Happy new year + new month! 

First, warm wishes to those of you in the polar vortexes last week — rumor has it spring is around the corner thanks to the groundhog this year, but when you're lonely AND cold AND your industry (hello to all the journalists in here) experienced crazy layoffs in the past few weeks, a giant squirrel's forecast isn't exactly the most promising. But it's something.

Before we dig in — here's the virtual Friendsgiving card I promised for all of you. Readers from Ohio, Kansas, Wisconsin, South Carolina, Virginia, Missouri, Washington state, and New York welcomed these little cards in their (real) mailboxes in December. 💌

(Side note: I'm still in the process of testing + building some new things for us in 2019. If you want to help me out as a guinea pig, reply to this email and lmk!)
I spent most of the holiday break absorbed in two really nerdy — but I promise, relevant for our purposes — pieces. The first was the infamous millennial burnout writeup by BuzzFeed News' Anne Helen Petersen. I had quit Instagram for the holidays (connection in person > connection online, so I was trying to make the most of it!) but broke it to share these passages on my story:

So what now? Should I meditate more, negotiate for more time off, delegate tasks within my relationship, perform acts of self-care, and institute timers on my social media? How, in other words, can I optimize myself to get those mundane tasks done and theoretically cure my burnout? As millennials have aged into our thirties, that's the question we keep asking — and keep failing to adequately answer. But maybe that's because it's the wrong question altogether.

When we talk about millennial student debt we're not just talking about the payments that keep millennials from participating in American "institutions" like home ownership or purchasing diamonds. It's also about the psychological toll of realizing that something you'd been told, and come to believe yourself, would be "worth it" — worth the loans, worth the labor, worth all the self-optimization — isn't.

Oof, Sowners! This is a lot! These quotes hit me where it hurt, and the piece got quite a reaction online. (There were also other takes, beyond Petersen's personal experience: here's what millennial burnout is like for those raised in poverty, in religious-focused families, immigrants, queer people, autistic people, and as a black woman.) But at the same time, my mind was floating with other quotes like:

Feeling lonely does not mean that we have deficient social skills. Problems arise when feeling lonely makes us less likely to employ the skills we have.

What she needed was not less social connection, but connection that felt more meaningful.

The secret to gaining access to social connection and social contentment is being less distracted by one’s own psychological business — especially the distortions based on feelings of threat.

Real relief from loneliness requires the cooperation of at least one other person, and yet the more chronic our loneliness becomes the less equipped we may be to entice such cooperation.

This collection comes from John Cacioppo and John Arthur's book Loneliness, based on decades of psychological research into what loneliness really is and what we can do about it. Like I said, it was nerdy (and definitely super cheery — not) but spending time with it right before the BuzzFeed News piece came out gave the problem a new dimension for me.

The millennial burnout piece hit a lot on the economic and academic reasons/context for our situation as a generation, but it left out the key piece of millennial loneliness. We're not only burnt out economically, but socially, too. Many of us have come through the routes of college or some sort of predetermined social groups that were just THERE for us to rely on. Look at Petersen's second quote: what do we do when all the "friendships are so great" tropes we've been promise aren't there? The Friends group, the New Girl scenario, all the sidekicks in rom-coms: are they real and are they "worth it"? Part of the burnout, I think, definitely comes from the social expectations of friendship that don't always materialize/make it harder for us to keep going (see that last Cacioppo quote).

Friendships are a key to happiness, Cacioppo found in his research, and we all know that's true; but while the millennial burnout involves the dollar amounts of loans to pay back and amount of hours we work each week and how we negotiate salary raises, there's no solid way to quantify millennial loneliness. (The number of Instagram posts we scroll past? The number of Netflix episodes we binge? The number of hours we waste making a decision about social plans that we end up flaking on anyway?) And yes, there are efforts like Girls Night In and Bumble BFF and even this little newsletter itself to counteract it, but I think it's a significant piece of the puzzle that so far has been left out of the discussion.

Fortunately, at least Cacioppo's research shed some light on what we can do about it. (Take a vacation? Get a dog? Having a baby? There have to be other ways.) Here's one, okay maybe corny, proposal from Cacioppo: EASE.

E: Extend yourself by sending out social signals — tiny ones to start. Make eye contact at the grocery store, compliment someone on their sweater, even ask a coworker how they coped with the polar vortex if you want. It works to start small and keep it up. 

A: Action plan. This is for sure my favorite part of the acronym. Know what kind of social interactions work for you (1:1? part of a small class or a team?) Think of what kind of friendship you crave and gameplan for it, within reason. "Social connection does not involve superhuman strength," Cacioppo notes.

S: Selection. "The solution to loneliness is not quantity but quality of relationships," a.k.a. putting out feelers to get a sense of which friendships to pursue and which "would be climbing the wrong tree."

E: Expect the best. Think positive! If you find yourself dreading something you've set up, take a breath and remember why you planned it. Try not to get bummed if the other person is in a bad mood and remember not to take it personally, but see if you can use it as an opportunity for deeper social connection.
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🧠 Brain juice:

Go sow: Challenge for the week. 

Think about how you can action plan this month. It's the shortest one of the year! If you challenged yourself to extend yourself just a little bit each day for a full month, it's only 25 more days ;) 

Grow the Sow.

Zoom into the full map here.

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