Here we are almost a year into the COVID pandemic, and I don’t know about you, but I miss “normal life”. When I think about the “normal life” I think about going out to dinner, having a coffee with friends, or meeting up with a potential client or colleague.

I miss the noise of a rugby stadium, the clinking of glasses at a reception, the hum of the pub.

I miss the chaos of taking my kids to their different clubs, cricket, swimming, and dance. I miss inviting neighbours to get to know them in our back garden. But most of all, I miss conversation with other people besides my husband and kids.

What do all these situations have in common? They are events when we experience CONNECTEDNESS with another human being.

Humans are social. Our want to connect with others is ingrained in our being. We all know what social connection is; we feel it all the time. Researchers explain “social connection” as the “feeling of belonging to a group or generally feeling close to others” (Why Are We So Wired to Connect?, 2021).

We know this feeling intimately.

So, what happens when we take the ability of social connection away? That’s what lockdown measures have done for some of us. We can no longer experience connectedness with others while being limited to the home. Or can we? What about online or on social media?

How do we experience connectedness in the wake of COVID?

Understanding our NEEDS

We all require certain levels of our needs to be fulfilled and feel satisfied. When it comes to connectedness, we’re not talking about a roof over our head or clothes, although important needs, we’re talking about our mental health needs.

According to the Self-Determination Theory (Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012), there are three basic psychological needs that people require to feel satisfied with their life:

  1. Confidence
  2. Autonomy and
  3. Relatedness

Confidence and autonomy are internal needs, but when it comes to feeling relatedness, it requires us as humans to connect with others. Connecting with others fulfils our need to belong. With the pandemic wreaking havoc on our ability to socialise, it isn’t proving easy to find and feel relatedness with others.

“The need to belong: the desire for interpersonal attachments as a fundamental human motivation” — Andersen SM, Chen S (2002).

Feeling “relatedness” happens when we engage in behaviours that help others, either personally or in society as a whole, leading to an increased sense of connectedness (Pavey, L., Greitemeyer, T., & Spraks, 2011).

Figuring out how to engage in activities to feel relatedness is the key to experiencing connectedness in the wake of this pandemic. Let’s look at how we foster relatedness, social connection and connectedness.

Social Connectedness in the Brain

Social connectedness requires us to interact with others to feel satisfaction and increase wellbeing.

Even though it sounds simple enough, contact someone else and be social, it’s not that simple to create relatedness.

Let’s look at what happens in the brain when we meet someone. It’s a constant search for relatedness and similarities within ourselves.

Matthew Lieberman, a Social Neuroscientist at UCLA explains in his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, there are 3 neural networks in the brain working together when we’re making social connections that bring on that feeling of relatedness and social connection.

1. The first network activated is the circuit that involves pain and pleasure (this, of course, is in a social context). For example, when someone makes us laugh, chemicals, such as dopamine, are released, and we feel pleasure.

2. The second network activated allows us to read others’ emotions and predict their behaviour. For example, if you’re talking with a client and notice that they purse their lips, drop their head and look at the floor, your brain is reading that clients’ emotions and trying to understand what that client is thinking about or going to do next. It’s also the network that helps us change the conversation direction when we notice something not going our way.

3. Finally, the third network activated is the circuit that links our cultural beliefs and values, helping us absorb meaning. This is the network that links us to our social groups. For example, I grew up in the USA, so when I am talking with someone new, I try to find common ground based on my cultural upbringing. But because I have lived outside the USA for 15 years, I have learned to connect with people based on my beliefs and values AND other/their cultural beliefs. This is how we create and link up our social groups.

These three networks are working together, accessing and combining information unconsciously. Dr Lieberman explains that while we’re analysing we start to “consider whom we can share information with and how we can share it in a compelling way” (Why Are We So Wired to Connect?, 2021). We are actually processing our next move.

All of this is happening so fast that when we start to become aware of our thinking around whether we like someone or not, our biases can get in the way blocking connectedness. This is why becoming aware of cognitive (thinking) biases is key to social relatedness.

This matching of ourselves with others is a key component to social connectedness and one that is very self-centred. And I don’t mean that negatively.

Matching Ourselves with Others

Us humans, “devote 30–40% of speech output solely to informing others of [our] own subjective experiences” (Tamir, D. I., & Mitchell, J. P. (2012).

When we talk about ourselves to others, we use stories. The content of those stories is deeply important. Not only do those stories give clues to your cultural upbringing and values (one of the networks activated while making social connections) but they also affect your inner voice and how you THINK and TALK to and about yourself. (More on that in a later article).

This “self-disclosure” we use while communicating with others also “activates the mesolimbic dopamine system in the brain” (Tamir, D. I., & Mitchell, J. P. (2012) which is part of the pleasure network associated with reward. So, when we foster social connections and use our stories in the process, our pleasure network is duly activated.

The next question is, how do we decide whether to connect or attach to another individual?

Believe it or not, this concept of who we connect or attach ourselves to is still largely unknown (Courtney, A.L. & Meyer, M.L. 2020). However, new neuroscience research done at Stanford University has tried to assess how the brain organises this information. And this is insightful for us to know when we meet someone new.

Connecting with Someone New

A study conducted by Courtney et al. entitled, “Self-other representation in the social brain reflects social connection.” the authors took a small sample of both men and women and had them complete a “self-and other reflections” task. The point of the study was to see how the representations we create in our mind about others are aligned or connected to our own identity.

Their study suggests that our social connections are steered “by mapping people based on whether or not they are IN our social network” (Courtney, A.L. & Meyer, M.L. 2020) For example if you meet someone new and they remind you of someone you know or are similar to others in your social network; the social connections in your brain are most likely aligned. What’s most interesting was that their study suggested that “our closest social ties [were] represented most closely to ourselves” (Courtney, A.L. & Meyer, M.L. 2020).

We like people and socialise with people who are like us! This study outlines how matching ourselves with others is a key component of social connectedness.

Ok — so we understand what’s happening in the brain when we connect with someone in person, what about online?

Can You Find Connectedness Online?

With lockdown keeping us from expanding and fulfilling our connectedness in person, we turn to our computers to fulfil the need. We use video apps such as Zoom, social media sites like Facebook, Instagram, LinkedIn, etc. But do these social interactions actually create connectedness in the brain as if we are together in person?

The answer is yes, with a caveat — if that’s your purpose.

A study done in 2020 around COVID coping strategies found that when we connect with others over non-face-to-face methods including social media, it “positively predicted engagement in proactive coping behaviours” (Moore and March, 2020). Which means the more people engaged via media outlets, the more likely they were to use coping strategies to maintain their mental health.

But, I was curious if this is just a positive COVID finding.

I searched and found a study published in 2013 that suggested that if the underlying purpose of using social media outlets such as Facebook, is for connection or friendship, connectedness may be felt. If the purpose was for information gathering, then social connectedness may no be experienced (Grieve et al., 2013). This study specifically focused on Facebook as a platform. It showed a clear relationship between connectedness and positive psychological outcomes when connectedness is the main purpose of using Facebook (Grieve et al., 2013) indicating that there are mental health and wellbeing benefits to online connecting.

So the science explains that we can experience connectedness online. Perhaps we already knew that. Perhaps this is just confirmation and explanation of how some people find valuable social connections online. Look at online dating and other matchmaking sites. There are millions of stories of connectedness being told about online relationships. And I have one of those stories of my own.

But it’s not of the romantic kind.

Finding Ireland Together

In July 2020, I moved countries, in the middle of the pandemic. I left the friends I had made over the 6 years in my cul-de-sac. I left the only school community and friends I had made with my kids. And I left my academic community from Grad school and my intellectual community at work. The move impacted my social connectedness immensely. Actually, it wouldn’t have mattered if I moved countries or to another village, COVID lockdown was hard.

I arrived in Dublin with my family and immediately tried to set up the life we had in England. I unpacked our furniture, got my kids into a new school, and met my new neighbours. I focused on making sure the kids felt welcomed, and they seemed to fall right into place. As the day-to-day routine was established, and the family seemed to be settled, I began to look for connectedness. And I found it — online.

Ireland Together is a networking group of business professionals. The group was started to help business connect during COVID lockdown. I joined after seeing an ad in the paper and immediately began interacting with others on Slack. I was originally hoping to make some business contacts when I realised that this group was more than just a networking site. I was involved in thought-provoking discussions, intellectually stimulating conversations, and finding personal stories that resonated with mine.

I remember the day when my purpose of being in the group changed. I no longer viewed this group as a quick business relationship tool (like LinkedIn); this was more profound for me. I realised I was there to find connectedness with others, something I was desperately missing in my life.

Over zoom meetings and chats, I developed connectedness with a couple of individuals who I would now consider colleagues, mentors, and if I dare say it, possibly friends.

My Friday Zoom call is the one thing I look forward to every week. It gives me a chance to connect, learn about others, and engage my own thinking process. Now it’s about finding ways to help encourage prosocial behaviours for the group and other individuals. It is my CONNECTEDNESS network.

How Can You Build Connectedness?

Researchers have found that the quality and intimacy of our social relationships “are critical predictors of happiness and wellbeing” (Klinger, 1977; Diener and Seligman, 2002; Holt-Lunstad et al., 2010).

Joining online communities with purpose is just one way to build your social connectedness. But there are other ways you can personally begin to use your minds to find relatedness and change the way you view your social connections. Here are three simple steps to practice:

1. Upskill your Interpersonal Skills to Build Connection — “Interpersonal” skills encompass a lot of different types of skills. From group skills such as teamwork, communication, and active listening skills to more personal “intra” personal skills, such as self-awareness, empathy, and emotional management.

2. Become Aware of Cognitive Biases — Have a look at this!

Zoom In and See It In Detail: https://www.visualcapitalist.com/every-single-cognitive-bias/

There are over 180 different biases that we hold in our mind. Of course, we can’t manage them all of the time, but if you become aware of a couple of them, it will only help your thinking when interacting with people. By becoming aware of these biases, you also allow yourself to accept your stories. And we know that stories are how we build meaning and relatedness with others.

3. Create Curious Thinking process. What do I mean by this? You tell me. I have a process that helps me stay curious in every situation, but perhaps you have your own process. Remember the three networks activated when we meet someone: the pain/pleasure network, the network to read emotions and peoples behaviour and the cultural beliefs and values network — the next time you meet someone, ask yourself “what is happening right now?” Are you feeling pain or pleasure? Are you reading the other person emotions or behaviour and finding that you’re associating a cognitive bias to them, are you trying to match your beliefs and values with that person — is it happening?

4. Help Others: The most important factor in feeling social connectedness is “when we engage in behaviours that help others” which then leads to an increased sense of connectedness (Pavey, L., Greitemeyer, T., & Spraks, 2011). Simple how-to here: go help, someone.

These techniques, skills or thinking processes will help you gain insight into how you develop meaning in understanding others. What we’re talking about is the “self-other” overlap.

This is an important construct in social psychology. It is a defining feature of interpersonal relationships (Aron et al., 1991; Branand et al., 2019) and corresponds with pro-social outcomes, such as enhanced empathy (Galinsky et al., 2005).

Conclusion

To experience (and develop) connectedness in the wake of the COVID pandemic, go connect.

  • Understand your needs as a human being.
  • Find relatedness.
  • Take note of what you’re feeling during connections, see which neural correlates are activated and write down what you feel.
  • Notice your cognitive biases when you’re interacting with others.
  • Listen to your stories. What is the meaning behind them? Exercise: Write down one of your stories and see if it’s negative, positive, self-defeating or humorous. What is that storytelling someone else about you?
  • Understand when you engage in self-disclosure and how you feel receiving the others’ self-disclosure.
  • When you’re online engaging with others, is it for information gathering or is it for the purpose of connectedness? Maybe you need a new outlet for connectedness?
  • Engage in the 4 simple steps to connectedness (there are others of course!)
  • MOST IMPORTANTLY — help someone and promote pro-social behaviour everywhere.

As you have read, mapping ourselves to another is the key to the feeling of connectedness. Researchers have found that “the paths we take in social life may depend, in part, on the interpersonal maps we carry in our social brains” (Courtney, A.L. & Meyer, M.L. 2020). What do your interpersonal maps look like? There’s an exercise for you… visually see if you can represent your maps.

With all this new knowledge, take your curious mind and go meet someone new and enhance your connectedness for better mental health.

Let me know how you get on or if this article was helpful.

Let’s Connect People!!


References:

Andersen SM, Chen S (2002) The relational self: An interpersonal social-cognitive theory. 734 Psychological Review 109:619–645 Available at: http://dx.doi.org/10.1037//0033-735295x.109.4.619.

Courtney, A. L., & Meyer, M. L. (2020). Self-other representation in the social brain reflects social connection. The Journal of Neuroscience, JN–RM–2826–19. doi:10.1523/jneurosci.2826–19.2020

Deci, E. L., & Ryan, R. M. (2012). Self-determination theory. In P. A. M. Van Lange, A. W. Kruglanski, & E. T. Higgins (Eds.), Handbook of theories of social psychology (p. 416–436). Sage Publications Ltd. https://doi.org/10.4135/9781446249215.n21

Greater Good. 2021. Why Are We So Wired to Connect?. [online] Available at: <https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/why_are_we_so_wired_to_connect> [Accessed 2 February 2021].

Grieve, R., Indian, M., Witteveen, K., Anne Tolan, G. and Marrington, J., 2013. Face-to-face or Facebook: Can social connectedness be derived online?. Computers in Human Behavior, 29(3), pp.604–609.

Moore, K. and March, E., 2020. Socially Connected during COVID-19: Online social connections mediate the relationship between loneliness and positive coping strategies.

Tamir, D. I., & Mitchell, J. P. (2012). Disclosing information about the self is intrinsically rewarding. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 109(21), 8038–8043. doi:10.1073/pnas.1202129109

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