Hardwired For Connection

We live in a culture that is obsessed with love. You need only to turn on the radio, and you will hear love song following love song. Romance movies are likely the highest grossing films, and in almost every novel you pick off the shelf, the protagonist has a love interest. Why is this?

Humans are hardwired for connection. Neuroscience suggests that we are neurologically wired to connect with others; mirror neurons in our brains are stimulated when we’re interacting with other people. Literally, when you are talking to someone, pathways in your brain light up to mirror the emotions and behaviors that this other person is conveying. We are hardwired to interact and connect with others.

Abraham Maslow, an American psychologist who is best known for his “hierarchy of needs” theory, which outlines innate human necessities of psychological health culminating in self-actualization or fulfillment, names love and belonging directly following physiological needs such as oxygen, food, water, sleep, etc, and physical safety needs like shelter, physical health, etc. Love and belonging is a basic necessity that must be met before a person can begin to achieve other higher needs.

Neuroscientist Dr. Matthew Lieberman, director of UCLA’s Social Cognitive Neuroscience lab, has dedicated much of his life to understanding how the human brain relates in social contexts. In his magnum opus Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, he argues that people’s need to connect with others is even more basic than food and shelter and is the primary motivation of one’s behavior. Other neurological findings corroborated by social science suggests that connection, a sense of community and mutuality, is the greatest predictor of happiness.

In one study done at UCLA, it was found that disconnection is largely related to physical pain. The part of the brain, the anterior cingulate, that is linked with physical distress also is stimulated in a situation of social rejection and/or loneliness. Dr. Dean Ornish, in his book Love and Survival, suggests that if we could harness the power of healthy love and connection, it would be a potent drug to cure physical pain. Trauma, isolation, and rejection work against both our physical and emotional health.

Dr. Brene Brown is well-known for her research on human connection: our capacity to love, empathize, and belong. She writes and speaks extensively about the courage to be vulnerable, letting go of who you think you’re supposed to be, making the journey to ‘I am enough,’ and leaning into discomfort and rising strong. She talks about how as an infant connection is survival, but as one matures, connection becomes about thriving emotionally, physically, spiritually, and intellectually. She explains empathy as connection; it is feelingwith people, connecting with another via connecting with something in yourself that knows that feeling the other is experiencing. She proposes that rarely can any specific response make a hardship better, but what makes it bearable is connecting with others. The person in distress then knows that someone else can relate, and he is not alone.

There is a popular idiom, “A trouble shared, is a trouble halved.” A study done at University of Southern California Marshall School of Business, in which the researchers measured levels of cortisol, a stress hormone, before and after the participants vented about their anxiety with a fellow student, found that sharing challenges with other people significantly reduces one’s own distress.

We’re wired to connect; we want to love, be loved, belong. Sometimes we lose sight of this and get caught up in the trivialities of a relationship. Connection is extremely powerful, tremendously important to our health and happiness. Do your relationships need strengthening?

Follow these tips to begin creating more meaningful relationships:

  • Maintain a good relationship with yourself. Know your limits, and create healthy boundaries. Practice good self-care. Don’t be afraid to say “no” or to express your own needs.
  • Identify for yourself who is worthwhile to build genuine relationships with. Stay away from negative, needy, and/or controlling people. (If you must interact with such people, identify how they drain you, so you can stay one step ahead. You may need to ‘take a break’ when dealing with them or limit your time together.)
  • Be dependable; mean what you say. Follow up your promises with action. People appreciate follow-through and knowing that they can rely on you.
  • Give unconditionally. Focus on giving rather than receiving. It’s nice if your efforts are reciprocated, but don’t concentrate on the tit for tat.
  • Share your life with others. When you open up to people about what you’re experiencing, they will feel more comfortable letting you in on what’s going on for them.
  • Accept people for who they are. Focus on people’s positive traits, and try to see the good in every individual.
  • “Lean in” during a time of struggle. Confide and seek comfort from others when you’re facing a hardship. Have the courage to be vulnerable and open up.
  • Listen, support, empathize, and encourage. Be there for others without imposing your own perspectives and advice if they are not solicited. When you ask someone a question, listen to their answer.
  • Let petty things go; you don’t always have to be right. Make the relationship what is important.
  • Try to make people feel noticed, important, and appreciated. Give smiles and greetings freely. Compliment sincerely. Check in regularly for no reason.
  • Let go of the past; forgive people and move forward. (If you can’t, you owe it to yourself to explore why you’re holding onto grievances.)
  • Practice patience. Don’t hold everyone to your standards. Remember that every person has a different personality, perspective, and approach to everything.
  • Be honest about your feelings. Don’t hold onto things and let them drive a wedge between you and someone you care about. Address issues candidly and respectfully.
  • Communicate. Communicate. Communicate. Don’t expect people to know what you want or need. This might even mean asking people to wish you happy birthday if you know you’ll be upset if they don’t.
  • Don’t stand on ceremony. Call, ask, invite, initiate.
  • Be aware of how you’re being received. Don’t push your opinion or needs on others. Apologize if something you do ends up hurting someone even if it’s not your fault. Practice saying “I was wrong” and “I’m sorry.”
  • If you need to criticize or correct, do so tactfully, sandwich with compliments, and take others’ feelings into account.

This post was written by Rivka Rochkind, LCPC