“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep,” wrote American philosopher and psychologist William James over 100 years ago. Modern science is now revealing how we are “connected in the deep.” We are born with the natural urge—wired in our brains—for connection, and this urge continues throughout our lives. Ironically, however, even though social media connections continue to grow exponentially, we seem to be more separate now than at any time in history, as loneliness, isolation, and alienation are reported to be on the increase.
As social beings, we crave to feel supported, valued, and loved. It is well documented that true social connection lowers stress and improves physical health and psychological well-being. Isn’t it time to get back to valuing true connection and learn ways to improve or enhance our connectedness to one another—and especially to ourselves?
Everything in life is about connection. When we leave the nurturing, loving environment of our mother’s womb, we are suddenly separated from our source. From that point on, we seek ways to reconnect and make new connections. But inevitably there are more disconnections. Our mother is not always available, there is no one to play with, etc. As we grow and move out into the world, life circumstances change. Losses, failures, and unfulfilled dreams leave us feeling isolated or even that something’s wrong with us. When a friend or confidant is nowhere to be found, the tendency may be to stuff our feelings. Our reaction might even be something we’ve witnessed in the adults who mentor us. Such a situation can turn into a lifelong conditioned response, and we lose the ability to trust others and share our true feelings.
In the May-June 2016 issue of Scientific American Mind, an article entitled “Friendships: The Remarkable Power of Our Closest Connections” revealed that 50% of American adults now report that they have zero close friends. This is down from two close friends reported in similar studies 10 years earlier. Yet, according to Brené Brown, professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, “We are biologically, cognitively, physically, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong.” So what is the disconnect here? We crave connection, yet we’re losing our ability to achieve it.
Connectedness was an essential part of life for early humans. Not only were they connected to one another, but they also had an interdependent relationship with nature. Being social was just as essential as having food, water, and shelter. In today’s world we no longer have that deep connection with our tribe or environment. In our busy lives we have ready access to connection on demand that helps us surf the surface of other people’s lives but neglects the depth. We’re becoming emotionally lazy, as we’re drawn to connect via methods that are fast, easy, and always at hand—and that don’t require physical presence.
According to Sherry Turkle, professor of the Social Studies of Science and Technology at MIT, “Genuine connection and companionship involves emotional risk—the risk of being authentically yourself, of being vulnerable, honest, and open.” Intimacy is what’s most essential. But human bonds take time and care to form and maintain. Intimacy involves trust with someone who can be a true confidant, who has our back, and who is not critical of our flaws.
Human connectedness runs deep in our brains. Neuroscientists have discovered that we have the capacity to read other people’s minds. I’m not referring to psychic abilities. We are able to become attuned to another person‘s actions and nonverbal behaviors through a phenomenon called mirror neurons. When we tell a friend about a happy experience we’ve had, for example, neurons in our brain light up in all the networks associated with that memory. As we convey this experience through words and body language, the mirror neurons in our friend light up as well. In turn, our neurons pick up her signals that let us know we’ve been heard and accepted. This could help explain how and why we feel empathy for people when they are suffering.
Research has also revealed that whenever we finish doing something analytic or engage in nonsocial thinking, the network in the brain for social thinking lights up almost instantly, like a reflex. This spontaneous reaction prepares us for the next moment in our lives. We switch from taking in information to being ready to send it out. Our brain prepares us to be in the world socially.
In this vastly changing world, I believe we are charting new territory in exploring what it means to be human. We can’t go back to living like our ancestors. But we also must not cast aside the basic elements of body, mind, and spirit that connect us with one another. Let’s explore some ways we can learn to enhance our connections.
Touch: What’s drastically missing in the connection-on-demand culture is physical touch. “To touch can be to give life,” said Michelangelo. When we touch someone we strengthen bonds and give life to a relationship. A pat on the back, a caress of the arm, a hug—especially a big hug—are primary ways of expressing caring and compassion. Touch is fundamental to human communication and it provides incredible emotional and physical health benefits. A simple touch activates the vagus nerve, which can calm the body and stimulate the release of oxytocin, the “feel good” hormone. Even the sound of loving words can resonate in the body, touch the heart, and deepen connection.
Deep listening: Probably the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. Being fully present to another cannot be accomplished through a text or email. Physical presence is essential. It requires setting aside our own needs and agendas and not rehearsing what we’re going to say in response while the other is talking. When we become fully present, we open our hearts and minds to the deeper being beneath the words, and do so with a curiosity and openness. This intimate way of listening is particularly powerful following a great loss or during a difficult change or transition. It can create space for compassion; when you lose yourself in another, feel what they feel. But it also exposes our vulnerability as we face the possibility of hearing disturbing truths we don’t want to hear. Ultimately, though, it can open the door for mutually experiencing a deeper sense of self-acceptance and self-appreciation.
Befriend yourself: It’s often recommended that if you want a friend, be a friend. What better place to start than with yourself. Believing in yourself helps you to enjoy your own company. This sense of “okayness” with yourself can transmit to others, conveying that you are a caring person whom others will want to be connected with. I can vouch for this approach; being alone doesn’t have to be lonely. It can actually provide an opportunity for your heartfelt life mission to be revealed and unfold. If you don’t have a partner, you can still feel connection to life. We all need to give ourselves a hug every now and then!
Connect to life!
Few have understood connectedness as well as Martin Luther King Jr., who said: “It really boils down to this: that all life is interrelated. We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tired into a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one destiny, affects all indirectly.”
Are you ready to take the challenge of finding ways to become more “connected in the deep”?