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The Health Benefits of Connection

Even small bouts of connection can add up to big health benefits.

Key points

  • Even one-second connections can make a difference.
  • Research shows that both the connection giver and receiver benefit.
  • Connecting to others can lead to better health and happiness.

One of my favorite quotes is from the legendary and inspirational poet Maya Angelou: “I’ve learned that people will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.” To me, this is about connection. Maya was on to something, and, today, the research is catching up with her.

For many, right now, life feels difficult, painful, and overwhelming from both a granular and global perspective. What’s the answer? Science tells us that, in part, it’s connection. And it doesn’t have to be a deep, time-consuming, arduous, romantic, or familial connection. Even the one-minute—or one-second, which is how long it takes to smile—connection can be healing if we cultivate it as a habit and make it a part of our daily routine. Connection is like every muscle in the human body. As we work it, it gets stronger, and so does its healing capacity. But don’t take my word for it.

The Research

Small steps add up to big gains for not only the giver but also the receiver. At least that’s what the Greater Good Science Center at Berkeley University and researchers with UC San Francisco discovered with their Big Joy project.

The Big Joy project, a free, one-week online program, is huge, with more than 83,000 participants in 206 countries and growing. So far, the project has found that people who participate report improved relationships, better sleep, and, in general, more happiness—after just one week. The Big Joy project features what they call micro-acts that help people increase happiness within themselves, each other, and the world.

Some examples of those micro-acts include doing something kind, celebrating another’s joy, dwelling in awe, and making a gratitude list. When the researchers looked at the data from 11,000 people from more than 22 countries, they found that, after using the program for a week, there was a 26 percent jump in emotional well-being and a 23 percent increase in positive emotions. Also, 27 percent felt they could impact, influence, or play an active role in their happiness level. And a whopping 30 percent felt content with their friendships and relationships.

Big Joy made me think of The Harvard Study of Adult Development, the world’s longest scientific study of happiness that has lasted almost 80 years resulting in a book called The Good Life written by two of the researchers, Robert Waldinger, MD, and Marc Schulz, Ph.D. That study concluded that good relationships and connecting with others can lead to better health and happiness.

Just as connection has positive health benefits, the opposite can be detrimental. A 2023 large study confirmed that loneliness and social isolation are associated with increased mortality and worse physical and mental health.1

Also published this year, a massive meta-analysis of cohort studies involving more than 1.3 million people found that social isolation is associated with an increased risk for all-cause mortality.2 Another huge analysis published this year also found that people who felt lonely and isolated were more likely to die sooner from any cause but, in particular, from cardiovascular disease or cancer.3

Connection is foundational to both mental and physical health and helps us reduce feelings of isolation and loneliness. And the good news is that everyone has access to connection regardless of living arrangement, number of friends, or family size.

The Power of the One-Second Connection

One of the easiest and perhaps most impactful ways to promote connection is by making eye contact and smiling. This simple act releases potent chemicals in the brain including oxytocin, appropriately referred to as the “love hormone.”

Because smiling is contagious,4 the receiver of your smile will also get a quick burst of oxytocin and other important feel-good neurotransmitters such as serotonin and dopamine. That bidirectional benefit is important.

Smiling also helps people cope better with stress.5 Smiling is associated with a stronger immune system as well.6 And, finally, research shows that smiling just may help you live longer.7

Creating short bouts of connection takes courage, commitment, and congruence. Let’s face it, interacting with others isn’t always easy. But if we try to consistently lead with kindness, we can help boost our emotional, mental, and physical health in surprising ways as well as enhance our connection to others. And, remember, the receiver benefits as well.

The Big Joy project is showing us that increasing happiness within ourselves, others, and even the world is possible. It’s a lofty goal that begins with connection.

For more on the power of connection, listen to this a recent podcast.


1. Hong JH, Nakamura JS, Berkman LF, et al. Are loneliness and social isolation equal threats to health and well-being? An outcome-wide longitudinal approach. SSM-Population Health. 2023;23.

2. Naito R, McKee M, Leong D, et al. Social isolation as a risk factor for all-cause mortality: systematic review and meta-analysis of cohort studies. PLoS ONE. 2023;18(1).

3. Wang F, Gao Y, Han Z, et al. A systematic review and meta-analysis of 90 cohort studies of social isolation, loneliness and mortality. Nature Human Behavior. 2023;7:1307–1319.

4. Wood A, Rychlowska M, Korb S, Niedenthal P. Fashioning the face: sensorimotor stimulation contributes to facial expression recognition. Trends in Cognitive Sciences. 2016;20(3):227–240.

5. Kraft TL, Pressman SD. Grin and bear it: the influence of manipulated facial expression on the stress response. Psychological Science. 2012;23(11).

6. D’Acquisto F, Rattazzi L, Piras G. Smile—it’s in your blood! Biochemical Pharmacology. 2014;91(3):287–292.

7. Abel EL, Kruger M. Smile intensity in photographs predicts longevity. Psychological Science. 2010;21(4):542–544.

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