Why does it feel so good to connect with people?

Social interactions can be a great source of happiness. I’m near my happiest when I’m in the middle conversation with a friend, new or old, and I’m losing track of time.

The interactions we have with other people affect the way we feel about life. Go on a hike with your friends, call your siblings, tell your partner how you really feel, make your parents dinner, have drinks with workmates, unplug from your devices and talk to strangers in public. As you start to make more connections, a community starts to form around you and you develop a sense of belonging.

Psychologists have long been concluding that the human feeling of connection contributes to our overall happiness. I imagine that your personal experience likely confirms what scientists have been saying for years. Consider your most positive memorable moments throughout your life. Were you on your own or were you with others? When you search your brain for positive memories, do you remember the people you were with?

We’re hardwired to connect

Our need to connect is in our DNA, like eating and breathing. We’ve evolved so that we feel better, safer in the company of others. The desire to bond and belong is visceral. Psychologists Roy Baumeister and Mark Lear believe it’s because we have a fundamental need to belong.

Imagine early tribes of hunter-gatherers practicing communal living. Sharing resources like water, shelter, and food were vital to their survival. Over time, our social traits evolved so that we improved our ability to communicate with each other and understand one another. Cooperating and connecting with others became an ever larger part of the human psyche. We feel safe when we are surrounded by caring individuals.

On the other side of things, the pain of rejection is also most likely rooted in evolution. Over the course of history, we’ve been programmed to react very poorly to being excluded. A study by Eisenberger, Lieberman, & Williams suggested that we process social rejection in a similar way to physical pain. They concluded that steering clear of things that could cause physical injury and avoiding social rejection had similar survival value for our ancestors.

The perils of feeling disconnected

Julianne Holt-Lunstad, professor of psychology at Brigham Young University, said, “Loneliness can be as unhealthy as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.” That may sound shocking but it’s actually not that surprising. According to Holt-Lunstad, loneliness “exceeds the risk of alcohol consumption, it exceeds the risk of physical inactivity, obesity, and it exceeds the risk of air pollution.” Not having social bonds with others appears to reduce our immunity to infection and raise our risk of heart disease.

When we feel lonely, it’s equally detrimental to our mental health as our physical well-being. Social isolation can heighten our stress hormones and increase mental decline as we get older. In more serious cases, social isolation and loneliness can be the warning signs of depression, or worse. A lack of connection can do way more harm than good. Thankfully, there are steps we can take.

If you want to feel better, make somebody else feel better.

The reciprocity of smiles

Think about how it feels when you smile. Smiles literally give us boosts in happiness. It works both ways. When somebody smiles at you, it brightens your day. It cheers you up because smiles beget more smiles. So, smile at people when you walk down the street. You just might be helping to make someone’s day.

The reciprocity of eager listening

Think about how it feels to be sincerely listened to versus talking to somebody who isn’t giving you their full attention. I’m talking about undivided attention, where nothing matters but the words coming out of the other person’s mouth. Really, really listen and internalize and try to relate to what they have to say.

“Life is an echo. What you send out — comes back”
— Zig Ziglar, author, salesman, and inspirational speaker.

Being listened to helps make people feel understood, getting smiled at makes us feel cared about and accepted. The thrill of starting a personal conversation with a stranger is similar to the sensation of receiving an unexpected smile. When we give, everybody gains. Volunteering and performing acts of kindness contribute significantly to happiness. What makes us feel good together is necessary for our survival.

The benefits of connecting

Jim Hjort, founder of the Right Life Project, asks: “When you are in an attentive and attuned relationship with another person, sharing positive regard, do you feel more whole and alive? More you, in some way?.” He continues, “If so, it’s because you’re simultaneously meeting your needs to be witnessed and cared for, [as well as your needs to] witness and care.”

The PERMA model, a scientific theory of happiness designed by Martin Seligman, outlines 5 main contributors to happiness: positive emotions (feeling good), engagement (finding flow), relationships (authentic connections), meaning (purposeful existence), and achievement (a sense of accomplishment).

I’d argue that three or four of them have a direct tie to being social. Feeling good and connecting with others are intrinsically tied together. Finding flow is the only element that I believe is more independent than group-oriented.

Being social confirms and expands who we are. When we have conversations with others we increase our own self-awareness. Stating our perspective out loud can help us better understand it. If we hang out with people who are different from us (which is good), we can challenge our assumptions, re-examine our opinions, and sometimes start to see ourselves differently.

Our relationships with others, different and alike, help us feel that magical sense of belonging. When we surround ourselves with others who allow us to be our unique, unapologetically weird self, we thrive. Brene Brown talks about how belonging is not the same as fitting in. “Belonging is something else entirely — it’s showing up and letting yourself be seen and known as you really are.”

Connecting with others has a rippling effect

Social connection is an essential part of the human experience. People who make socializing with others a priority tend to be happier, healthier and live longer. Being disconnected makes us feel empty; connecting makes us feel whole. The search for social connection has preserved and multiplied the human race.

A 20-year study by James Fowler and Nicholas Christakis found that happiness is contagious across social networks. We have the ability to improve the way our friends and friends of friends feel, and vice versa. Happiness has a rippling effect.

So, now what? Are you satisfied with how social you have been lately? Here are a few ideas for making sure you keep being social a priority in your life.

  • Call a friend you haven’t spoken with in a while.
  • Put your device away when you’re with others.
  • Say hello to someone and ask them a real question — you never know who your next friend is going to be.
  • Reflect on how many of the people in your circle are like you vs different from you. Make a goal to meet more who are different so you can expand your learning and your perspective.
  • Spend time doing things you love and you will likely find some others who share that interest.
  • Reflect on your most recent social experience and what was great about it. Repeat that next time.
  • Figure out the balance and type of socializing that’s best for you. It’s not quantity, it’s quality that matters.

Pluto is an online community where people can have face-to-face conversations that matter. Sign up and tell us what you want to talk about. Then, sit back as we send you a new curated introduction every single day. Meet cool and interesting people and have life-changing conversations.

Feel free to say hello on messenger or shoot me an email, I’d love to connect.