An evening among New York’s shiest and loneliest

Colored pencil drawing of a young woman in a crowded alley, with a spot light on her.

I arrived late to my first #1 New York Shyness and Social Anxiety meet up. I was sweating, partially because I’m shy and hate the idea of meeting people, but also because I had the repeated intrusive thought if I’m shy enough to justify going to an event like this.

Some new mothers report intrusive thoughts about harming their newborn babies.

It was a relief to see only six people scattered around the table in the 135 E57th St. WeWork conference room. I planted myself in the corner closest to the door, next to a geriatric woman with purple hair. Her name was Gail. Did I smell? Could Gail smell me?

Gail was chatting about oatmeal with Eva, a woman of similar age with excellent posture. She sat diagonally across from us.

Gail and Eva had met years back at a nursing home, where their mother’s were in hospice, and had become friendly. The last time had seen each other they were in the nursing home cafeteria, talking about the oatmeal that was being served. Neither were happy with the nursing home’s food, and both had ideas about the proper way of preparing oatmeal.

It was conversation they had picked up again here. Gail’s secret: On the stove with milk, and constant stirring.

When my grandfather was in hospice, my mother had told me she often wished he would just die already. It was painful to see him a situation like that.

Yen – “retired, Army,” turned event organizer for the socially anxious – stood up, cutting off Gail and Eva’s conversation. It was explained that tonight we’d watch a video of Amherst psychology professor Catherine Sanderson reveal the secrets of living a happier, more fulfilled life, and we had to get going.

He announced, with the authority of a person with a history of giving and receiving orders, the video would be played at double speed.

In the next half hour, an hour of content blurred by and eleven more people filtered in.

All 19 of us, including Yen, belonged to the 12,000-member group for shy and anxious New Yorkers, organized through meetup.com. #1 New York is the most active, but far from the only social group dedicated to breaching the isolation and discomfort of modern metropolitan living.

There’s also lonely, isolated, discouraged…  but not giving up and The NYC “Loneliness Meetup Group and Meet Up Group For Very Shy, Cool, & Fun Dorky Friends. Free events are scheduled for every night of the week.

A recent survey, by major healthcare provider Cigna, showed the majority of Americans are lonely. Fifty-four percent sometimes or always feel like no one knows them well, and 43% said their relationships aren’t meaningful. Thirty-nine percent said they no longer feel close to anyone. While younger generations are, on average, lonelier, that’s not preventing enterprising roboticists from designing companion-bots for the elderly today.

Following the videoed lecture, by way ofintroductions, Yen asked us to state our name and our personal definition of happiness. I knew this question was coming. I had flipped through the itinerary.

In fact, I had spent a lot of time thinking about my coming response as the video played, barely paying attention as Sanderson said things like “anticipation can be a source of happiness.” A line I only remember because Yen had thrown a bag on the table at the same time.

No one went for it. It was dollar-store Valentines Day chocolate. I looked at Yen. He was giggling. I giggled. We just shared a nice little thing.

Fifteen minutes later, Yen laughed again as Sanderson told her audience – the New England Psychological Association – both chocolate and sex can make people happy, “but in public, you can only have chocolate.” That really got Yen going again.

I remembered reading Yen’s bio on meetup.com before coming, where he says he’s “a recovering shy person.” I could never be like Yen, I thought, he was in the military.

As the spotlight circled around the table, I began noticing how gregarious and comfortable everyone appeared, for a meeting of shy New Yorkers. Did they not just spend the last half-hour nervously thinking about what happiness is?

Marbel, an actor, said happiness is not the elation of landing a part, or overcoming the lows of being out of work, but finding peace with the process.

Gail said that happiness is a state of mind, and had proof. She never wanted children, or to get married. She always wanted to be alone, until she met her boyfriend later in life. They were together for 17 years, having lived together for the last five. That is, until he passed away. Though unhappy now, she can think back to when she was free and when she was in love, and feel it all over again. A respectful silence passed over the room.

It’s my time to shine.

Did I just stumble over saying my name? Am I speaking too quietly? Did Yen just frown? Is he disappointed? Did I break the chocolate bond we shared? Shit. Have to make him laugh.

“I’ve always thought that happiness is a warm oatmeal,” I said, trying to win Yen’s approval with a jokey reference to a 51 year-old Beatles song.

Where’s Carrot Top to stab you when you really need him.