Social connection

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Social connection is the experience of feeling close and connected to others. It involves feeling loved, cared for, and valued, [1] and forms the basis of interpersonal relationships.


"Connection is the energy that exists between people when they feel seen, heard and valued; when they can give and receive without judgement; and when they derive sustenance and strength from the relationship." —Brené Brown, Professor of social work at the University of Houston [2]

Increasingly, social connection is understood as a core human need, and the desire to connect as a fundamental drive. [3] [4] It is crucial to development; without it, social animals experience distress and face severe developmental consequences. [5] In humans, one of the most social species, social connection is essential to nearly every aspect of health and well-being. Lack of connection, or loneliness, has been linked to inflammation, [6] accelerated aging and cardiovascular health risk, [7] suicide, [8] and all-cause mortality. [9]

Feeling socially connected depends on the quality and number of meaningful relationships one has with family, friends, and acquaintances. Going beyond the individual level, it also involves a feeling of connecting to a larger community. Connectedness on a community level has profound benefits for both individuals and society. [10]

Social support is the help, advice, and comfort that we receive from those with whom we have stable, positive relationships. [11] Importantly, it appears to be the perception, or feeling, of being supported, rather than objective number of connections, that appears to buffer stress and affect our health and psychology most strongly. [12] [13]

Close relationships refer to those relationships between friends or romantic partners that are characterized by love, caring, commitment, and intimacy. [14]

Attachment is a deep, emotional bond between two or more people, a "lasting psychological connectedness between human beings." [15] Attachment theory, developed by John Bowlby during the 1950s, is a theory that remains influential in psychology today.

A basic need

Social connection involves feeling loved, cared for, and valued, and is as important to our well-being as food or water. Hug african american women.jpg
Social connection involves feeling loved, cared for, and valued, and is as important to our well-being as food or water.

In his influential theory on the hierarchy of needs, Abraham Maslow proposed that our physiological needs are the most basic and necessary to our survival, and must be satisfied before we can move on to satisfying more complex social needs like love and belonging. [16] However, research over the past few decades has begun to shift our understanding of this hierarchy. Social connection and belonging may in fact be a basic need, as powerful as our need for food or water. [3] Mammals are born relatively helpless, and rely on their caregivers not only for affection, but for survival. This may be evolutionarily why mammals need and seek connection, and also for why they suffer prolonged distress and health consequences when that need is not met. [4]

In 1965, Harry Harlow conducted his landmark monkey studies. He separated baby monkeys from their mothers, and observed which surrogate mothers the baby monkeys bonded with: a wire "mother" that provided food, or a cloth "mother" that was soft and warm. Overwhelmingly, the baby monkeys preferred to spend time clinging to the cloth mother, only reaching over to the wire mother when they became too hungry to continue without food. [17] This study questioned the idea that food is the most powerful primary reinforcement for learning. Instead, Harlow's studies suggested that warmth, comfort, and affection (as perceived from the soft embrace of the cloth mother) are crucial to the mother-child bond, and may be a powerful reward that mammals may seek in and of itself. Although historic, it is important to acknowledge that this study does not meet current research standards for the ethical treatment of animals. [18]

In 1995, Roy Baumeister proposed his influential belongingness hypothesis: that human beings have a fundamental drive to form lasting relationships, to belong. He provided substantial evidence that indeed, the need to belong and form close bonds with others is itself a motivating force in human behavior. This theory is supported by evidence that people form social bonds relatively easily, are reluctant to break social bonds, and interpret situations with how they affect their relationships in mind. He also contends that our emotions are so deeply linked to our relationships that one of the primary functions of emotion may be to form and maintain social bonds, and that both partial and complete deprivation of relationships leads to not only painful but pathological consequences. [3] Satisfying or disrupting our need to belong, our need for connection, has been found to influence cognition, emotion, and behavior. [19]


Brain areas

Social connection activates the reward system of the brain. Recolored Overview of reward structures in the human brain2.png
Social connection activates the reward system of the brain.

While it appears that social isolation triggers a "neural alarm system" of threat-related regions of the brain (including the amygdala, dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC), anterior insula, and periaqueductal gray (PAG)), [20] separate regions may process social connection. Two brain areas that are part of the brain's reward system are also involved in processing social connection and attention to loved ones: the ventromedial prefrontal cortex (VMPFC), a region that also responds to safety and inhibits threat responding, and the ventral striatum (VS) and septal area (SA), part of a neural system that is activated by taking care of one's own young. [1]

Key neurochemicals


In 1978, neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp observed that small doses of opiates reduced the distressed cries of puppies that were separated from their mothers. As a result, he developed the brain opioid theory of attachment, which posits that endogenous (internally produced) opioids underlie the pleasure that social animals derive from social connection, especially within close relationships. [21] Extensive animal research supports this theory. Mice who have been genetically modified to not have mu-opioid receptors (mu-opioid receptor knockout mice), as well as sheep with their mu-receptors blocked temporarily following birth, do not recognize or bond with their mother. When separated from their mother and conspecifics, rats, chicks, puppies, guinea pigs, sheep, dogs, and primates emit distress vocalizations, however giving them morphine (i.e. activating their opioid receptors), quiets this distress. Endogenous opioids appear to be produced when animals engage in bonding behavior, while inhibiting the release of these opioids results in signs of social disconnection. [22] [23] In humans, blocking mu-opioid receptors with the opioid antagonist, naltrexone, has been found to reduce feelings of warmth and affection in response to a film clip about a moment of bonding, and to increase feelings of social disconnection towards loved ones in daily life as well as in the lab in response to a task designed to elicit feelings of connection. Although the human research on opioids and bonding behavior is mixed and ongoing, this suggests that opioids may underlie feelings of social connection and bonding in humans as well. [24]

Opioids and oxytocin are neurochemicals that support the mother-child bond in humans and other mammals. Mother with children kissing baby.jpg
Opioids and oxytocin are neurochemicals that support the mother-child bond in humans and other mammals.

In mammals, oxytocin has been found to be released during childbirth, breastfeeding, sexual stimulation, bonding, and in some cases stress. [25] In 1992, Sue Carter discovered that administering oxytocin to prairie voles would accelerate their monogamous pair-bonding behavior. [26] Oxytocin has also been found to play many roles in the bonding between mother and child. [27] In addition to pair-bonding and motherhood, oxytocin has been found to play a role in prosocial behavior and bonding in humans. Nicknamed the “love drug” or “cuddle chemical,” plasma levels of oxytocin increase following physical affection, [28] and are linked to more trusting and generous social behavior, positively biased social memory, attraction, and anxiety and hormonal responses. [29] Further supporting a nuanced role in adult human bonding, greater circulating oxytocin over a 24-hour period was associated with greater love and perceptions of partner responsiveness and gratitude, [30] however was also linked to perceptions of a relationship being vulnerable and in danger. Thus oxytocin may play a flexible role in relationship maintenance, supporting both the feelings that bring us closer and the distress and instinct to fight for an intimate bond in peril. [31]


Consequences of disconnection

A wide range of mammals, including rats, prairie voles, guinea pigs, cattle, sheep, primates, and humans, experience distress and long-term deficits when separated from their parent. [4] In humans, long-lasting health consequences result from early experiences of disconnection. In 1958, John Bowlby observed profound distress and developmental consequences when orphans lacked warmth and love of our first and most important attachments: our parents. [32] Loss of a parent during childhood was found to lead to altered cortisol and sympathetic nervous system reactivity even a decade later, [33] and affect stress response and vulnerability to conflict as a young adult. [34]

In addition to the health consequences of lacking connection in childhood, chronic loneliness at any age has been linked to a host of negative health outcomes. In a meta-analytic review conducted in 2010, results from 308,849 participants across 148 studies found that people with strong social relationships had a 50% greater chance of survival. This effect on mortality is not only on par with one of the greatest risks, smoking, but exceeds many other risk factors such as obesity and physical inactivity. [9] Loneliness has been found to negatively affect the healthy function of nearly every system in the body: the brain, [7] immune system, [6] circulatory and cardiovascular systems, [35] endocrine system, [36] and genetic expression. [37]

Between 15-30% of the general population feels chronic loneliness. Huy-phan-100866-unsplash.jpg
Between 15–30% of the general population feels chronic loneliness.

Not only is social isolation harmful to health, but it is more and more common. As many as 80% of young people under 18 years old, and 40% of adults over the age of 65 report being lonely sometimes, and 15–30% of the general population feel chronic loneliness. [7] These numbers appear to be on the rise, and researchers have called for social connection to be public health priority. [38]

Social immune system

One of the main ways social connection may affect our health is through the immune system. The immune system's primary activity, inflammation, is the body's first line of defense against injury and infection. However, chronic inflammation has been tied to atherosclerosis, Type II diabetes, neurodegeneration, and cancer, as well as compromised regulation of inflammatory gene expression by the brain. [1] Research over the past few decades has revealed that the immune system not only responds to physical threats, but social ones as well. It has become clear that there is a bidirectional relationship between circulating biomarkers of inflammation (e.g. the cytokine IL-6) and feelings of social connection and disconnection; not only are feelings of social isolation linked to increased inflammation, but experimentally induced inflammation alters social behavior and induces feelings of social isolation. [6] This has important health implications. Feelings of chronic loneliness appear to trigger chronic inflammation. However, social connection appears to inhibit inflammatory gene expression and increase antiviral responses. [39] Performing acts of kindness for others were also found to have this effect, suggesting that helping others provides similar health benefits. [40]

Why might our immune system respond to our perceptions of our social world? One theory is that it may have been evolutionarily adaptive for our immune system to "listen" in to our social world to anticipate the kinds of bacterial or microbial threats we face. In our evolutionary past, feeling socially isolated may have meant we were separated from our tribe, and therefore more likely to experience physical injury or wounds, requiring an inflammatory response to heal. On the other hand, feeling connected may have meant we were in relative physical safety of community, but at greater risk of socially transmitted viruses. To meet these threats with greater efficiency, the immune system responds with anticipatory changes. [1] [41] A genetic profile was discovered to initiate this pattern of immune response to social adversity and stress — up-regulation of inflammation, down-regulation of antiviral activity — known as Conserved Transcriptional Response to Adversity. [42] The inverse of this pattern, associated with social connection, has been linked to positive health outcomes as well as eudaemonic well-being. [43]

Positive pathways

Social connection and support have been found to reduce the physiological burden of stress and contribute to health and well-being through several other pathways as well, although there remains a subject of ongoing research. One way social connection reduces our stress response is by inhibiting activity in our pain and alarm neural systems. Brain areas that respond to social warmth and connection (notably, the septal area) have inhibitory connections to the amygdala, which have the structural capacity to reduce threat responding. [44]

Another pathway by which social connection positively affects health is through the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), the "rest and digest" system which parallels and offsets the "flight or fight" sympathetic nervous system (SNS). Flexible PNS activity, indexed by vagal tone, helps regulate the heart rate and has been linked to a healthy stress response as well as numerous positive health outcomes. [45] Vagal tone has been found to predict both positive emotions and social connectedness, which in turn result in increased vagal tone, in an "upward spiral" of well-being. [46] Social connection often occurs along with and causes positive emotions, which themselves benefit our health. [47] [48]


Social Connectedness Scale [49]

This scale was designed to measure general feelings of social connectedness as an essential component of belongingness. Items on the Social Connectedness Scale reflect feelings of emotional distance between the self and others, and higher scores reflect more social connectedness.

UCLA Loneliness Scale [50]

Measuring feelings of social isolation or disconnection can be helpful as an indirect measure of feelings of connectedness. This scale is designed to measure loneliness, defined as the distress that results when one feels disconnected from others. [51]

Relationship Closeness Inventory (RCI) [52]

This measure conceptualizes closeness in a relationship as a high level of interdependence in two people's activities, or how much influence they have over one another. It correlates moderately with self-reports of closeness, measured using the Subjective Closeness Index (SCI).

Liking and Loving Scales [53]

These scales were developed to measure the difference between liking and loving another person—critical aspects of closeness and connection. Good friends were found to score highly on the liking scale, and only romantic partners scored highly on the loving scale. They support Zick Rubin's conceptualization of love as containing three main components: attachment, caring, and intimacy.

Personal Acquaintance Measure (PAM) [54]

This measure identifies six components that can help determine the quality of a person's interactions and feelings of social connectedness with others:

  1. Duration of relationship
  2. Frequency of interaction with the other person
  3. Knowledge of the other person's goals
  4. Physical intimacy or closeness with the other person
  5. Self-disclosure to the other person
  6. Social network familiarity—how familiar is the other person with the rest of your social circle

Experimental manipulations

Social connection is a unique, elusive, person-specific quality of our social world. Yet, can it be manipulated? This is a crucial question for how it can be studied, and whether it can be intervened on in a public health context. There are at least two approaches that researchers have taken to manipulate social connection in the lab:

Social connection task

This task was developed at UCLA by Tristen Inagaki and Naomi Eisenberger to elicit feelings of social connection in the laboratory. It consists of collecting positive and neutral messages from 6 loved ones of a participant, and presenting them to the participant in the laboratory. Feelings of connection and neural activity in response to this task have been found to rely on endogenous opioid activity. [24]

Closeness-generating procedure

Arthur Aron at the State University of New York at Stony Brook and collaborators designed a series of questions designed to generate interpersonal closeness between two individuals who have never met. It consists of 36 questions that subject pairs ask each other over a 45-minute period. It was found to generate a degree of closeness in the lab, and can be more carefully controlled than connection within existing relationships. [55]

See also

Related Research Articles

An interpersonal relationship is a strong, deep, or close association or acquaintance between two or more people that may range in duration from brief to enduring. The context can vary from family or kinship relations, friendship, marriage, relations with associates, work, clubs, neighborhoods, and places of worship. Relationships may be regulated by law, custom, or mutual agreement, and form the basis of social groups and of society as a whole.

Oxytocin Peptide hormone and neuropeptide

Oxytocin (Oxt) is a peptide hormone and neuropeptide. It is normally produced in the hypothalamus and released by the posterior pituitary. It plays a role in social bonding, sexual reproduction, childbirth, and the period after childbirth. Oxytocin is released into the bloodstream as a hormone in response to stretching of the cervix and uterus during labor and with stimulation of the nipples from breastfeeding. This helps with birth, bonding with the baby, and milk production.

Romance (love) Type of love that focuses on feelings

Romance is an emotional feeling of love for, or a strong attraction towards another person, and the courtship behaviors undertaken by an individual to express those overall feelings and resultant emotions.

Infidelity is a violation of a couple's assumed or stated contract regarding emotional and/or sexual exclusivity. Other scholars define infidelity as a violation according to the subjective feeling that one's partner has violated a set of rules or relationship norms; this violation results in feelings of anger, jealousy, sexual jealousy, and rivalry.

Attachment theory Psychological ethological theory about human relationships

Attachment theory is a psychological, evolutionary and ethological theory concerning relationships between humans. The most important tenet of attachment theory is that a young child needs to develop a relationship with at least one primary caregiver for social and emotional development to occur normally. The theory was formulated by psychiatrist and psychoanalyst John Bowlby.

Loneliness emotion

Loneliness is a complex and usually unpleasant emotional response to isolation. Loneliness typically includes anxious feelings about a lack of connection or communication with other beings, both in the present and extending into the future. As such, loneliness can be felt even when surrounded by other people and one who feels lonely, is lonely. The causes of loneliness are varied and include social, mental, emotional, and physical factors.

Social grooming Behavior in social animals

Social grooming is a behavior in which social animals, including humans, clean or maintain one another's body or appearance. A related term, allogrooming, indicates social grooming between members of the same species. Grooming is a major social activity, and a means by which animals who live in close proximity may bond and reinforce social structures, family links, and build companionships. Social grooming is also used as a means of conflict resolution, maternal behavior and reconciliation in some species. Mutual grooming typically describes the act of grooming between two individuals, often as a part of social grooming, pair bonding, or a precoital activity.

Social rejection deliberate exclusion of an individual from social relationship or social interaction

Social rejection occurs when an individual is deliberately excluded from a social relationship or social interaction. The topic includes interpersonal rejection, romantic rejection and familial estrangement. A person can be rejected by individuals or an entire group of people. Furthermore, rejection can be either active, by bullying, teasing, or ridiculing, or passive, by ignoring a person, or giving the "silent treatment". The experience of being rejected is subjective for the recipient, and it can be perceived when it is not actually present. The word ostracism is often used for the process.

Caring in intimate relationships is the practice of providing care and support to an intimate relationship partner. Caregiving behaviours are aimed at reducing the partner's distress and supporting his or her coping efforts in situations of either threat or challenge. Caregiving may include emotional support and/or instrumental support. Effective caregiving behaviour enhances the care-recipient's psychological well-being, as well as the quality of the relationship between the caregiver and the care-recipient. However, certain suboptimal caregiving strategies may be either ineffective or even detrimental to coping.

The theory of a biological basis of love has been explored by such biological sciences as evolutionary psychology, evolutionary biology, anthropology and neuroscience. Specific chemical substances such as oxytocin are studied in the context of their roles in producing human experiences and behaviors that are associated with love.

Tend-and-befriend is a behavior exhibited by some animals, including humans, in response to threat. It refers to protection of offspring (tending) and seeking out the social group for mutual defense (befriending). In evolutionary psychology, tend-and-befriend is theorized as having evolved as the typical female response to stress. The tend-and-befriend theoretical model was originally developed by Dr. Shelley E. Taylor and her research team at the University of California, Los Angeles and first described in a Psychological Review article published in the year 2000.

Vagal tone refers to activity of the vagus nerve, the 10th cranial nerve and a fundamental component of the parasympathetic branch of the autonomic nervous system. This branch of the nervous system is not under conscious control and is largely responsible for the regulation of several body compartments at rest. Vagal activity results in various effects, including: heart rate reduction, vasodilation/constriction of vessels, glandular activity in the heart, lungs, and digestive tract as well as control of gastrointestinal sensitivity, motility and inflammation.

Shelley Elizabeth Taylor is a distinguished professor of psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles. She received her Ph.D. from Yale University, and was formerly on the faculty at Harvard University. A prolific author of books and scholarly journal articles, Taylor has long been a leading figure in two subfields related to her primary discipline of social psychology: social cognition and health psychology. Her books include The Tending Instinct and Social Cognition, the latter by Susan Fiske and Shelley Taylor.

Belongingness is the human emotional need to be an accepted member of a group. Whether it is family, friends, co-workers, a religion, or something else, people tend to have an 'inherent' desire to belong and be an important part of something greater than themselves. This implies a relationship that is greater than simple acquaintance or familiarity. The need to belong is the need to give and receive attention to and from others.

Anne C. Campbell was a British academic and author specializing in evolutionary psychology. Her research was largely concerned with sex differences in aggression between men and women. She was Professor of Psychology at Durham University.

Social stress is stress that stems from one's relationships with others and from the social environment in general. Based on the appraisal theory of emotion, stress arises when a person evaluates a situation as personally relevant and perceives that they do not have the resources to cope or handle the specific situation. An event which exceeds the ability to cope does not necessarily have to occur in order for one to experience stress, as the threat of such an event occurring can be sufficient.

Emotional abandonment is a subjective emotional state in which people feel undesired, left behind, insecure, or discarded. People experiencing emotional abandonment may feel at a loss, cut off from a crucial source of sustenance that has been withdrawn, either suddenly, or through a process of erosion.

Attachment and Health is psychological model which considers how attachment theory pertains to people’s preferences and expectations for the proximity of others when faced with stress, threat, danger or pain. In 1982 the American Psychiatrist, Lawrence Kolb, noticed that patients with chronic pain displayed behaviours with their healthcare providers akin to what children might display with an attachment figure, thus marking one of the first applications of attachment theory to physical health. Development of adult attachment theory and adult attachment measures in the 1990s provided researchers with the means to apply attachment theory to health in a more systematic way. Since that time it has been used to understand variation in stress response, health outcomes and health behaviour. Ultimately, the application of attachment theory to health care may enable health care practitioners to provide more personalized medicine by creating a deeper understanding of patient distress and allowing clinicians to better meet their needs and expectations.

The Shift-and-persist model has emerged in order to account for unintuitive, positive health outcomes in some individuals of low socioeconomic status. A large body of research has previously linked low socioeconomic status to poor physical and mental health outcomes, including early mortality. Low socioeconomic status is hypothesized to get “under the skin” by producing chronic activation of the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic–pituitary–adrenal axis, which increases allostatic load, leading to the pathogenesis of chronic disease. However, some individuals of low socioeconomic status do not appear to experience the expected, negative health effects associated with growing up in poverty. To account for this, the Shift-and-Persist Model proposes that, as children, some individuals of low socioeconomic status learn adaptive strategies for regulating their emotions (“shifting”) and focusing on their goals (“persisting”) in the face of chronic adversity. According to this model, the use of shift-and-persist strategies diminishes the typical negative effects of adversity on health by leading to more adaptive biological, cognitive, and behavioral responses to daily stressors.

Breastfeeding and mental health

Breastfeeding and mental health is the relationship between postpartum breastfeeding and the mother’s and child’s mental health. Research indicates breastfeeding has positive effects on the mother’s and child’s mental health. These benefits include improved mood and stress levels in the mother, lower risk of postpartum depression, enhanced social emotional development in the child, stronger mother-child bonding and more. Given the benefits of breastfeeding, the World Health Organization (WHO), the European Commission for Public Health (ECPH) and the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) suggest exclusive breastfeeding for the first six months of life. Despite these suggestions, estimates indicate 70% of mothers breastfeed their child after birth and 13.5% of infants in the United States are exclusively breastfed. Breastfeeding promotion and support for mothers who are experiencing difficulties or early cessation in breastfeeding is considered a health priority.


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