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Are Moments of Human Connection Always Joyful?

Meaningful interactions can evoke a range of emotions.

Key points

  • Moments of human connection have a positive psychological impact, but they do not always feel joyful.
  • Meaningful interactions are often characterized by a complex mix of emotions—sometimes a mix of happy feelings and difficult ones.
  • No matter what feelings we experience in the process of connecting, we tend to feel uplifted as well as a sense of appreciation.

Moments of human connection tend to be very positive experiences in everyday life, benefitting our immediate mood and contributing to the quality of our relationships.

Yet despite their positive impact, when I interview and survey people about moments of human connection, their experiences are not necessarily joyful, though they sometimes are; they also aren’t necessarily brimming with the fear and courage that comes from sharing our most vulnerable selves, though that’s certainly a meaningful way to connect with the people we want to feel close to in our lives.

There are many things we do to connect with others, including supporting each other emotionally or with practical needs, having heart-to-heart conversations, expressing affection, or even just having a good laugh—and any of these experiences will have their own, often complex emotional tone.

The Many Feelings of Human Connection

As an example of the different ways feelings can be experienced in meaningful interactions, the below graph shows the emotions that a sample of 341 people reported feeling (from a checklist of emotions) when I surveyed them about meaningful moments of connection they had recently experienced with people in their lives.

I used a statistical model to put people into different groups based on what they felt in their moments of connection—the model shows how likely people in each of these groups were to report having felt each feeling listed.

Dave Smallen
Source: Dave Smallen

The model grouped people's experiences of meaningful connection into three different types:

  1. 62% of people (the solid line) did seem to have a happy experience that they appreciated, and felt few negative emotions like sadness or anxiety.
  2. 17% of people (the dashed line) had what I would call a vulnerable moment of connection, where they felt sadness, anxiety, or even anger, but these more challenging feelings were balanced by relief, happiness, and compassion. Often I see these more positive feelings following the more vulnerable ones as we regulate our emotions through the process of connecting.
  3. 21% of people (the dotted line) felt mostly compassion for another person, and sadness—this kind of experience often occurs when we support another person emotionally, a very meaningful way to connect, but not always a joyful one.

From this example, we can see that people generally have complex emotional experiences when they connect, often experiencing more than one identifiable emotion, sometimes both positive and negative emotions at once.

Feeling Uplifted and Appreciative

I’ve found that the overarching emotional experience people tend to have in moments of human connection is uplift—a weight off the shoulders, an elevation of spirit. Even if we enter the interaction feeling anxious, we may feel comforted over the course of the moment of connection. In painful moments, like connecting with a loved one who is passing away, we may feel a deep gratitude arise and mix with our apprehension and grief, lifting us even in our pain.

Even anger appears in meaningful connections—it’s more often anger directed at someone or something other than the person we are connecting with, though engaging with one another during conflict to find our way to connection is a vital kind of meaningful interaction.

Our gratitude, or appreciation, is a useful signal that we’ve had a meaningful interaction. Even if all we did was wave with a passerby on the street, we feel appreciation that our mind just encountered another mind in a satisfying way. Indeed, people in all three groups in the graph above were fairly likely to have said they felt appreciative regardless of the kind of interaction they had.

Engaging Meaningfully Around Any Emotion

The key to connecting meaningfully in everyday life isn’t having an interaction that feels happy or even comfortable in the moment (though human connection can be joyful and comfy), nor is it required that we face vulnerable emotions alongside everyone we want to feel connected with. Meaningful connections happen when we meet one another where we both are at emotionally in that moment, within the particular context we are in.

So, when we think about what kinds of experiences feel meaningful, we can seek to engage with others across a whole spectrum of emotions. What matters is responding wisely to the needs of the moment—is it a time to laugh? Is it a time to comfort one another? Is it time to have a heart-to-heart? Is it time to feel solidarity in our righteous anger? Is it time to find one another again after a conflict? Sometimes things get a bit messy before we find our flow together, and that's OK.

Regardless of the kind of situation we are in, if we enter an interaction with openness and curiosity, and try to show one another that we understand, validate, and care about the feelings that we each express, we are on the right track to meaningful human connection.


Smallen, D. (2021). Experiences of meaningful connection in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(10), 2886–2905.

Smallen, D. (2021). Experiences of Meaningful Connection in Social Interactions (Doctoral Dissertation, University of Wisconsin—Madison).

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