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The Psychological Impact of a Moment of Social Connection

What feelings and thoughts commonly arise in meaningful interactions?

Key points

  • Meaningful interactions involve feeling "psychologically" near other people—connected, close or touched.
  • At best, people experience what psychologists call "positivity resonance," a mutual spiral of shared joy.
  • Study participants report feeling affirmed in who they are, and feeling good about themselves in some way.
Prostock-studio/ Shutterstock
Source: Prostock-studio/ Shutterstock

In my research, I explore the subjective psychological experiences that people have when they connect with others. I’ve written elsewhere about how we might connect with people via many different kinds of social interactions, yet in my studies, I’ve found that people often point to specific psychological experiences that accompany a feeling of connection, regardless of when, where, how, or with whom they connect.

For example, a central aspect of meaningful interactions is the phenomenon of feeling psychologically near to other people, which is why we use metaphorical terms that denote proximity—like connected, close, bonded, or touched. We describe how we feel about those we have satisfying interactions with, even if we weren't physically near that person (for instance, if we are talking on the phone). In fact, neuroscience research shows that the distance in familiarity that we feel with other people registers in our brains in a similar way as distance in terms of space or time.

There are also other, less abstract, patterns of thought and feeling that participants in my studies often report as accompanying this sense of psychological closeness, such as an uplift in emotion, a sense of feeling affirmed, and a sense of safety.

Mixed But Uplifted Emotions

The emotional tone of a moment of connection can vary from painful grief to profound joy, but I’ve found that people tend to report a positive uplift in their emotions regardless of the kinds of feelings that primarily color an interaction.

At best, people experience what psychologists have termed "positivity resonance," a mutual upward spiral of shared joy. On the other hand, most human interaction is complicated, and we often experience a mix of positive and negative emotions in meaningful connections. Sometimes we feel somewhat anxious communicating with a certain person, even if we ultimately find ourselves laughing warmly together. Or perhaps we are connecting with a friend who is sharing about their struggles and we are struck by compassion and sadness despite feeling a lift of gladness that they are opening up to us.

Emotional uplift can simply come in the form of gratitude for the connection itself. For example, when sharing grief with another person in mourning we may not feel any happier (indeed we may not want to feel happy), but we may be warmed by appreciation for being able to grieve together. Such gratitude or appreciation usually shows up when a social experience is personally meaningful to us.

Feeling Affirmed in One’s Self

Generally, participants in my studies report feeling affirmed in who they are, meaning the interaction left them feeling good about themselves in some way. Indeed, we often leave meaningful connections with a sense that we matter—we felt valued in that moment or feel that we added value to someone else’s experience.

If someone listens to us deeply we will feel that we matter to them, just as we will feel a sense of mattering if we effectively offer them a supportive ear. If we are able to show up for other people supportively, we are also likely to feel competent, a core psychological need. Other experiences of feeling affirmed may be a sense that we are worthy of inclusion or belonging or that we are able to be our authentic selves.

Safety, Calm, and Comfort

Importantly, we tend to feel a sense of safety over the arc of meaningful interaction.

It is common these days in popular culture to focus on meaningful connections that occur when we make ourselves vulnerable, meaning we are opening up in a way that may not feel emotionally safe. What I believe discussions about vulnerability in social interactions often fail to mention is that we aren’t likely to feel connected if our expressions of vulnerability are not met with understanding, validation, or care.

Interacting with caring others can help us to regulate our emotions. So we might enter an interaction feeling emotionally activated and vulnerable, but through the experience of engaging with someone who we experience as caring, we come to feel more grounded and safe. Thus, even in social interactions where we are taking an emotional risk, we usually leave feeling calmer or more secure.

Some sense of safety is generally useful for engaging in ways that help us to connect. The basic mechanisms that allow us to connect face-to-face, such as the ability to smile, laugh, speak with a warm tone of voice, or listen with open attention may not be accessible if we are overwhelmed by anxiety and stress.

Cultivating Uplift, Mattering, and Safety

These common experiences point to ways we can engage intentionally with each other to create conditions where a feeling of connection is possible.

Though we cannot control how other people perceive us when we interact, we can try to attend to each other with sincere interest, doing our best to help others feel comfortable and to communicate that they matter to us.

Possible ways to express that we value others could include:

  • Allowing folks to engage their competencies by supporting us.
  • Listening and considering their point of view, even if we aren't sure we agree or can relate.
  • Sharing with them something of ourselves that we wouldn’t share with just anyone.
  • Supporting them in a way that goes just a little bit beyond what might be expected of us at that moment, or simply expressing in words how much we care about them.
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