Will everything one day be sacrificed on the altar of convenience and efficiency? When it comes to how we interact with each other, we certainly seem to be trending in that direction. E-mail, texting, Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other innovations of the digital age have expanded our social networks in a breathtaking way while, at the same time, shutting us off from meaningful social connections–the kind you make face to face, person to person. The kind that have sustained relationships for hundreds (thousands) of years.
So, when I heard about an app called Coaster the other day, I had to wonder how far we are willing to go to prioritize convenience at the expense of our relationships with others. On its surface, Coaster seems like a great idea. Rather than wait in line at a bar, pushing past the crowds trying to get a bartender’s attention, you place your drink order on the phone, pay for it on your phone, and pick it up at the bar when a notification informs you that it’s ready. Another app, Buzz the Bar, performs a similar function.
The time it takes to wait for your drink, to interact with others at the bar, and to place your order with the bartender are inconveniences that are, in our fast-paced culture, able to be completely cut out of the equation with the help of technology and apps like these. Just think of how many tweets and status updates you can register in the time that you are saving.
“We’re not looking to replace bartenders, but to enhance their mobility,” [the app founder] said. For bartenders, “it fits in really seamlessly with their workflow and it lets them focus more on customers than transactions.”
The transactional model of human interactions: Convenient? Yes. Humane? Not so much.
Human beings are social creatures. Not that we need scientific research to confirm what appears to be common sense, but study after study shows that connecting with other people–whether it’s your romantic partner or the guy behind the bar–makes people happier and feel more meaning in their lives. Our interactions with other people–and the sacrifices we make on their behalf–make life worth living, as Mark Tapson and I have recently written about.
On top of that, while we place a lot of stock in our major relationships, like the ones we have romantic partners or our families and friends, research in psychology indicates that those smaller moments of connection–those brief and seemingly inconsequentially moments, like the one with a bartender or a random person at the bar–may be just as important as those larger relationships we kindle, especially at a time like ours when people seem more isolated and depressed than ever:
Barbara Fredrickson, a leading researcher of positive emotions at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents scientific evidence to argue that love is not what we think it is. It is not a long-lasting, continually present emotion that sustains a marriage; it is not the yearning and passion that characterizes young love; and it is not the blood-tie of kinship.
Rather, it is what she calls a “micro-moment of positivity resonance.” She means that love is a connection, characterized by a flood of positive emotions, which you share with another person—any other person—whom you happen to connect with in the course of your day. You can experience these micro-moments with your romantic partner, child, or close friend. But you can also fall in love, however momentarily, with less likely candidates, like a stranger on the street, a colleague at work, or an attendant at a grocery store. Louis Armstrong put it best in “It’s a Wonderful World” when he sang, “I see friends shaking hands, sayin ‘how do you do?’ / They’re really sayin’, ‘I love you.'”
Fredrickson’s unconventional ideas are important to think about… [as] many Americans are facing a grim reality: They are love-starved. Rates of loneliness are on the rise as social supports are disintegrating. In 1985, when the General Social Survey polled Americans on the number of confidants they have in their lives, the most common response was three. In 2004, when the survey was given again, the most common response was zero.
According to the University of Chicago’s John Cacioppo, an expert on loneliness, and his co-author William Patrick, “at any given time, roughly 20 percent of individuals—that would be 60 million people in the U.S. alone—feel sufficiently isolated for it to be a major source of unhappiness in their lives.” For older Americans, that number is closer to 35 percent. At the same time, rates of depression have been on the rise.
In order to experience love in the way Fredrickson understands it, you have to physically connect with another person, face to face:
“My conception of love,” she tells me, “gives hope to people who are single or divorced or widowed this Valentine’s Day to find smaller ways to experience love.”
You have to physically be with the person to experience the micro-moment. For example, if you and your significant other are not physically together—if you are reading this at work alone in your office—then you two are not in love. You may feel connected or bonded to your partner—you may long to be in his company—but your body is completely loveless.
To understand why, it’s important to see how love works biologically. Like all emotions, love has a biochemical and physiological component. But unlike some of the other positive emotions, like joy or happiness, love cannot be kindled individually—it only exists in the physical connection between two people. Specifically, there are three players in the biological love system—mirror neurons, oxytocin, and vagal tone. Each involves connection and each contributes to those micro-moment of positivity resonance that Fredrickson calls love.
So the next time you are tempted to order your drink via Coaster or Buzz the Bar–stop, put the iPhone down, and slowly step away. Waiting at the bar for a drink, smiling at the person ahead of you in the queue, and making verbal communication with the bartender–maybe even asking him how he’s doing–could lead to small moments of “positivity resonance” or love that we all need and want. Isn’t sacrificing convenience at the alter of love a far better way to go, anyway?