In the novel The Love Affairs of Nathaniel P., Adelle Waldman’s character Aurit perfectly articulates the unique emotional toll of dating: “Dating is probably the most fraught human interaction there is. You’re sizing people up to see if they’re worth your time and attention, and they’re doing the same to you. It’s meritocracy applied to personal life, but there’s no accountability. We submit ourselves to these intimate inspections and simultaneously inflict them on others and try to keep our psyches intact.”
If you’re one of the many people who find dating stressful, you may have tried different coping strategies—exercise, deep breathing, affirmations about being good enough and smart enough. But a recently published study has identified another way to reduce social jitters: do something nice for someone.
In the study, which I discovered via The Science of Us, researchers at the University of British Columbia and Simon Fraser University found that individuals who tested high in social anxiety were more likely to have “social avoidance goals.” Meaning: They focused on avoiding negative outcomes—like being rejected or looking foolish—rather than moving toward positive goals, like getting to know someone new.
Unfortunately, this behavior can create a self-fulfilling prophesy. The more you worry about being in an awkward social situation, the more likely you are to be in one, as your defensiveness will impair your interactions with others.
In an attempt to break this self-defeating pattern, Jennifer Trew and Lynn Alden instructed socially anxious college students to perform three acts of kindness a day for two days a week. Among the selfless acts reported by the undergraduates: doing a roommate’s dishes, mowing a neighbor’s lawn, and donating to charity.
After a month, Trew and Alden found that these students were less likely to focus on social avoidance—that is, less likely to worry that others wouldn’t like them or that their encounters would be uncomfortable—than individuals in control groups.
The study examined social interactions in general, not necessarily dating. But as Aurit points out, the “meritocracy” of dating is of course what can make it so excruciating at times. When two people engage in an act of mutual scrutiny, dates can often feel like job interviews, with each candidate attempting to fashion themself into an appealing package and broadcast their overall worthiness.
But this kind of self-obsession not only makes us unhappy, it’s also counterproductive.
Trey and Alden’s research indicates that this vicious circle can be reversed. After you help your elderly next-door neighbor bring in her groceries, you probably won’t be as worried that your nose has a new pimple or your bangs are doing that weird flip. And if you’re not stressing about your appearance, you’ll be more fun to be around—and probably more attractive, too.
You’ll also be more likely to focus on the needs and comfort of the nice person you’re meeting for coffee, which will be much appreciated. After all, your date is nervous, too.
Sara Eckel is the author of It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single. You can get a free bonus chapter of her book at saraeckel.com. You can also find her on Twitter and Facebook. Ask her any questions here.