The U.S. Surgeon General recently released an advisory outlining an American epidemic of loneliness and social isolation—a major public health concern. I, therefore, wanted to share some of the many ways people come to feel connected in everyday social interactions, according to research.
There is no single best way to experience moments of social connection. Instead, we can think of these different ways to connect as tools in our social toolkit, that might be more useful in certain situations or with certain people.
Some of these nine ways to connect will feel fairly obvious—yet how we interact can be so habitual that it can be difficult to describe to ourselves and others the ways that we tend to (or prefer to) experience connection in daily life.
1. Heart to Hearts
Some of the most profound moments of connection arise when we open up to each other about who we are deep down, and offer each other understanding, acceptance, and care in return. This kind of deeply meaningful conversation elicits what psychologists call emotional intimacy—a powerful way of connecting in close relationships because in sharing with one another the things we wouldn’t share with just anyone, we gain deep and special knowledge of each other, and by being responsive to one another’s vulnerability, we build trust.
2. Sharing Laughter
Research shows that sharing in humor can effectively bring about a sense of connection. The key here is that we joke with friendly intentions, using what psychologists call affiliative humor. There are different kinds of humor—some “jokes” can be a mask for putting others or ourselves down—and so a feeling of connection over humor or silliness arises when everyone involved has the chance to feel sincerely amused.
3. Supporting Each Other
Research shows that both giving and receiving assistance can effectively connect us to one another. We tend to feel connected when someone has been particularly responsive to our unique needs in a situation, and when we have acted effectively (and of our own volition) to meet others' needs.
There are multiple types of support that we tend to offer each other. Tangible support includes practical kinds of help, such as driving someone to the airport. Emotional support is showing up for others to help them process and regulate their emotions. Informational support involves sharing advice or knowledge to assist others.
4. Expressing and Receiving Gratitude
Now, supporting others isn’t so satisfying if we don’t feel like we are appreciated. Social scientists have shown that expressions of gratitude help us to form and maintain our relationships. These little boosts of appreciation act as glue for our ongoing connections. Our appreciation is most effective when we point specifically to exactly how another person met our needs, which highlights just how well they supported us.
5. Giving and Receiving Affection
It shouldn’t surprise us that receiving affection helps us feel connected. But studies also show that offering affection—making explicit our liking or love for another person—also makes us feel closer to the person we’ve expressed ourselves to. Affection can come in many forms, which researchers have cataloged, such as verbal expressions like “I love you” or appropriate touch, with the key being matching our affectionate expressions to other people's preferences for how they like to receive affection.
6. Moving Our Bodies Together
Synchronizing our physical movements has been shown to release hormones related to bonding. Studies on people dancing and singing in groups, and even students instructed to walk around campus together in lock-step, show that people feel closer to one another when they're in sync. So getting out and engaging in activities like coordinated exercise that put you into step with others can be a great embodied way to bond.
7. Sharing Positive Emotions
Synchrony in our emotions also helps us connect. A phenomenon called positivity resonance occurs when two people feel and express joyful emotions together. Pleasant emotions generally put us into a state where we are open to those around us, and studies show that when savoring positive emotions together our physical gestures and biological rhythms sync up just as they would in shared physical movement. The best part of positivity resonance is that an upward spiral of feeling can occur where we feel more joyful when sharing joy than we would on our own.
8. Finding Common Ground
Studies show that experiencing a sense of shared reality—that is, noticing that another person seems to share your internal world of beliefs, values, feelings, thoughts, and so on—leads to a sense of connection. We don’t have to agree about everything but highlighting areas of similarity is useful to gaining a felt sense of closeness that can anchor your connection when you aren't on the same page.
9. Celebrating Each Other's Good Fortune
When we share good news that’s occurred in our life, and get positive feedback in return, psychologists call this capitalization, which may come in the form of a high five, a “congratulations!” or an, “oh, I’m so glad to hear that!” Research shows that in relationships capitalization helps us build trust, as we show each other that we really care about what happens in each other’s lives.
There is No One Right Way to Connect
Which of these is the most meaningful way to connect? That will depend on many variables in the situation—for example, who you are connecting with or how you are feeling that day—and generally there will be more than one of these ways of connection present in any interaction. And though deep and meaningful heart-to-hearts may seem like the most profound way to connect, we may be surprised how connected we feel in some lighthearted interactions—one study found, unsurprisingly, that meaningful conversations made people feel closest to others, but not all that much more so than joking around! The key is gauging who you are connecting with and what your and their needs are at the moment.