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Stay Close to People Who Feel Like Sunlight

Why high-quality relationships are as important as food and water.

Image by Sheila Ohlsson Walker, Boulder Mountain Range, Idaho
Source: Image by Sheila Ohlsson Walker, Boulder Mountain Range, Idaho

In 1938, in the middle of the Great Depression, one of the longest-running studies examining adult life began at Harvard University. Some 80 years later, the data is clear: IQ, genes, economic success, and fame don’t promote mental and physical health, happiness, and well-being. Relationships—specifically high-quality relationships—do. The Harvard Study of Adult Development provides convincing evidence for the power of emotion contagion, the neurobiological “upward spiral” that surges into our brains and bodies when we are engaged in authentic relationships with people whose presence feels like sunlight.

At any one time, we have the emotional and physical capacity for close, high-quality relationships with about 5-15 people, a concept laid out in “Dunbar’s Number.” The individuals who comprise our inner circle love us for exactly who we are, and we devote about 60 percent of our relational resources to them. When we have cause to celebrate, these priceless friends feel our joy as if it were their own (mudita!) and when we need a ride to the emergency room at 3 am, they are the friends we call first. These soulmate relationships are the very definition of intimacy (into-me-you-see), whether with a family member, a platonic friend, or a romantic partner.

And then there is the next layer. The other 40 percent of our relational resources are devoted to the middle and outer friendship circles. These friends and acquaintances are more distal, but provide us with an important sense of ourselves as an interwoven strand within a beautiful human tapestry.

Collectively, this personalized community of individuals serves as a convoy of social support by touching our lives in a way that defies both geography and time. This includes moments past (memories that joyfully warm our hearts and souls) and present (the sense of feeling seen, valued, and understood, a shared burst of laughter, or a good old-fashioned hug).

Each friend, regardless of where they lie in our concentric relationship circles, has the capacity to recharge our emotional batteries. As we embody unique aspects of our multi-dimensional selves within the context of distinct relationships, each with its own special chemistry and conversational flow, we are infusing ourselves into their epigenomes, and they into ours. We are healing and growing by sharing our lives—from the serious to the sad to the silly—with one another.

Therein lies the central tenet of human beings as social animals—stronger together than apart. Bottom line: we need high-quality relationships for our health and well-being like we need food and water.

“Good friends are like stars. You don’t always see them, but you know they’re always there.” —Christy Evans

The precise manner in which high-quality human interaction unfolds on a biologic level is complex, so much so that it has been termed the “dark matter” of social neuroscience (think: the brain equivalent of the study of black holes). But here’s what we do know about the neurobiology of human connection—the ingredients, and as they say in the medical field, the “dose-response” relationship between them:

One Dose of High-Quality Human Connection = A Neurobiological Response of….

⬆️ Oxytocin: The “love” neuropeptide (molecules that can cross the blood-brain barrier) is a key ingredient in the recipe for positive feelings stemming from human bonding and love.

⬆️ Opioid-like neuropeptides: Mother Nature’s built-in pain relievers and biological wellspring of euphoria, catalyzed by social connection and physical touch.

⬆️ Serotonin: Feel-good neurotransmitters that are natural happiness boosters and gastrointestinal system stabilizers.

⬆️ Dopamine: Mood-boosting neurotransmitters associated with novelty, excitement and reward.

⬆️ Arginine Vasopressin: Neuropeptides that regulate water homeostasis (balance) and kidney function, and are associated with long-term monogamous relationships.

⬇️ Cortisol: The stress hormone that influences inflammation, blood sugar levels, metabolism, and memory formation, which social support helps to keep in equilibrium.

These biochemicals are all actors in a larger performance that features four major networks in the brain, each of which is believed to play both a specialized as well as integrative role in processing social information.

1. The “social perception” network is centered on the amygdala (the brain’s “emotional smoke detector.”) and shapes the effects of emotion on social decision making – particularly as related to perceived threat, social saliency, creating bonds with others, and social pain.

2. The “mentalizing” network is engaged when actively thinking about others, and also when reflecting on oneself. (There is major overlap here with the default-mode network, which is “on” when our attention to the outside world is “off.”)

3. An “empathy-focused” network kicks in when individuals have a vicarious emotional experience from seeing and feeling the emotions of others.

4. The “mirror” network (home to the “mirror neuron”) operates when we observe the actions of others by activating the very same neural pathways in the observer’s brain as the one engaged in the activity.

Like a game of neurobiological “tag,” positive and caring human connection catalyzes a powerful health-promoting chain reaction in our brains and bodies.

Ways to Cultivate Relationships that Feel Like Sunlight

  • Prioritize quality over quantity.
  • Find ways to have face-to-face time with your core crew—even if it has to be virtual for now. If it can’t be physical, visual proximity is the next best thing for maintaining close connections.
  • Schedule friend time—just as you would an important work meeting. Remember, we humans are healthiest in the context of supportive relationships with others: Me + We = Mwe. Isolation is harmful to our mental and physical health.
  • Breathe in the sunlit energy that is friendship, listen non-judgmentally with your whole heart, and be present.
  • Bring the people you love together, in person or for now via Zoom. Share stories and jokes, laugh, cry, sing, and dance.
  • Don’t feel constrained to humans! Our canines ALWAYS feel like sunlight—the pure, unadulterated kind that’s rooted in unconditional love.

As we think about the road ahead, post-pandemic and otherwise, cultivating high-quality relationships is priority #1. By taking a page from the Harvard Study and surrounding ourselves with people who feel like sunlight, we get to experience the health-promoting, life-affirming, psychologically liberating, spiritually fueling, priceless moments of relational energy that inspire the greatest story of all: a life well-lived within the context of a multi-generational legacy of health and happiness fueled by Vitamin C (Connection) and Vitamin L (Love).

Love is the bridge between you and everything.” —Rumi

A version of this post was published by Turnaround for Children on the 180 Blog.

Facebook image: mimagephotography/Shutterstock

More from Sheila Ohlsson Walker CFA, Ph.D.
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