What does it mean to build connections and how do we do it?
Most people believe that love, intimacy, and social connection are more important than things like fame, wealth, and even physical health when it comes to their happiness (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008). Our intuition is right because loneliness represents one of the most significant threats to our physical health. Loneliness can impact our health just as much as lack of exercise, obesity, or smoking (Cacioppo & Patrick, 2008).
So what exactly does it mean to be “socially connected”? Is it the number of people you know? Is it your perceived closeness to the other people in your life? Or, is it the number of quality relationships you have? The answer might surprise you… It’s actually the combination of all of these things (Holt-Lunstad, Robles, & Sbarra, 2017).
So when it comes to building connections, our goal is not simply to meet more people and increase the number of connections we have. Our goal is to find the people that make us feel really good about ourselves, less lonely, and well-supported. Then, we must put in the effort to make the most of these relationships so they stay strong and healthy. And luckily, just as we can eat healthier and exercise to boost our health, there are things we can do to combat loneliness and feel more socially connected.
How to Build Connections
Friends. We might start by developing and strengthening the personal connections we have with friends or colleagues. Ask yourself, is there a friend you would like to spend more time with? Is there a co-worker that seems nice who you’d like to get to know better? Building connections with people you already know personally can be an easy way to start feeling more socially connected.
Family. For those who feel close to their families—or want to feel closer—it can be worth making an effort to talk more often. Even if you live far away, you could schedule a phone or video chat with a parent or sibling. Or, you could aim to plan a future vacation together to have occasional meaningful experiences together.
Strangers. Research shows that even small interactions with strangers can be good for our well-being (Sandstrom & Dunn, 2014). So don’t hesitate to talk to someone in line at the grocery store, chat with the barista at the coffee shop, or even ask for directions.
Groups. If we identify with a religion, joining a religious event may be helpful. Or, we can make an effort to get to know our neighbors, join a Meetup group to engage in a hobby we enjoy, go to local events in an effort to meet new people, or volunteer to meet like-minded individuals.
In addition to building a greater number of connections, it’s important that we actually feel connected to the people we spend time with. And the way we interact with people has a direct effect on how connected we feel to them. This is why effective interpersonal communication can be very important. Here are some strategies.
Use active listening. Active listening involves being truly present when another person is talking. Nodding, reinforcing what they say, and focusing on them are key actions. Be sure to also avoid letting your mind wander to other things or what you’re going to say next.
Cultivate empathy. Empathy involves mentally and emotionally trying to put yourself in the other person's shoes. See if you can understand what their situation would be like from their perspective.
Be honest. Warm, trusting relationships are built on honesty. So be sure to tell the truth and share your true self with those with who you want to build connections.
Use emotion regulation. Managing your emotions is key to being able to work through difficulties with those you care about.
Pay attention to nonverbal cues. People say a lot with their body language. Try to pay attention to what other people are telling you with their nonverbal cues. For example, if someone is looking around a lot or backing away from you, they might be ready to leave the conversation.
Share your stories. Self-disclosing personal information (a little bit at a time) can help others feel closer to us. So it can be helpful to use self-disclosure to improve your connections.
Try loving-kindness meditation. Loving-kindness meditation is a type of meditation where we imagine sending love to others. It can help strengthen our skills of compassion, kindness, and love.
Gratitude journaling. Writing a gratitude journal or list can help us appreciate the connections we have and as a result, bring our best selves to our social interactions.
Building strong social connections may just be one of the best things we can do to improve our health and well-being. Although there are lots of ways to do it, they don’t always come easy in our “island unto yourself” world. So taking one step at a time can be a good way to slowly but surely feel more connected.
Cacioppo, J. T., & Patrick, W. (2008). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. WW Norton & Company.
Holt-Lunstad, J., Robles, T. F., & Sbarra, D. A. (2017). Advancing social connection as a public health priority in the United States. American Psychologist, 72(6), 517.
Sandstrom, G. M., & Dunn, E. W. (2014). Is efficiency overrated? Minimal social interactions lead to belonging and positive affect. Social Psychological and Personality Science, 5(4), 437-442.