Building or rebuilding connections can be a challenge, given the potential resistance of our nervous systems. So Stephanie Cacioppo, PhD, director of the University of Chicago’s Brain Dynamics Laboratory and author of Wired for Love: A Neuroscientist’s Journey Through Romance, Loss, and the Essence of Human Connection, developed a set of strategies to help us overcome this fear and consciously enhance our sense of connection; it uses a handy acronym: GRACE.
Gratitude is the backbone of a healthy social life, says Cacioppo. She suggests that writing down, every day, five things we truly appreciate can improve our subjective well-being and reduce our feelings of loneliness. “Your mind is your main social organ,” she says. “You can feel lonely or grateful, just from the power of your mind.”
Cultivating gratitude is a potent way to switch off the inner critic that isolates you from others. A 2019 Gonzaga University study found that a daily gratitude writing exercise significantly reduced loneliness and other symptoms in older adults. (See “How to Keep a Gratitude Journal” for five tips to starting a gratitude journal practice.)
From an evolutionary perspective, we’re wired for mutual aid and protection, Cacioppo notes. “We need to receive care from our parents, but we also have to give back in order to have a sense of worth.” Feeling useful and needed eases feelings of isolation.
Holt-Lunstad and her colleagues ran a randomized controlled trial during the pandemic: They asked participants to perform small acts of kindness for their neighbors (clearing sidewalks of snow, helping with pets) over four weeks. People who performed the acts reported feeling less lonely. “One of the best ways to help ourselves is to help others,” she says.
Generously offering your time or resources helps divert the self-focused ruminations that are a hallmark of the lonely mind. “It helps reorient our focus away from ourselves and onto others,” says Floyd.
Altruism is about sharing, and not just money: Life experiences, wisdom, and direct assistance are also valuable gifts. This is why volunteering can be a great way to enhance feelings of connectedness. A study published in 2018 found that widows who started volunteering just two hours per week reported lower levels of loneliness, comparable to those of their married counterparts who volunteered with the same regularity.
Understanding that we have some choice about how we feel is important, says Cacioppo. “You would never feel guilty about feeling thirsty, but if you stay thirsty, that’s a choice you’re making.”
Just as we make choices about food and exercise, we can choose to work toward a positive mindset. “People feel there’s nothing they can do about being lonely, but we can control what’s controllable and make choices that will benefit our well-being.” (See “Why Your Mindset Matters” where Carol S. Dweck, PhD, a renowned Stanford University professor, helps us understand why having the right mindset affects everything we do.)
Most of us could use a little more fun in our lives — not least because it helps us cope with unsettling news. Describing what they call the critical positivity ratio, positive psychologists argue that it takes three pieces of positive stories to counter every negative one. The same ratio is true for experiences, as well.
The best part, of course, is that every positive experience we share with others has a broad ripple effect, improving our well-being as well as that of those around us. “We benefit when we receive affection, but we benefit even more when we give it,” says Floyd. “That’s empowering. It means there’s something proactive I can do.”
This was excerpted from “Why Social Bonds Are So Important for Our Health” which was published in the September 2022 issue of Experience Life.