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Rediscovering real engagement in a distracted world

"I could tap someone on the shoulder and say, “High five, pass it on!” The high fives would continue down the row of standing commuters."

Engagement and opportunities

We use the word engagement a lot. Yet, we live in a world which is full of distraction. It’s a world where a beep on your phone or an alert on your watch will interest even the most focused or engaged person. We have the ability to be more connected to people than we ever had. We can send a message across the world in a second to connect with a friend. We can see what someone is doing on Instagram or Facebook and send them an emoji in response. However, we also live in a time where people have never been as lonely. 

For students, the pandemic was especially hard. They lost so many learning opportunities. What teachers have discovered is that students’ attention span is shorter than it used to be. They needed that time in school where they could learn to focus on one thing in class. Online sessions taught them that with or without their screen on, they could be doing something else while they listened to their teacher. Adults also fell victim to this new opportunity to multi-task while being in an online meeting.   

What students really missed out on were those powerful opportunities to grow as a person through their friendships and their engagement with others. We learn who we are through our interactions with one another. Yes, we all need to be engaged in the subject at hand; however, when people look back on their time in their education, they often think about those social interactions and how they shaped them. The opportunity to meet people as strangers and take the leap to a friendship is soul fulfilling.  

I played a game

Just prior to the pandemic, I used to take an hour train ride into Toronto 3 times a week. I would then walk 45 minutes to my office. It was a long commute but fascinating for someone who is deeply interested in human dynamics. Cell phones, computers and ear buds allowed people to stay within their own little world while surrounded by others. People rarely engaged with others on the train or when they walked down the street.  

As I walked to work, I used to play a game. I would take my ear buds out and intentionally look at people as they walked past me. I would give myself a point for every person who looked at me. If they did make eye contact, I would smile; I would earn 2 points for every smile that was returned. It saddened me deeply how few points I could earn. 

So, I upped the ante. I decided that I would try to high five people and wish them a wonderful day as I walked. I began very nervously; it took a lot of courage to randomly engage with a stranger. But when I found success with the first few people, it gave me the incentive to continue. Before I knew it, I was a high fiving machine. In return, people smiled, laughed and wished me a great day as well.  There was gratitude, warmth with honest human emotions.  

It was one thing to do this while walking, but could I do this on a packed train with people standing side by side in the aisles? Yep! It got to the point that I could tap someone on the shoulder and say, “High five, pass it on!” The high fives would continue down the row of standing commuters. If someone didn’t continue the high five, then the crowd in the train would boo and someone else would pick it up. The collective goal became to have the high fives reach from one end of the train to the other. What was a silent train started to fill with laughter. People began conversations. We were no longer individuals; we were a group with a shared experience. It was beyond anything I imagined ever doing and so far from my first nervous high five. Once I got the bug to connect with people, there became no limit to how I could find that connection.  

It sparked happiness

What I discovered was that I was happier. Friends who were dragged into this with me started doing it on their own as well and they said it made them happier. I no longer walked by people without noticing them. I could read a person from a distance to see if they might be open to a high five. I paid attention to people. They were not a blur walking by me. They were human beings with feelings and needs.  

Those human beings also needed to feel connected. Some told me that they were lonely and that I was the first person they had talked with all day. Some had recently moved to Toronto and felt invisible. Others said that the simple act of someone connecting and wishing them a good day helped them and they knew that their day would be a better one. I felt like I struck gold when people would ask if they could hug me. Stern faces turned to beautiful smiles. I was a recipient of warmth and connection. I was fully engaged in human interactions. It became an addiction.  

A study determined that 36% of teens and young adults reported that they were lonely after Covid. It was 25% before Covid.  Even 25% is a disheartening statistic. While there are many reasons for this loneliness, we do know that being fully engaged with family, friends and even strangers could be a partial solution. We also know that much of a child’s sense of self is developed through engagement with others.  Academic interests develop because they are exposed to many subjects and eventually discover that one makes them happier than others. Often this is because they had a connection with the teacher who taught the subject. Someone who makes us happy can be such a positive influence and help us feel less lonely.  

We get a dopamine hit when we hear a ding on our phone or when an Instagram post which connects with us. However, that stimulation of joy is temporary. Dopamine is also released through positive human interactions. It was certainly being released as I was high fiving strangers. In fact, a study has shown that even thinking about talking with a stranger can provide us with a healthy dopamine hit.  

Dopamine is also released when we are excited about something we are learning. The simple act of reading a book releases dopamine. Our brains crave dopamine, so we repeat behaviours that released it in the past.  We need to encourage our brains to be stimulated by friendships, talking with a stranger, reading, going for a walk or learning something new. These will all provide a longer and more fulfilling

dopamine rush.

In short...

Once students become engaged in a subject that they like and they surround themselves with others, they will crave more of it. They will be happier.  

The act of being fully present or fully engaged is going to help us not only feel deeper connections with others but feel greater value in ourselves and a greater sense of joy. There are so many things luring us away from this singular focus. However, this is the prescription to greater happiness. Take the time to observe the world around you. Look at the people who you walk by and wonder who they might be. Learn something new. Be curious. Be present. Be engaged.  If you feel brave enough, connect with a stranger and wish them a wonderful day. 

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