Interpersonal connection is a basic need. From the moment of our birth, we are reliant on other individuals for our survival. Without an ability to connect with another, we would die. Human connection is built into the very fabric of our being.
As we grow during infancy and childhood, we adapt our mannerisms and the sounds we make in response to those around us in order to maximize the chances of getting what we need to survive. We respond to being responded to (and this goes both ways—parents also adjust their styles and mannerisms in response to their infant’s actions and reactions).
Over time, we adjust our way of being in the world; we adapt and grow. Our styles, mannerisms, and words expand to maximize social survival along with physical survival. We move into adolescence and focus on fitting in with others by imagining who we need to be in order to connect with them.
What Science Reveals About Connection
In his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, Matthew Lieberman explains that the reason human brains have grown in size over the course of evolution is to accommodate our need for social understanding and interpersonal connection. Studies have shown via functional MRI that our resting brain state reflects the pattern of activity when we are thinking about social interactions and interpersonal connection. Researchers hypothesize that our “default” brain function serves to decipher social situations and understand the minds of others so we can connect in order to survive.
The focus of our “brain time” on social connectedness is not surprising from an evolutionary standpoint. Research has demonstrated that social rejection causes pain in similar brain regions as physical pain, and the stress caused by conflicts in social relationships leads to increased inflammation in the body. And at the same time, we know that daily moments of connection with others drive an upward spiral between positivity and health. Social connection strengthens our immune system: Research shows that genes impacted by social connection also code for immune function and inflammation. This means that social connections help us recover from disease faster and may even lengthen our lives. Research has also shown that social connection can lower anxiety and depression, help us regulate our emotions, and lead to higher self-esteem and empathy.
Positivity and connection feed off each other. The more connected we feel, the more positive emotions we experience, in addition to all the benefits discussed above. Interestingly, there has also been research indicating that this goes the other way as well: When we experience feelings of positivity, we are more likely to feel connected to those around us. Positivity opens us. It expands our vision, both literally and figuratively—increasing problem-solving abilities, improving attention, and changing our sense of self from “me” to “we.” People gain more positivity being with others than being alone.
Superficial Contacts vs. Micro Moments of Positivity
Personal experiences, and science, tell us that we spend lots and lots of time engaging in and thinking about our social world. Additionally, our connections have the power to increase our sense of well-being along with our physical health. How can we actively choose to engage our biology—our basic survival functions—to create more positivity in our lives?
We know, from positive psychology literature and specifically the work of Brené Brown, that focusing on fitting in rather than belonging does not support positivity in our lives. Being non-authentic in our relationships does not support happiness or allow us to be the best version of ourselves. We know that happiness is best supported through connection with others, yet that connection must be heartfelt and real. Superficial contacts are not connections.
At the same time, when incidental contacts provide opportunities for connection, we just have to take advantage of those opportunities. Dr. Fredrickson’s research on “positivity resonance”—those moments when two people share positive emotions—shows that those moments of shared positive emotions do not need to be prolonged to be powerful; they can be “micro moments,” brief and passing experiences of positive shared emotions.
Why We Stop Noticing Opportunities for Connection
We ignore so many opportunities for shared positive emotions with others. Close your eyes and think about how many people you have seen today. How many faces? Each of those faces is an opportunity for creating a micro moment of positivity resonance and a chance to increase not only your own well-being but also that of others.
But don’t get down on yourself for missing these moments. There’s a good explanation: habituation. Think about the watch on your wrist or the necklace you always wear. Chances are, until I asked you to think about it, you didn’t even notice it or feel it. Neuroscience tells us that over time, when sensory perceptions get continuously stimulated, or overworked, we shut them down and stop feeling the sensation all the time in order to avoid being overwhelmed.
I imagine that incidental human contact can be like that, especially in large cities or places where we cross paths with lots of others. We shut down that sense of connection—we don’t look at faces, we avoid eye contact, we don’t think about those connections and don’t actively choose them. Like your sensation of the watch on your wrist, those neuro-triggers just shut down. Well, I say, let’s turn them back on!
Using ACES to Expand Shared Positive Emotions
On your next visit to a store, museum, public park, or any other location where you interact with strangers, challenge yourself to remember the ACES in your virtual pocket:
A – Aware – take a deep breath and ground yourself in the moment. Become aware of where you are and the fact that there are other valuable, interesting, and happiness-seeking individuals around you.
C – Commit – make a commitment to have a shared moment with at least one stranger in your social context.
E – Engage – go for it! Make eye contact, smile, speak a kind word, say “thank you” to the cashier, do something that allows you to truly engage with the other person. Connect and share a positive moment.
S – Savor – take time after your micro moment of shared positive connection to savor the experience. Realize the good that you have just done for yourself and the other person. Breathe into the moment, hold it. Be grateful and honor yourself.
Your assignment, in Dr. Fredrickson’s words, is to “connect with others, every day and no matter what.”
Sharen Barboza, PhD, CiWPP
Sharen Barboza, PhD, CiWPP, is a licensed clinical psychologist and a graduate of the Certificate in Wholebeing Positive Psychology program. She has spent most of her career working for and with individuals who are incarcerated in jails and prisons. Sharen is a monitor, consultant, and trainer as well as an internationally renowned, award-winning speaker in the field of behavioral health and wellness, with expertise in behavior change, trauma-informed care, and strategies for self-care.