts or audiobooks I'd normally catch up on when solo, etc., etc., etc., the opportunity to be with people, bless people, learn from people, teach people, inspire people, be inspired by people, encourage people, be encouraged by people, and experience the electromagnetic energy of another human being far outweighs any of these inconveniences.
Finally, know your boundaries and known when to say no (especially if you're this kind of people pleaser), but also say yes just a bit more than you have been if you're a hardwired introvert like me. It's super uncomfortable and inconvenient. That's OK. You need that. Life isn't about you. It's about people and it's about loving other people. As author Scott Kaufman observes in his book Transcend: The New Science of Self-Actualization, the healthiest form of transcendence is not about leaving any parts of ourselves or anyone else behind or singularly rising above the rest of humanity. Healthy transcendence is not about being outside of the whole, or feeling superior to the whole, but being a harmonious part of the whole of human existence. Healthy transcendence involves harnessing all that you are in the service of realizing the best version of yourself so you can help raise the bar for the whole of humanity.
When paired with Dan Buettner's observation that in cultures that foster face-to-face interactions, people tend to be highly satisfied and live long lives, I think there's certainly something to be said for the power of shared experiences and the fact that many of us, especially me, could do a much better job weaving those experiences into our lives. If you want even more practical tips on how to embrace loving other people and how to disentangle yourself from loneliness, read this.
About halfway through this article, I started reading a book called The Culture Code. It’s actually a really good book for building company culture, which is extremely important for business and probably far more important than many CEOs realize. Since I was immersed in writing this article, I was pleased to see the importance of shared experiences amongst co-workers emphasized as a potent culture-building strategy.
But man-oh-man, as I hope you now realize, shared experiences are so much more important and go so far beyond company culture-building. Shared experiences form the basis for the formation of culture at the level of not just a company, but a team, a church, a city, a state, and a nation.
And shared experiences allow us to savor God’s creation in a far more amplified way than we’re able to do if we are simply wandering this planet by ourselves, dependent upon nobody, but also connected to nobody.
Like the great poet Snoop Dogg says “It ain’t no fun if the homies can’t have none.”
This concept of shared experiences is so important and so relevant, especially in – and I realize this phrase is very much overused but I'm going to use it anyways – “these times”. As a matter of fact, directly before I pressed publish on this article I saw yet another book come out on the topic, entitled Friendship In The Age Of Loneliness. That book is now added to my Kindle, and I'll likely read it in the coming weeks, but in the meantime, I couldn't help but notice and share with you part of the book's description, which goes like this:
“We are lonelier than ever. The average American hasn't made a new friend in the last five years. Research has shown that people with close friends are happier, healthier, and live longer than people who lack strong social bonds. But why—when we are seemingly more connected than ever before—can it feel so difficult to keep those bonds alive and well? Why do we spend only four percent of our time with friends?”
If that statement resonated with you, or this article resonated with you, you may also want to check out this post.
So what about you? Are you introverted and do you identify with my own realization that I’ve been living much of my life scared of shared experiences? Are you extroverted and scratching your head about how in the heck someone could ever think that way? Do you have your own thoughts, comments, feelings, and feedback to add? Leave your musings below. I read them all.