Social connection: the key to genuine, lasting happiness?

social connection rippleOuch! Did you just feel that? Ouch! There it is again. What the heck is going on?

Social isolation hurts. Yes, it physically hurts human beings. Yes, even you, the self-professed introvert, lone wolf, or hermit. It is important to stay socially connected. We all could use some help in this stressful time.

My favorite definition of connection is by Brené Brown: “I define connection as the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard, and valued; when they can give and receive without judgment; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship.”

When we don’t have connection…

Do you know why we feel the very real pain of separation during this pandemic? The reason is simple: it is hardwired in our brains. Over thousands of years, as a species, we survived by staying connected. Watching each other’s backs. Relying on strength in numbers. Cooperating as a tribe to survive. The result is that this need for connection is now a complex part of our nervous system. The same part of the brain that registers physical pain reads isolation as physical pain too. Our brains don’t know the difference. That’s right, whether I stomp on your foot or simply ignore you, the same part of your brain will light up.

Given the strong evidence that social connection is a core psychological need, when we don’t have it, it creates a very stressful state in our bodies and minds. Lack of social connectiveness elevates the hormone cortisol. As a key stress hormone, cortisol increases inflammation in the body, along with a long list of other negative effects.

On the other hand…

By contrast, social connection has the opposite effect. Social connection positively rewards our brain and activates the hormone dopamine. Dopamine, among many other things, makes us feel good and reinforces the activity of socializing. The list is long for positive effects related to social connection. Besides feeling better, social connection strengthens our immune systems, lowers anxiety and depression, encourages faster disease recovery, and increases self-esteem and empathy. It may even lengthen our lives. Social connection has a true ripple effect; seemingly minor actions can reverberate out and have a huge effect on our lives.

Interestingly, researchers have found that we reap the benefit of connection through the quality of our connections, not necessarily the number of people we are connected to. Ever felt lonely in a crowd of strangers or a group of your own acquaintances? Interactions that we perceive as meaningful are the key.

Meaningful connections are important. How do we foster them?

Connecting doesn’t have to be difficult; anything goes. Just choose the best tool for the situation. What format can you be your most expressive, authentic, and genuine self? Video chat is the next best thing to seeing and hearing someone in person. But if you can only email, message or make a simple phone call, that counts too. Reconnect with old colleagues or alumni, rekindle lapsed social connections, or get involved in shared interest communities.

Many virtual volunteering opportunities exist—get involved doing something you care about, whether it be assisting older adults, working toward racial equity, helping those with low income, disaster relief, mitigating environmental issues, or supporting people with disabilities or mental health problems. Just do something that resonates with you. Remember, the more meaningful you perceive the connection to be, the more benefit it will hold. And what’s more meaningful than helping others? Take the first step, and reach out!

Sheryl French

About the Author

Sheryl French lives her life at the intersection of learning and development, so as the Human Resources Coordinator for Mead & Hunt University, she feels right at home. Describing her holistic approach, Sheryl says, “At Mead & Hunt we are people first, and then employees.” What’s her secret weapon for getting the job done? “Simple,” she replies with a sly wink, “humor.”

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