It is much more comfortable for me to stay home in my fuzzy clothes on my cozy sofa, reading my beloved books. But even introverts are social creatures, and we can expand our worlds by getting to know new people. That's what I told myself as I got dressed for a holiday party at a friend's house.
But what helped me even more was an article just published by Christine Carter of the Greater Good Science Center: Why Happiness Is The Wrong Pursuit. "The way to lead a joyful life is not to pursue happiness for ourselves, but to pursue it for others," said Dr. Carter. "The good life is not about getting what we want; it’s about having what it takes to give to others."
So what does this have to do with small talk at a holiday party?
Each person we encounter has his or her own sorrows, joys, anxieties, and dreams. We all want to feel that we are heard, seen, and appreciated. Rather than focus on our own anxieties, we can focus on others, really seeing them and hearing them. We can be socially generous. We can think about what we can give to others rather than worrying about how others will perceive us. For me, this mental shift makes me feel less pressure and more at ease.
I've known this for a long time, but I find it hard to put it into practice. I used to be terrible at small talk. I used to awkwardly shift the conversation back to myself because I didn't want to appear as if I were interrogating others. I'm better now, but I am still looking for ways to improve. The past few years, I've been listening to others to get ideas.
There is an art to the follow-up question. You can ask someone who mentions they've been through a life change (such as a move or a new job): "How is it working out for you?" You can reply by revealing a little about yourself, but still following up with a question: "That's awesome...I've always wanted to go to Costa Rica. How did you like the food?" Or you can simply say: "Really?" Signal your interest and let the person open up more. If they are a good conversationalist, they will eventually ask about you. I'm sure these tips seem obvious, but after years of severe social anxiety, I'm still learning the basics.
Tonight I learned that an acquaintance will get to spend the holidays with her whole family for the first time in three years. I learned about another woman's plans to swim around Manhattan. I learned how to do a six-part karate move. I learned about and enjoyed OK Go's video "I Won't Let You Down." I learned that a woman whom I admire, a sports coach who always seems carefree and full of energy, is struggling with a back injury. And I learned what it is like to be a nurse working at a hospital, low in the pecking order as a recent graduate. My world got a little bigger, and learning all of these things was more interesting than thinking about myself. Plus I believe I made people feel good by showing interest in what they had to say. Happiness comes from giving to others -- not just through volunteering but in social situations too.
While I was busy listening to others, I forgot about my hyperhidrosis. It wasn't until later that I realized my hands were not sweating.