When researchers refer to the concept of social connection, they mean the feeling that you belong to a group and generally feel close to other people. Scientific evidence strongly suggests that this is a core psychological need, essential to feeling satisfied with your life.
Indeed, humans are a profoundly social species; our drive to connect with others is embedded in our biology and evolutionary history. It begins at birth, in our relationship with our caregiver—and the effects of this relationship seem to reverberate throughout our lives. When we’re cared for as children, we’re more likely to have healthy, secure attachments as we get older.
What’s more, the pleasures of social life register in our brains much the same way physical pleasure does, and our knack for social connection is reflected in some of the most basic ways humans communicate—by subtle uses of our voice, facial expressions, and sense of touch. Scientists believe we are essentially wired to connect with other people because natural selection favored humans with a stronger propensity to care for their offspring and organize into groups.
“To the extent that we can characterize evolution as designing our modern brains, this is what our brains were wired for: reaching out to and interacting with others,” writes neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect. “These social adaptations are central to making us the most successful species on earth.”
Why Practice It?
Decades of research suggest that the quality of our social ties might be the single biggest predictor of our well-being.
Social connections are sometimes called “social capital” for good reason: They are a valuable resource in life, creating moments of positivity and fun, supporting us through good times and bad, and exposing us to new ideas and new people. If we cultivate healthy connections, the research promises a longer, happier, and more prosperous life.
“Resonant relationships are like emotional vitamins, sustaining us through tough times and nourishing us daily,” writes Daniel Goleman in Social Intelligence: The New Science of Human Relationships.
Here are some of the research-backed benefits of social connection:
- Social connections are vital to happiness. People who are very happy tend to be highly social and have strong relationships. Although strong social connections alone can’t guarantee happiness, it may be impossible to be very happy without them.
- Social connections are good for our health. Strong social ties keep our memory sharp and may even protect us from getting colds. These benefits are particularly acute for seniors: Seniors with more social capital or social activity have better physical mobility, less disability, a reduced risk of dementia, and greater happiness.
- Social interactions feel good: People report that the everyday activities involving the most positive emotions include socializing. Research also suggests that spending money on experiences is more fun when we share them with others.
- Social connections in youth are key to later well-being. According to a survey that followed nearly 300 men over the course of more than 70 years, intimate relationships—a loving childhood, empathy, and warm relationships as a young adult—are the best predictors of economic success, physical health, and flourishing in life. In another study, being socially connected was a more powerful predictor of adolescents’ future happiness than academic achievement. Boys who are more socially integrated in childhood and adolescence tend to have lower blood pressure and body mass index in adulthood.
- Social connections could help us live longer. There’s some evidence that having more supportive friendships and more cohesive family and community relationships could reduce the risk of fatal heart attacks. Also, women with breast cancer are more likely to survive if they have more friends.
- Getting married boosts our happiness in the short term, though it eventually returns to its pre-marriage level. But marriage does seem to buffer against the declines in happiness that occur over time among singles, and among seniors with health problems. Marriage is more likely to boost our life satisfaction when couples have similar levels of education.
- Having a broad range of social ties—from acquaintances to close friends to significant others—may be good for our health and professional success.
- On the flipside, social isolation and loneliness are bad for our health. The more socially isolated older adults are, the more they tend to be inactive, smoke, and have higher blood pressure and other risk factors for heart disease. Several studies suggest that socially isolated adults also have an increased risk of death.
How Do I Cultivate It?
Although we are wired to connect with others, we don’t always prioritize social connection in the midst of our busy lives. No matter who you are, there are likely ways that you could grow your social network, build deeper connections, or cultivate healthier relationship habits.
Here are some specific, science-based activities for cultivating connection from our website Greater Good in Action:
- Best Possible Self for Relationships: Imagine what your ideal relationships would look like, as a first step toward cultivating them.
- Capitalizing on Positive Events: Show interest, enthusiasm, and positivity about someone’s good news.
- Active Listening: Connect with someone by tuning in to what they’re saying and showing empathy and understanding.
- Mental Subtraction of Relationships: Learn to appreciate a loved one more by imagining your life without them.
- Gift of Time: Invest in your relationships by spending quality time with people you care about.
- 36 Questions for Increasing Closeness: Have a great conversation with a friend, family member, or romantic partner.
- Avoiding the “Four Horsemen” in Relationships: Prevent relationship doom by replacing toxic conflict behaviors with constructive ones.
Social connections are tied up with other keys to well-being. Cultivating gratitude, empathy, altruism, compassion, and forgiveness will not only enhance your personal well-being but also benefit your relationships at work and at home. Here are some more tips for having healthier social connections.
- Meditate with someone: It could help you feel more social closeness and be more open with others.
- Figure out your attachment style: If you have commitment, trust, or attachment issues, you could significantly improve your relationships by understanding your attachment style and trying to develop a “secure” one.
- Listen to music together: Singing and listening to music raise our oxytocin levels, and research suggests that families and peer groups are more cohesive if they listen to music together.
- Practice the art of “hygge”: the Danish concept of cozy, warm, drama-free time together, which might explain why Denmark often ranks among the happiest countries in the world.
This post has been modified for length and/or content, and originally appeared in Greater Good Magazine