Build Better Connections With People With 10 Simple Everyday Actions, Based On Neuroscience
Updated: Apr 15, 2020
If you’re a city cat like me, you know the feeling of exhaustion and laziness to put yourself out there after a busy day. Much noise. Smells. Small talks. The air is hot and stuffy with concerns of people around.
So, an attempt to connect beyond mere survival level feels like extra effort.
It’s no surprise that we – and I’m guilty of that too – choose to miss on life that happens between our busy-business and comforts of a modern home.
And with that, new opportunities for a deeper connection.
Soft Power Of Modern Disconnection
I must confess that a good-looking and I’m-feeling-good cover-up that I wear when I go outside feels … just fine. Rushing down that familiar street with my headphones on, I rarely notice what’s going on around me – and I feel alright.
Yeah, that’s the tricky part.
Loneliness isn’t always sad. It can feel “just fine”.
With long to-do lists for tasks, responsibilities and appointments, no wonder that disconnection even feels like a desirable thing.
Our cities help us to be comfortably lonely. So many entertainment options for every budget and taste to feel connected. Shopping malls. Cinemas. The gym. Live music bars. Cozy cafes.
And if something feels like it's too much pressure, I can always go back to my sweet home, books and Netflix.
Actually, if you honestly enjoy being alone most of the time and don't get bored just by yourself, that is a great skill. From there, it's much easier to develop connection.
But what if you don't?
It's Not About Changing Yourself
How many times have you come across this message: "you can't change you"? Or even: "you shouldn't change you".
The message is glorified in pop culture, it is all over Instagram, it's repeated matter-of-factually by today's thinkers, authors and writers for mental health magazines. As I read in one loneliness self-help post: "of course, you can’t change who you are or the way you are".
This message is inaccurate.
To be clear, that's not about changing who we were born. That, indeed, no one can influence - our parents, genes and environment in which we grew up.
That's also not about changing your idea of self or your mindset - although it might help. But overall, how, and if, we can become "a new person" is a whole different question.
What we can change is our brain's capacity to solve daily problems and master new skills.
That includes our increased ability to connect more deeply with others.
You can gain real friendship and real connection. The one that makes you shine with happiness, meaning and gratitude.
To make it happen, you need a switch that opens you up to the possibility of connection.
You Can Do Better - It's Simple (But Not Easy)
Today we know that our brain changes all the time. That phenomenon is known as neuroplasticity. It means that we can physically rewire our brain and cultivate a fuller life.
To do that, we need to choose and repeat actions that we want to get better at. When we keep practicing them, we grow new connections in the brain and relevant zones of the brain expand.
We become what we practice. That means, to form stronger connections with people, we need to get into situations that allow us to do that.
Simple: when we regularly engage in quality interactions, our brain recognizes them as a reward and triggers a chemical mechanism that motivates us to repeat the positive experience of true connection.
From an abstract concept, real connection becomes part of who you are. And you also get better at forming such connections.
But if you've been lonely for a long time, or had experienced unsatisfactory connection, it's not easy to get started. "Just go out there and talk to people” is … well, no thanks - because who needs additional stress?
Intentional Actions Can Help
For now, for the same reasons of city life survival, your brain has possibly selected other pleasures as “bearable means for social connection” like social media or shopping.
Other real-life activity – being around strangers, potential enemies AND potential friends to keep – isn’t on the list yet. That’s why it feels yikes.
If you want to be more open to real-world possibilities of true connection, you may have to intentionally create positive experiences in the messy, annoying, unpredictable real world.
After all, our connections are with humans, just as imperfect, each and every one of us in their special way. It does require strength, practice and patience. But best friends, special people in your life, are totally worth the effort.
Fortunately, there are things we can do to feel better in social situations, ready for opportunities to develop a new genuine connection, or strengthen the one you already have with someone.
The 3 Elements Of A Great Connection Experience
I made a list of 10 things that help me to get into the "happy connecting" state of mind.
They share 3 essential elements:
1. Mindful. When we're aware of what happens when we involve with the world around us, we allow ourselves to be in the moment. We can better control our defense mechanism and ways by which our brain copes with stress. We notice more when we don't judge our reactions immediately, and we refocus our attention from old thinking patterns to kind consideration of how we feel and act.
2. Learning. Thankfully, modern friendships can thrive with our culture learning about the world and each other, in addition to genetic and situational factors. When we encounter something unfamiliar, our brain starts to form new connections. (See, connections everywhere...) We can meet new people and learn new ways to outsmart the autopilot telling you that isolation is “just fine”, or that people "don't get you".
3. In real life. Along with your other practices, such as time for meditation or a gratitude journal, it helps to practice small mindful acts of connection. Most of the time, we're focused on personal goals and relationships that we already have - your connection practice is most effective when you make it part of your life (sex, networking, socializing with neighbors and colleagues).When we intentionally cultivate genuine connection in daily life, our brain learns to notice opportunities for connection in anything we do.
10 everyday practices and Wantshes
Sometimes, a simple interaction with a stranger can turn into a warm, genuine conversation, or a beginning of a lifelong friendship.
Each story is unique, so our list of activities is just a suggestion to help you get started. They work for me but you may have to invent your own.
In any scenario, it helps when you're fully in the present moment and ready to make the most of any interaction.
1. Look for patterns in the ordinary
Wantshes: Go to a new coffee place.
Challenge: Take observations of what you see. People-watch. Who are they? What are they wearing? How much time do they spend there? Try to notice every tiny detail, and see if you can remember them later.
Connection: Find a place where you like the crowd. See if you can join any social events.
2. Notice special in familiar surroundings
Wantshes: Take someone on a tour of your favorite places
Challenge: Map these places and record a video/series of photos of them. Comment what makes them special to you, as you would to a tourist visiting your city.
Connection: Talking about your favorite places can make small talk more satisfying.
3. Take extra steps
Wantshes: Walk 8,000 steps each day.
Challenge: Plan new routes to explore on foot. Choose physical movement whenever you can: take stairs instead of an elevator. Open doors. Plan your route to include various surfaces.
Connection: Walking and talking is a great bonding activity!
4. Go the distance
Wantshes: go on a weekend trip
Challenge: plan a weekend getaway with your partner/friends/colleagues. It can be tough to coordinate with everyone: where to go, where to stay, what to eat, what to do & what to bring. And to stay within your budget...
Connection: Well-planned weekend trip is a fun experience that everyone can enjoy - and get to know each other better.
5. Learn something really new
Wantshes: Go to a public lecture or a library/museum event
Challenge: Pick a topic that you know very little about. Listen closely and take notes.
Connection: Chances are that you'll meet new people and find a new interest. And if not, you can still make good contacts in some new sphere - never know when and how it can bring value.
6. Tune in
Wantshes: Go for a walk.
Challenge: Headphones off. Notice and try to remember what you hear. There'll be a lot of noise but also bird song, new music and some fascinating conversations.
Connection: Appreciate new songs and new conversations, let them be your source of inspiration.
7. Ask for a recommendation/advice
Wantshes: Learn something about X topic
Challenge: Find someone who knows about the X topic more than you, and ask them.
Connection: Most people love to talk about something related to their passion. It may sound obvious but try to focus on that person, not only the information they give you. After all, emotional storytelling is one of the experiences that increases our sense of bonding.
8. Explain/Present something (kinda opposite of 7)
Wantshes: Improve my public speaking skills
Challenge: Pick a topic that you know quite well and help someone better understand it. In my experience, as soon as people learn that you know something, e.g. a foreign language, they'll find you. If not, see if you can find a public speaking event nearby. The point is to talk about your topic in very simple terms, as you would to a child.
Connection: We sometimes fear that others won't share our passion for our favorite topics. Well, maybe they won't after all. But being able to clearly present what you care about is a valuable skill anyway.
9. Cook a new dish
Wantshes: Make X dish.
Challenge: When you cook something new, you'd better be mindful. Else you risk wasting a lot of food, time and energy! So embrace it and be fully in the process.
Connection: Many special moments that I shared with my favorite people were about cooking and eating together. We think that this is one of the best things to do with your friends for fun.
10. Get in touch
Wantshes: Get a haircut/massage
Challenge: Try not to drift into your familiar thoughts but instead focus on your bodily sensations.
Connection: Sometimes, we are overloaded by visual/aural messages but not the touch ones. Tactile sensations are incredibly powerful in forming interpersonal relationships. Particularly sexual - yes! And also other relationships. Black women readers can confirm that styling each others' hair continues to be more than a hair care ritual - it's also a bonding experience. Same with my experience of doing make-up for my bestie. For guys, playing team sports is great to add this essential sensation and connection experience into daily life.
To sum up, we can intentionally create positive experiences of connection. When we prioritize authentic connection, we grow our happiness and wellbeing, and new opportunities open up.
Download our Wantshes app to grow happiness together :)
The Anatomy of Friendship, by R.I.M. Dunbar (2018)
Connected, But Alone? by Sherry Turkle (TED 2012)
Sane New World: Taming The Mind, by Ruby Wax (2013)
Touch: The Science of Hand, Heart, and Mind, by David J. Linden (2015)