With 8.4M people and counting, NYC is a great petri dish of a place for social experiments. No matter where you are in the city, nearly every time you walk out of your front door you can bump into new people. In this context, and as a way to entertain myself amidst the stress of city living, I had one experiment in particular that I loved conducting.

By nature, I tend toward a sunny, optimistic, friendly disposition. I would occasionally receive comments from people that validated this. People told me that I was nice to be around, that this disposition of mine made them feel good. So, I began to wonder: what would my experience of the world be if this were different - if I were different?

The NYC population provides a sort of anonymity. Even if you frequent the same place over and over again, it’s not uncommon that your barista, restaurateur or grocer will not remember you. The pace is so frenetic that it’s easy to miss any real connections, despite passing hundreds or thousands of people each day.

"I have learned that to be with those I love is enough." - Walt Whitman

To conduct this not-so-scientific experiment, I would simply walk out my front door with a different intention, a choice to approach the world differently that day. To avoid the obvious, I wasn’t outright mean or rude; I simply oriented myself more internally. This meant less eye contact, less expressed interest in what surrounded me, particularly in people whose paths I crossed either while buying something, entering and exiting a doorway at the same time, etc.

The results were simple yet profound, every time. I noticed that on the days where I chose to reel in my inclination to be sunny, I consistently had a worse experience of the day as a whole. Additionally, I noticed my overall experience become worse over the course of the day. They generally ended with me in a downright sour mood after so many unconnected interactions.

I realize the results of this experiment may be somewhat personal. Perhaps I am more extraverted than most. Maybe I seek reassurance externally, or was influencing my interpretation of the results based on my own unconscious expectations. There are countless possible explanations.

Regardless, the results were undeniably consistent, no matter how many times I tried this. And it wasn’t until years later when I spent seven days on a silent meditation retreat that I finally began to understand why. A number of days into the retreat, I emerged from a fairly challenging experience struck with what felt like a profound insight, one I felt I had somehow always known but was learning for the first time: the world is a reflection of our own perception.

This is one of the most fundamental teachings of mindfulness. Intellectually, it may seem easy to understand, yet in this moment I felt I embodied this teaching in a way I had not been able to fully conceptualize or previously experience. It is not simply about our lens on the world, it is equally about how the world is reflected in that lens. We see everything through our own construct and, in many respects, create our experiences as a result of these constructs.  In particular, how people react to the way we react to them.  

You might be wondering by now how this relates to the idea of friendship, and it's actually quite simple. Think about how treat your friends - at least in the moments when you feel that you are being a good friend. You express genuine interest in them, energetically connect, and make an effort to make sure they feel accepted and safe.

Now consider what your experience of the world might be if you allowed more people who cross your path to interact with you in this same way. Something as simple as acknowledging them in the elevator, making eye contact when you finalize a purchase or asking how their day is with genuine interest could change so much, for you and for them.

In a way, it’s a bit like doing some social good because you recognize that you might be helping someone else have a better day. Or perhaps being mindful of how our own behaviors make others feel is simply a useful way to create our own best days. Either way the result is the same: everyone has a better day.

Further reading and connecting:

  • If you’re not convinced yet, simply check out the book Social: Why Our Brains are Wired to Connect in which psychologist Matthew Lieberman explores thousands of published and unpublished studies showing how our evolution drives us to seek social connection.
  • Additionally, if you’d like to learn more about mindful living, check out the free 7-day introduction to mindfulness from the Mindful Institute here.

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Ingrid Sanders is the founder & CEO of popexpert, a company that makes it easy to get better at life, work & play with the help of experts. She is focused on making it easy to fit lifelong learning into a busy lifestyle and considers herself a forever student of healthful living.

 

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