Why this topic?

I was compelled to write this article for two reasons – the first, a prompt and the second, a worldly illustration.

The prompt came after some recent in-person activities – on the economy, on the gender pay gap, and meetings with various clients.  Lots of talk about work and workplaces centres on ‘how hybrid’ you are and why, of management ‘forcing’ workers to fit a pattern or a mould. It rarely comes down to why people want, or need, to connect or the importance of it.

The worldly illustration came through an unlikely reference as we moved office. While waiting by a sunny window for a few electrical outlets to be set up, for a fleeting moment we were a web of extension cords and cables and power boards. Literal connections, yes, a bit mundane, yes. Despite their resistance, slight diminishment of power as you get further away from the electricity source, connections move energy.

I took from it the importance of connection, and what you can do – whatever your style, personality, or preference, so that your connectivity with other humans also moves energy. You have that power – so it’s all on you to choose whether it diminishes the energy or power of others, or gives them a boost.

What’s so important about connecting anyway?

Inherently as humans we feel – we know – that connections matters. Our ties, and the strength of them, with family, friends, and wider communities make a material difference to our lives. When we are flying high, or are just in a great rhythm in our lives, the support around us is a given – even if we rarely take moments to acknowledge it. But in the lower moments, or where rhythm is broken, support often feels like it is absent.

The value of connection is having (or even the perception of having) help, support, laughter. For the risk of sounding ready for a commune – it is about having love and light. That might come through social activities, sharing a meal, or a joke – which makes us feel valued, seen, heard… even appreciated.

 And how we connect – the type of relationships we have, how we like them to be created and held, agency over who they are with, and our prior interactions with someone, all play a role in how we connect with one another. Neurodiversity – identifying as neurodiverse, or identifying as non-neurodiverse – or even personality, may influence the ways and style we like to connect, but there’s no evidence to diminish the criticality of seeking the connection of others.

Connecting with others is as important as it is deeply beneficial to our health in the following ways.

  • Better mental health – lower depression, insomnia, and cognitive decline
  • Longevity and higher quality of life. Social isolation can increase chances of death by 50%, and has been associated with obesity, stroke, heart disease and smoking.
  • Increased fulfilment / contentment. Whatever form our interaction takes (yes, even if virtual, a phone call etc.)

There’s a wealth of articles on the benefits of connection – and they’re written well before sceptics (or work-based conspiracy theorists) would argue these are just to get people back to the office to physically connect.

The articles include the research and academic work of the likes of Yang et. al. (2016) for their work on social relationships and physiological longevity, the mechanisms of social connection (Delgado, Fareri and Chang, 2023) and some important papers by Australian organisations at the coal face like Beyond Blue – who wrote a great summary called “Connections Matter: Helping older people stay socially active”. 

The COVID-19 health pandemic changed the world as we know it, but so too has the emergence of a loneliness surge that was happening well before COVID-19, and has only been turbocharged by it.

What happens when we meet someone?

When we meet someone, a range of physiological factors converge. If you run a search on what happens physiologically when you meet another person, most of what you’ll get is about dating, chemistry and ‘the spark’. As a happily married man, I’m more interested in some nuggets of wisdom on broader relationships than ‘the one’!

We boiled this down to inputs and outputs of connection.

The inputs when you connect with someone are:

  • The power of looking at someone else’s eyes. Eyes that light up when they see you, that smile without the need for the mouth to even move. Someone joyful just to be in your presence. Eyes that draw you in to know more, to listen, to understand. Eyes that tell you what the other person is, where they want to go, what they need, and enquired of what you need of them.
  • Body language, voice, tone (and more). These are inputs to understand the energy they’re giving off – the warmth, or otherwise, the intent – positive, neutral, negative.

The outputs of social connections, as put by Delgado et. al 2023, are similar to the corticostriatal circuits our brains undergo to rewards like food or money, for instance, release of dopamine.

What changes how we connect?

There are lots of things that change how we connect but here are 4 critical factors:

  1. Relationship by design. What relationship does the person have to you, to your existing connections, their proximity. What is the relationship to you by design – close, far, social, business?
  2. Forced vs. free-will / agency-led connections. Are you in some way being ‘forced’ to connect from another party, or do you have free-will or agency to openly and excitedly make connections.
  3. Halo and horns effect? A classic phenomena – this ties well to ‘first impressions count’. Have we connected with someone before, what were they like? Halo is like an afterglow that can be positive energy from a 5-minute interaction 10 years ago; horns can be an afterburn of negative or neutral energy just the same.
  4. Neurodiversity or even Personality. This might change how people prefer, or need to connect, but it doesn’t mean that connection is less important.

While lots of chatter happens about work styles and hybrid patterns for knowledge-based workers, the reality remains, that we need connection to other humans. And we have the unique ability to choose how we transfer our energy when we connect with another human.

Depending on your work, leadership, talent market dynamics and more, the story will be told differently – that connection matters and every relationship can be remote and virtual, others will say all needs to be in-person as it’s hard to deliver a baby from home, or make a cup of coffee, or mow a lawn. And lots will be somewhere in between.

At the simplest level, human connections make us the rich beings that we are, full of life, of interests, of purpose, of meaning and needing, of supporting and helping, and connecting makes our lives longer, of higher quality, of better health.