The Science of Human Connection

human connection

As social creatures, humans are innately longing for connections. Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, people are starting to pay more attention to the need to connect with others. With pandemic restrictions and prolonged isolation in the past two years, many are sensing a loss of human connections, as they experience a lower level of connectedness than what they desire.

A desire to connect with others is one of the basic human needs that need to be fulfilled for individuals to thrive. However, living conditions and modern lifestyles have led to a further gap between the levels of connectedness that are desired and the actual quality of social interactions. This has led to an epidemic affecting different aspects of life, including mental health, physical health, and life expectancy. 

 to a survey from the Office of National Statistics, levels of loneliness have increased since the early outbreak of COVID-19 with higher rates found in areas with higher concentrations of younger people. One reason for this is that a lot of young people, especially millennials and gen-Zs are slowly becoming accustomed to living with minimum face-to-face social interaction. 

As young people are spending the majority of their time on the phone, either playing video games, looking for entertainment or simply connecting with friends through social media, their social landscape is also changing. Some individuals even found ways to avoid contact with others in real life and depend more on social media to stay connected. 

However, despite various technological-based solutions for building social connections and a significant increase in the number of social media users, many people are still experiencing loneliness. As technology has evolved and integrated into our lives, it can both help us connect with others, but also create new challenges. For example, online interactions are easy to manipulate, therefore it might not feel as sincere as talking face-to-face, and that affects the quality of the interaction.

With all the challenges in having meaningful social connections, understanding the science behind having fulfilling connections can help anticipate and develop ways to cope when you are experiencing loneliness. Here are some of the most important facts about human connections and what you can do to avoid feeling lonely due to a lack of quality social connections. 

How the environment affects the ability to feel connected 

Even though the use of digital technologies is recommended as a way to decrease loneliness, it also brought new problems. Oftentimes, when people are trying to reach out and make connections, they are afraid of being judged, experience fear of missing out, and have a lot of social media-induced anxiety. 

With the increasing need to be a part of virtual communities for people experiencing loneliness, excessive access to social media can further increase anxiety to the point where medical attention is needed. One explanation of how social media can induce anxiety symptoms is related to the perceived safety of the online environment. 

The perceived safety of a social situation is crucial in affecting how people make connections, as it reflects on the ability to move towards those who are helpful, and not just by avoiding threats from the environment or the safety of the surroundings. According to attachment theory, individuals can form an emotional bond and a secure attachment when they perceive others positively (i.e caring, trustworthy, or responsive) and view themselves as valued and competent. Whereas people with a fear of social situations may view their psychosocial environment as threatening, and thus would engage less in a social context. 

arious aspects can affect the ability to connect with others. Aside from personal quality and social skills, characteristics of the environment also play an important role in how people connect. The momentary experience of loneliness is lower in individuals that are more in contact with nature. Furthermore, when people view their social environment as a safe and supportive environment, they are more likely to engage in meaningful social interactions. 

However, the emphasis is more on the subjective perception of social safeness rather than the actual threat that is experienced. When an environment is perceived negatively, especially by individuals that have difficulties in accessing social safeness, it can lead to a tendency to restrict their social life. This is supported by a study that found social safeness and social connection as predictors of loneliness, as people who are not feeling socially safe might have difficulty connecting with others.

Social interaction and loneliness

Interestingly, some people might be surrounded by their friends and family yet still feel lonely at times. On the other hand, people that seem to be having less interaction with others, are not always perceiving themselves as having less connection. So what makes people experience different levels of connections, and feel loneliness?

A study confirms that social isolation itself is different from loneliness. Social isolation can be described as an objective situation where there are minimal social relationships. Meanwhile, loneliness is often related more to the subjective experience, or perceived gap between desired and actual relationships. 

Loneliness is not always associated with living alone, a person can live a fully integrated and socially active life but still experience loneliness. It is easier to address the issue of social isolation by encouraging more community activities and increasing the number of social interactions. 

Meanwhile, addressing loneliness can be more of a challenge. When people feel lonely, there is a cognitive function that perceives the environment or specific situation that affects their pain response related to that of physical pain. This means the brain perceives loneliness as painful and is associated with inflammation, although it might seem unrelated. 

Therefore, people who experience loneliness for a long time might suffer from various health implications such as deteriorating cognitive functions, impairment in executive functioning, and a higher risk of anxiety and depression symptoms.

What to do when you are experiencing loneliness?

Given the importance and negative impact that loneliness can bring, several skills can be improved to avoid feeling lonely. 

Get involved more

One major aspect of loneliness is related to social skills, where people with high self-esteem feel less lonely and more satisfied with their relationships compared to others with social skills issues. Giving support to others and practicing compassion in your daily life can be one way to improve social skills and develop empathy. 

For example, being kind to a stranger and getting involved in a community can help build a more meaningful connection with others. Whether it is a volunteering activity or a gathering of communities with the same hobbies and interests, being part of a community als

Another simple way to cope with loneliness is to foster your existing relationships. Oftentimes, having conversations with close friends and family where you feel heard and understood is more fulfilling than having too many social interactions that are less personal. You can also reach out and reconnect with old friends to help deal with loneliness

Practice self-compassion 

Just as practicing compassion towards others can help to improve social skills, being kind to yourself can help with self-acceptance and self-esteem, and increase confidence. By having more confidence, people are more likely to be open to the idea of connecting with others, as it is found that people with increased inferiority feelings have a higher tendency toward self-concealment. This, in turn, results in an increase in loneliness and a decrease in happiness.

Enjoy moments of solitude

Another way to avoid the negative effects of loneliness is by enjoying the solitude and learning to be alone. Despite the common thought that lonely people are the ones that are often in solitude, those who find ways to connect with themselves feel less lonely even when they are alone. 

Staying active is one of the useful strategies to cope with feelings of loneliness while you are alone. Taking time for self-care and embracing hobbies can be a good way to start finding enjoyment while in solitude, and it might even help with emotional regulation which is important for social connections. Taking the time to self-reflect without interference from other people can also lead to self-discovery and acceptance. This may help people to feel more in tune with themselves and promote self-growth. 

In conclusion

Having meaningful connections with others might not be easy for some people, but being aware of the environment and nurturing a positive attitude toward other people, can encourage more meaningful interactions. While the number of interactions might not be a huge predictor of loneliness, participating in community activity and practicing compassion helps with increasing social skills. Even if you spend a lot of time alone, finding activities and embracing hobbies as a way of taking care of yourself might help you find enjoyment and avoid feelings of loneliness.

For more resources on loneliness, visit the Happiness Science Labs. Based on the research of the Institute for Life Management Science, the lab produces courses, certifications, podcasts, videos, and other learning materials. Check out the Happiness Science Labs today.

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