Hello, dear internet friends,
I’m with Aly & AJ on this one: The greatest time of year is here. Okay, “greatest” may be too broad. This season doesn’t have to be everyone’s favorite, but it is mine. While the holidays can certainly be busy and overwhelming, this year I’m ready to embrace each sparkling moment. I hope to be present with the ones I love, slow down to appreciate decked-out front yards, and make plenty of time to watch holiday movies and shows.
I have become a connoisseur of Netflix’s seasonal offerings. Did you know that there are four Vanessa Hudgens characters in the Netflix Christmas Cinematic Universe? It’s true, and I’d love to talk to you about it. Outside of that tinsel-tangled web of doppelgängers and fake European countries, my favorite festive show on the platform is “Dash & Lily,” a one-season series based on a young adult novel. Lily, a Christmas-loving human ray of sunshine, leaves a notebook of clues to decode inside New York City’s famous bookstore, The Strand. Sarcastic and surly Dash picks it up, kicking off a Christmas break of the pair sending each other on dares throughout the city, getting to know each other—and themselves—along the way.
It’s a sweet love story, a traveling tale of Christmas in New York. It’s also about fitting in—or rather, finding where you belong. As we get to know Lily, we see that she struggles to fit in with her peers. While reading a book on the subway, she looks over wistfully at the three girls next to her who are interacting over stuff in their phones. In another scene, Lily is caroling at a park with her adult neighbors when she spots a group of her soccer teammates. One appears to look her way but doesn’t wave or invite her over.
As Lily reveals to Dash in their notebook, life wasn’t always this way for her. Without spoiling the details, an experience of social rejection in middle school changed everything. Before then, she believed that she’d always belong by being herself. “After that,” she writes, “I started to feel like Alice in Wonderland, like school was full of all these rules that didn’t make sense.”
I came to view that scene through a new lens after finishing a book called Popular: Finding Happiness and Success in a World That Cares Too Much About the Wrong Kinds of Relationships by Mitch Prinstein, a psychologist and the Chief Science Officer of the American Psychological Association. Taking readers through scientific research on the subject, Prinstein shows how popularity impacts our lives well beyond our middle and high school days. While the book is written for adults, I think anyone of any age can benefit from understanding the two types of popularity as he defines them. The first is status, or what I call capital-P Popular. As Prinstein explains, this type of popularity becomes apparent in adolescence and defines individuals who are well-known and powerful amongst a given group. The second type of popularity, likability, is the one we understand from when we’re very little. Likable people engage in kind, inclusive behaviors with the aim of truly connecting with others.
The disorienting shift that Lily experienced was status overtaking likability in her middle-school world. I can certainly relate. When I was little, I found it easy to get along with other kids. I honestly thought I was best friends with “everyone,” meaning all the girls in my multiage class of first and second graders. For me, the transition to a new social order felt more like a slow fall down the rabbit hole than an abrupt change. I learned that people might spill your secrets, make fun of you to someone else (who would tell you about it), or exclude you for no obvious reason. I found it all so painful and impossible to understand that I latched onto the only solution I could come up with: I needed to change myself—especially how I looked—to fit in. To be Popular. Then I could be fully happy again.
I wish I could go back and teach my younger self about the two types of popularity, but Prinstein’s book helped me understand how the challenges of status and benefits of connection don’t end with graduation. It’s never too late to make changes. The main reason I struggle with social media is that it feels like being in middle school, holding my breath to see who “likes” me. Since last month, I’ve kept up with cutting back on my use. I’ve been surprised by how different life has felt, considering I didn’t think of myself as someone overly plugged in. Without the backdrop of all that social noise, moments of genuine connection have felt more properly highlighted. It’s a little like being six again. I’m just happy to be invited to play.
The difference is, I know now I can’t really be best friends with everyone. What Lily’s story shows is that you don’t need everybody to see you. Finding just one person you can take off your social mask around can be transformative. Meeting them through a hidden notebook at a famous bookstore may be highly unlikely, but you never know what a simple lunchtime “Can I sit with you?” will do. I made a lifelong friend that way.
So, I never achieved capital-P Popularity. And I’ve come to realize that, at least for me, social media can be the same status game by a different name. But you know what? I have friendships that are as simple and sturdy as they felt in the years before I knew Popular. I don’t take them for granted because I know what it’s like to get lost on the wrong side of Wonderland.
“Dash & Lily” is available for streaming on Netflix.
Popular by Mitch Prinstein can be purchased at Bookshop, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.