At the heart of the majority of human insecurities are two emotions: rejection and abandonment. Most of us spend inordinate amounts of time working to avoid these emotions and for good reason. Nevertheless, experiencing these emotions can help us begin to eliminate them from our lives. If we are paying attention in the moments when we feel rejected and abandoned, we are given the opportunity to ask some transformative questions: What’s missing? What can we do to overcome those emotions? The answer usually is some version of human connection. According to Psychology Today, “…the overarching emotional experience people tend to have in moments of human connection is uplift—a weight off the shoulders, and elevation of spirit.” Being connected protects us against experiencing these unwanted emotions and in my opinion is what makes life worth living.
A lack of human connection creates loneliness, which as Vivek Murthy cited in his book Together, is one of our world’s greatest health challenges. “Quite simply human relationship is as essential to our well-being as food and water. Just as hunger and thirst are our body’s ways of telling us we need to eat and drink, loneliness is the natural signal that reminds us when we need to connect with other people.”
Spending more than a month in the hospital an hour away from my immediate family and many of my closest friends could have felt interminable. But instead, there were periods where I felt more like “myself” than I had in many years. The connections I experienced throughout that period in the hospital under 24/7 surveillance made an otherwise awful situation tolerable, even enjoyable at times.
Three brain surgeries in a matter of months—I think it’s fair to say—qualify as extraordinary. Whether it’s brain surgery, caring for a family member, dealing with a career shift, a heartbreak or anything else that elicits a strong emotional response, it’s in these moments when we need connection the most. So, why do many of us turn inward during these challenging times?
What is it that makes sharing our concerns, our shame, our guilt, and our vulnerabilities difficult? How can we shift our mindset to turn these perceived weaknesses into strengths?
There can be a silver lining in every life event that appears dark and scary; it’s a matter of searching for it and focusing on it. My time in the hospital could have easily led me down a deep, dark hole. Instead, I intentionally focused on the silver linings of which connection was first and foremost. As I reflect on the hardest period of my life, the keys to human connection have become clear:
- Active listening: Blocking out the other distractions in life and focusing all of your attention on the other person. As clinical psychologist and author Harriett Lerner said, “Listen with the same passion that you have for being heard.”
- Humility: The ability to not take yourself so seriously and recognize and appreciate that you are a small piece of the puzzle of life. The ability to admit you are wrong and to consider all possibilities and options especially when they are not your idea.
- Freudenfreude: A 2022 New York Times article brought this term to the mainstream lexicon. Freudenfreude is, “the bliss we feel when someone else succeeds, even if it doesn’t directly involve us.” I have found that in many cases, the joy I experience from freudenfreude is even greater than the joy from my personal accomplishments. The essence of freudenfreude is human connection.
- Empathy: As Dr. Brene Brown defines it, “Empathy is connecting with people so we know we’re not alone when we’re in struggle. Empathy is a way to connect to the emotion another person is experiencing; it doesn’t require that we have experienced the same situation they are going through.” Without empathy, connection is impossible.
- Humor & laughter: It is so easy in stressful, pressure-filled situations to resort to our shadow tendencies. But as psychologist Barbara Fredrickson’s broaden-and-build theory suggests, “experiencing positive emotions expands people’s ability to use their intellectual resources productively. Your perception of reality determines your actions: If you see a path to a positive reality, your brain will be quicker to see the humor in the negative events of your external world. Thus when you have a negative work environment, you can use humor as a strategic tool to help others see a more positive reality.” What would happen if instead of resorting to anger, frustration, and resentment, we instead searched for humor? The power of a simple smile can shift a tense situation into something fun and productive.
- Emotional intelligence (EQ): Emotional intelligence is one’s ability to both understand and manage different emotions across different environments. Embedded in human connection is emotion and it’s how we manage our emotions that has an immense impact on the degree of the connection. It’s easy to allow our emotions to run on auto-pilot, but what if we were all just a little bit more intentional about how we handle our emotions and how we respond to others’ emotions?
- Eye contact: The simple act of sustained, comfortable eye contact has the power to further increase connection. I’ll never forget a social event over ten years ago when I sat across the table of twenty colleagues, friends, and spouses from someone whom I met for the first time. I had never experienced eye contact in that way, and haven’t experienced it since. He truly made me feel like I was the only person in that room full of people. I have met thousands of people since that event, but he is by far the most memorable.
Ultimately, human connection is about one’s ability to make others feel special, something all humans innately desire. After all, isn’t that what we strive to do with our children and our partners? As Maya Angelou famously said, “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.” In a world full of disconnection, what could we achieve if everyone focused more on connection is limitless?
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To learn more about fostering connection, reach out to Jonathan for a consultation.