Why Meaningful Encounters Matter

Loneliness is a huge health risk for us all. Here are ways to create more high-quality connections.

image of hand holding globe

If the coronavirus has taught us anything, it’s that we are meant to stay connected. It’s not optional — we need regular contact with other people. We need to belong.

Loneliness is one of the greatest risks to health, right up there with smoking. It is associated with higher rates of heart disease, cancer, inflammation, and memory problems. Research also suggests that loneliness intensifies one’s experience of symptoms from ­certain viral illnesses, perhaps heightening risk for those who are socially distanced for too long.

Genuine happiness also correlates with our degree of social connection. Researchers have looked at what makes some people exceptionally happy: Is it a healthy diet? Exercise? An active spiritual life? Good fortune? It’s none of these.

In one study, what was different about the upper 10 percent of consistently happy participants was that they cultivated stronger social connections.

Other studies have focused on the pursuit of happiness. In other words, does actively trying to be happy (by setting specific goals) correlate with greater happiness? Not necessarily. In fact, many who strive for happiness end up less happy one year later.

Still, there was a notable difference based on the type of striving: People who chose individual goals, even laudable ones like becoming healthier or finding a better job, were often less satisfied at the end of the study. Those who pursued social goals, however, like spending more time with friends or family, ended up feeling better about their lives. When it comes to the pursuit of happiness, not all activities are equal.

The life-giving nature of social contact comes in many forms. It doesn’t require a close, intimate relationship, or even a tight-knit, supportive friend group. We can get our social needs met through different degrees of familiarity and various levels of intimacy. Even virtual connection works for a while; ultimately, though, it is no substitute for actual face-to-face encounters.

And it’s worth remembering that, as with most things, there is a continuum of need for social contact. Where we land on the introversion–extroversion scale influences the nature of our social interactions. But when it comes to staying healthy and happy, we all need to connect.

I recently read about a psychology professor and happiness researcher at the University of Michigan named Jane Dutton. She wrote that her favorite happiness practice is “to be alert to high-quality connections (HQCs)… which are like vitamins that strengthen me from within.”

These HQCs are regular, day-to-day encounters, the kind we miss so much during our collective social distancing. They can be brief and routine, and they can involve complete strangers.

So what makes some encounters high quality and others forgettable? Noticing them. It is our degree of conscious awareness that makes the difference.

In other words, it’s less important what we do, or how much we do it, but that we are there for it. It’s like a raffle: You must be present to win.

So, whatever you do with another person, give him or her your attention and notice the exchange of energy during the interactions. Then you can be sure to receive the gifts of connection.

is an integrative psychiatrist and the author of The Chemistry of Joy, The Chemistry of Calm, and Staying Sharp. He is the cofounder of NaturalMentalHealth.com.

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