“We are like islands in the sea, separate on the surface but connected in the deep.”
— William James
— William James
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We all know that eating the right foods, enjoying a good night’s sleep, and getting moderate exercise all promote wellbeing and longevity. But science now reveals a form of nourishment equally vital that’s required for optimal health and happiness. It’s the healing power of connection!
As a researcher and writer on brain science and human behavior, I’m excited to share with you this first of four articles on “The Science Behind Connection.” Each piece explores the latest science behind and the actions required in order to enjoy connection in your own life, home, work, and community.
I believe there to be four fundamental types of connection that are essential for achieving life-long health and sustainable happiness. They are the following:
1) Connection to People – fostering a connection to others and to your tribe.
2) Connection to Purpose – discovering your connection to a cause or calling in life.
3) Connection to Passion – experiencing connection to art, beauty, and nature.
4) Connection to Power– cultivating connection to your Inner Potential or to a Higher Power.
Let’s start with the first of these four forms of connection.
In the very first lecture of the Happiness course that I teach at my university, students learn that among the most primal drives we require is the need to belong. The human brain evolved for tribe. We are literally wired for community. Our craving for connection became the evolutionary advantage that made survival of the species possible.
My research and writing study the function of our “social brain” that asserts how the greatest factor to your happiness comes from knowing that you are part of a tribe—that you belong and that others value your presence in the world!
It is a truth revealed by timeless spiritual wisdom and recently affirmed by revolutionary studies in brain science.
But something very dangerous is manifesting in our world. As the noted humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, Albert Schweitzer, notes, “We are all so much together, but we are all dying of loneliness.”
It is a sad truth that makes me believe why our “illness of isolation” is the most contagious disease in our world today. In a time of political division, social isolation, and emotional loneliness, the pursuit of connection is more than a luxury—it’s an absolute necessity!
I do want to make an important distinction—isolation and loneliness aren’t the same. As I like to say—isolation is a physical state; loneliness is an emotional state. Think of people who live in densely populated urban centers, constantly surrounded by people, but who can feel painfully alone. I personally counsel clients who are constantly surrounded by others, who report feelings of profound loneliness.
The opposite is also possible. There exist people who are perfectly fine being physically alone, yet, rarely experience feelings of loneliness. Physical isolation itself isn’t the issue; it’s how you choose to respond to it.
How contingent is the need for social connection on your health and happiness? According to researcher Julianne Holt-Lundstadt, “Being connected to others socially is widely considered a fundamental human need – crucial to both well-being and survival. Yet an increasing portion of the U.S. population now experiences isolation regularly.” What’s most remarkable is how a growing body of research affirms that experiencing strong social connections increases your chance for longevity as much as 50%.
As discussed in previous articles, so powerful is the evolutionary drive for social connection that we observe how shared regions of your brain regulate social and physical pain. Here’s another way of looking at it — overlapping regions of your brain experience the physical pain from a broken bone just as strongly as the social distress from a broken bond. Likewise, the joy of experiencing social connection yields the same amount of euphoria in your brain as do food and sex.
The inability for your brain to distinguish between physical and social pain is the surprising reason why a 2009 study found that the same active ingredient found in Tylenol equally dampens emotional and social pain.
The findings from the study further support a fundamental truth—we are social beings with brains that evolved to feel all forms of pain. Taking a common pain-reliever does more than just alleviate the pain of a broken bone, it appears to soothe the suffering of a broken heart and allay the turmoil of a lonely soul. Tylenol and tribe are equally powerful strategies to alleviate pain.
But here’s the real reason why I feel we need to be aware of the health dangers behind social isolation and of the health benefits from human connection—feelings of loneliness increase inflammation in your body. Why is this perilous news?
As I write in my upcoming book The Currency of Happiness, “Prolonged and chronic inflammation in the body is a leading factor behind a host of health issues such as the onset of certain forms of cancer, heart and lung disorders, weight gain, insomnia, skin issues, joint pain, digestive disorders, depression, and even the triggering of neurodegenerative disorders like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s disease.”
Because this is such an important and relevant health issue, we will dedicate an entire future article just on this topic!
Now that you know some of the neural mechanisms involved with the social brain, here are some great ways to cultivate connection in your life. I find that one of the easiest ways to achieve this is to engage in activities that promote bonding experiences. Whether it’s going for a hike with a friend you haven’t seen in a while, volunteering at the homeless shelter, or simply cooking dinner together as a family, these are all activities that enhance health and boost happiness for self and others.
Here’s a video that we think you’ll enjoy that explores more about the “Science of Connection.”
Our next monthly ‘Mind’ article will reveal how to experience the importance of “Connection to Purpose.” Until then, enjoy the abundance and joy from connecting to people who make your life rich!
In Health & Happiness,
Dr. Jay Kumar is a professor of Happiness Studies, renowned public speaker, and thought leader. His expertise spans brain science and behavioral health; economics, politics, and culture; religion and science. He also holds a Master’s degree from the School of International and Public Affairs at Columbia University in international political economy. Dr. Jay recently founded the Applied Brain Science Research Institute (ABSRI) — an international organization that explores the dynamic intersection of science, spirituality, and society in order to advance solutions for issues facing our contemporary and complex world.
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