Have you heard of the saying that “humans are inherently social animals?” While Aristotle may have been making political commentary of his time with this statement, decades of research in psychology and neuroscience has indeed supported his stance on the matter. Social connections are not only important for our survival, but our relationships can have a major impact on our overall health and well-being. Most people have a deep desire for genuine connection – a need to feel loved, valued, and appreciated by others.

Let’s look further into the importance of connection in our lives:

Why is connection important? 

  • Connection helps us feel happier, improves our self-esteem and decreases stress.

Research has found that positive relationships, social support and social acceptance help shape the development of self-esteem in people across developmental ages. Moreover, social connectedness has been shown to be a significant protective factor against developing depression, alleviating symptoms of depression, as well as preventing future relapse.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest scientific studies of happiness spanning generations, revealed that the happiest and healthiest people are those who have strong, warm connections to others. This is in part because relationships serve as “stress regulators,” which help to return the body to equilibrium after a stressful event. Often, stressful events can cause the body to exhibit a fight or flight response. We notice this response in our increased heart rate, racing thoughts, shortness of breath, and other physical or psychological symptoms. These are normal reactions to distressing events, and having good relationships with others allows us to have connections to process these events while helping us return to a more well-regulated state.

In contrast, individuals who lack meaningful relationships (or “stress regulators”) during stressful times remain in a chronic fight or flight mode. Consequently, this results in chronic stress, chronic levels of inflammation and circulating stress hormones, which negatively affect happiness and deteriorate body systems.

  • Being around others improves our physical health and longevity.

Connection doesn’t just boost our psychological health, but has significant benefits for our physical health. There is growing evidence that shows that social connection matters more than genetics when it comes to better health behaviors and living longer. While higher degrees of social integration is associated with lower risk of physiological dysregulation, social isolation has been linked with adverse health consequences, including hypertension, poor attentional focus, impoverished sleep, diabetes, impaired immunity and earlier mortality. Longitudinal studies highlight that social networks during adolescence and early adulthood are especially critical for health during late adulthood years. 

  • Beyond individual benefits, social connectedness can foster trust and resilience within communities.

Beyond the myriad individual benefits of connection, community belonging has been considered as an important determinant of both individual and population health. People with community support exhibit feelings of mutual respect and a deeper sense of self-esteem. They also display improved collective capacity to effectively advocate for resources necessary for building community resilience.

Why can making connections be hard sometimes?

Barriers to connection can be viewed from both personal and societal perspectives. People may struggle to form a connection or experience loneliness if they fear a sense of rejection or judgment from others, or feel less present with others. Loneliness can work as a self-fulfilling prophecy as it may allow a person to protect themselves from any perceived or anticipated danger by avoiding social interaction. Some of the avoidance behavior also could stem from attachment styles and family dynamics as well as an individual’s past experiences.

Feeling connected to others can be difficult if you attempt to become a part of something or be accepted by trying to “fit-in.” According to researcher and author Brené Brown, “fitting in” is about assessing a situation and becoming who you need to be in order to be accepted.

Belonging, on the other hand, doesn’t require us to change who we are; it requires us to be who we are. Belonging is about feeling valued by others and being comfortable with yourself which in effect leads to more genuine connections and relationships, whereas trying to fit-in may bring up feelings of inferiority, anxiety and discomfort.

Moreover, the ubiquitous presence of and reliance on technology has created additional barriers to connection. While use of technology, including social media can help us form connections with people with similar interests or identities, it can also fuel loneliness if it is used to replace in-person interactions or for social comparison. Limiting social interactions to technology also can impede our ability to notice social cues and reduce non-verbal communication such as eye-contact which ultimately impacts development of empathy.

Food for thought:

  • Ask yourself: Who can I count on? To answer this question, think: If I were to call someone in the middle of the night because I was not feeling well or was frightened… who could I call?
  • What may be some of your own barriers to forming connections?
  • What are some of your strengths that you can build upon?

Tips for Cultivating Connection

Studies show that even small, seemingly meaningless encounters can lead to a sense of belonging and positivity.

  • Small talk isn’t all that small! While it may feel hard, initiating conversations can lead to deeper connections over time. Starting small with questions like “What did you think of the lecture today?” or asking about campus events can help to create a foundation that you can use to build upon when initiating meaningful conversations later.
  • Cultivate curiosity about others, and follow this curiosity with respectful questions and conversation. Sometimes it helps to be the first person to ask questions or express curiosity in others.
  • Change up your route to class. See new sights and potentially meet new people. A small smile, wave, or nod can be more meaningful to someone than you realize. Plus, small unplanned interactions have potential to lead to meaningful, unexpected friendships with nurturing.
  • Make appropriate eye contact. We are more likely to strike up a conversation with someone if they show facial expressions that reflect they are interested in conversing.
  • Focus on what the other person is saying. Listen as you would like to be listened to. Learn more about Empathy by Brené Brown.
  • Be present while interacting with others. If social media or electronic devices are creating a barrier for you to connect, check out these tips for developing a healthier relationship with the digital world.
  • Laugh with others. Robert Provine, a psychologist from the University of Maryland, found that we actually laugh most when talking to our friends. Interestingly we are not actually laughing at jokes; we laugh at statements and comments that do not seem to be remotely funny on the surface. It’s a form of communication, not a reaction. Laughter is a social behavior which we use to show people that we like them and that we understand them.
  • Connect with others who have shared interests. This can be volunteering or joining a campus club. Explore campus organizations.
  • Establish routines with important people in your life. This could be meeting a friend for brunch each weekend or scheduling a gym session with a friend each week at the rec center. It may be hard to be the first person to initiate this, but remember that they too may feel hesitant to be the first one to reach out!
  • Form study groups with people from class. Go to the library together or meet at a coffee shop. Focusing on a shared task like a class can help to decrease the pressure you might feel when trying to build a connection.
  • Try to embrace vulnerability. Perhaps you would like to reach out to a peer, but are worried about their response (“But what if they reject me…?”). You may even think the other person knows how you feel or what you are thinking. People can’t read minds! While the thought of potential rejection stings, vulnerability is a critical part of the process when putting yourself out there and meeting new people. Learn more about The Power of Vulnerability by Brené Brown.
  • Think about someone in your life who you miss. Take the opportunity to send them a text message or give them a call. Just a quick “Thinking of you. Hope you’re well!” text can go a long way in cultivating a deeper connection.
  • Practice giving and receiving gratitude in your relationships with others.
  • Take the 5-for-5 Connection Challenge.

Places to get started:

  • Not sure where to start? Togetherall is here for you! Whether you’re struggling to cope, feeling low, or just need a place to talk, Togetherall offers a space to share how you are feeling with a global community managed by trained mental health professionals. It is FREE to all Lafayette students, all members are anonymous, and your personal information is kept secure. It’s a supportive and inclusive community where you can offer and receive support any time, any day.
  • Did you know that the Counseling Center offers a variety of workshops and groups that can offer an opportunity to meet other students who you may relate to? One workshop in particular – Conversations 101 can be a great starting point!

Harris MA, Orth U. The link between self-esteem and social relationships: A meta-analysis of longitudinal studies. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2020 Dec;119(6):1459-1477.
Cruwys T, Dingle GA, Haslam C, Haslam SA, Jetten J, Morton TA. Social group memberships protect against future depression, alleviate depression symptoms and prevent depression relapse. Soc Sci Med. 2013 Dec;98:179-86.
Hawkley LC, Capitanio JP. Perceived social isolation, evolutionary fitness and health outcomes: a lifespan approach. Philos Trans R Soc Lond B Biol Sci. 2015 May 26;370(1669):20140114.
Yang YC, Boen C, Gerken K, Li T, Schorpp K, Harris KM. Social relationships and physiological determinants of longevity across the human life span. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2016 Jan 19;113(3):578-83.
Brown, B. (2010). The gifts of imperfection: let go of who you think you’re supposed to be and embrace who you are. Center City, Minnesota, Hazelden Publishing.