Is there anything more fortifying, comforting, heart-warmingly wonderful than walking into a coffee shop (generally sweating and frazzled in early-morning frenzy) and being greeted by a barista who knows your coffee order? For me, it’s akin to a form of homecoming. A visceral relaxing from shoulder to shaking fingertip as you settle into a space that welcomes you, that knows, values, and accepts you as you surrender to the sweet familiarity of unassuming acquaintanceship. It is a place of safety where you don’t have to explain yourself – why you can only have a double shot in your latté before 3pm or why your tea always needs extra room for milk – because there is a social contract that connects you and this relative stranger in mutual understanding.
There is inordinate emphasis put on our intimate relationships to bring us happiness. We have never demanded more from our romantic partners or platonic soulmates to satisfy us, appropriating these close bonds as the cornerstones of our contentment, the solid foundation on which our wellbeing, our sense of belonging, is built.
However, a recent article by the New York Times argued that it is our ‘casual friends’ – that same barista, the neighbour you make awkward eye contact with when you put out Tuesday night bins, or your no-hair-spared beautician – who are the caretakers of our happiness. Reducing our risk of loneliness, increasing our ability to empathise, and creating an augmented sense of connection in an increasingly isolated world, these small – often automatic – interactions hold real potential to affect our long-term wellbeing.
In this age of supposed connectivity, we often feel more adrift than ever, floundering in an incorrigible sense of alienation. The very frameworks that were designed to unite us are the ones now buffering our interactions and making it harder to foster real human connection as we bypass the personal for the impersonal. The miracles of online shopping, self-service checkouts, and wireless headphones drown out the world around us and confine us to the lonely prism of a black mirror, or the alienating disinterest of an automated voice. Having a circle of casual acquaintances however, is a jolt that connects us back to the community mainframe and reaffirms our human need to belong.
When my cheery, smiling barista asks, ‘oat milk latté?’ with a nod of recognition, she’s not just confirming a coffee order. She’s telling me that I am seen, noticed, and belong to something outside of myself. That I am tethered to the larger world; a beating, valid part of it. This act of simple and casual acknowledgement is as warming as the drink she serves me and sustains me long after the caffeine buzz has worn off. In an overcrowded planet that seems oblivious or indifferent to my existence, this connection is a reminder that I am visible, I am valued, I BELONG.
An instant antidote to loneliness, there is much happiness to be found in the fact that these acquaintances, these people who are not obligated to be nice to you or interested in how you are, are. A stranger taking the time to ask how your day is – how it really is – can mean as much, if not more, than a friend whose concern is already a given. We place undue pressure on our close relationships – constantly bombarded with why and how we must give more to or take more from them – that there is a joyful liberation to be found in a casual friendship that is free from expectation, responsibility, or obligation. I am perpetually terrified of failing my friends in some way, of not being supportive enough, entertaining enough, engaged enough. Having commitment-free friendships is a welcome escape into a world of selfish enjoyment, in which five minutes of superficially meaningless conversation is made more beautiful by its transience. At the end of the interaction, both parties walk away recharged and rejuvenated by an exchange that hasn’t asked anything of them – not advice nor precious energy. It is the best kind of social contract – one without terms and conditions.
There is another kind of isolation being proliferated with the advancement of social media and its increasingly subversive algorithms: I call it the Stepford effect. What we encounter online is not reality but rather a curated fantasy built by our own unconscious design – a reflective lake filled from the tributaries of our own pre-posted thoughts, the streams of our late-night queries self-consciously typed into Google. Every newspaper headline, every strategic ad on our newsfeed, every promoted Instagram profile is a reflection of ourselves, a distorted mirror of our own opinions, ideologies, and desires. We are becoming cloistered in these bubbles of like-minded ilk – a procession of Stepford wives all floating in the ether with fewer opportunities to encounter different people and perspectives to bounce off, engage with, and burst in the collision of diversity.
Again, having casual acquaintances is a cure for this distillation of ideas and narrowed world vision. It forces us into communion with people we ordinarily might not get the chance to meet and conversations that present us with problems, lifestyles, and circumstances different from our own. This engagement is vital in building empathy – the one definitive thing this world needs more of. If we are not attuned to the needs and worries of diverse people, how can we be expected to create a fairer, more inclusive world? We need these interactions to root us in the tangible – to cling onto the real over the virtual, the authentic instead of aesthetic, the provoking rather than passive.
Our close friends are chosen because of shared interests, beliefs, circumstances. We need to be shaken up and out of this expectant similarity, out of a complacent and familiar state of having our own beliefs refracted back to us, validated, consolidated. We need the challenge, the confrontation of a stranger. That’s why seeking out a chat with your postman, eccentric neighbour, dental hygienist, doesn’t just makes us feel better, it can make us do better too.
Aside from an increased sense of belonging and heightened empathy, there is a final reason these low-key friendships are so integral to our societal wellbeing. Being nice to your barista is not an isolated incident that begins with a coffee order and ends in the ring of a till. It is a ripple-effect of happiness that radiates out and beyond you, the limits of which are endless. It is a pay-it-forward kindness that is irresistibly contagious – a smile between two people that gets passed onto the next customer or passer-by.
The potential of this power for domino happiness is immeasurable, unmatched. Small talk with a server, trivial banter with a bus driver, the joy of commitment-free friendship is paid forward in an undulating ripple of profound consequence. Try it.
Let a smile touch, kiss, blossom, and seep out like sunshine to as many people as possible. And remember, as we run around with our headphone-stuffed ears, phone-scrolling hands and screen-glued eyes, that while we may be oblivious to the effect we have on the people around us, we must never doubt the power of that effect. After all, it is where happiness begins.
Holly Hughes is a writer, avid horoscope reader, optimist, more often cynic, and lover of all things pastry and potato-related. You can find her musings at www.earnestandethereal.com or follow her at @earnest_ethereal for self-indulgence and occasional profundity.
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