The Importance of Connection and Empathy

Human beings are innately social creatures. From the very beginnings of humanity, people have congregated in groups, relying on one another for food, shelter and survival. Despite the world seeming more connected with phones, video calls, and social media, people are reporting higher levels of loneliness than ever.

Why Is Connection Important?

Connection is something that humans need from birth. Babies begin to form attachments from the day they are born, and these connections can influence how they navigate relationships for the rest of their lives.

Social connection has many benefits, including stress relief, a longer lifespan, and improved quality of life. One study found that those more socially isolated may have lower immune systems, making them more susceptible to illness.[1] Those who are more connected to others are also more fulfilled and are generally more positive than those who are isolated.

In an era when loneliness is on the rise, connection is more important than ever. The number of Americans feeling lonely has increased to three in five in recent years, and connection is seemingly rare. However, people also report increased happiness and satisfaction when they feel closely connected with the people in their lives.

It is not only individual connections that are important either. Feeling connected to a community can improve personal well-being and satisfaction and provide an avenue to develop deeper personal relationships as well.

Barriers to Connection

Seeking healthy human connections is sometimes easier said than done. There are many barriers to connection, even in a highly connected world. Many people struggle with social anxiety, which prevents them from meeting new people and forging new relationships.

Many people also fear rejection, judgment, and abandonment from their relationships, which stops them from seeking close social connections.[2] They may also feel disconnected from their communities because of their race, religion, or sexuality, which prevents them from becoming more involved in local activities.

Initially, what seems like a healthy connection can gradually turn into an unhealthy connection. For example, a friend or romantic partner may begin the relationship by being attentive and supportive. Still, it may break down in the future and become toxic or even abusive, leaving people unwilling to seek out other deep connections in the future.

The Vital Role of Empathy

Empathy plays a vital role in human connection. Empathy is the ability to understand what other people are feeling and understand things from their perspective. This enables people to sympathize with others and deepen their connection to one another.

There are several different types of empathy that a person can experience:

  • Affective empathy – allows people to understand another person’s emotions and helps them to respond appropriately. It can lead to feelings of personal distress and concern for another’s well-being.
  • Cognitive empathy – allows other people to understand another person’s mental state. This is related to the theory of mind, a psychological concept based on thinking about what other people are thinking.
  • Somatic empathy – involves a person having a physical reaction to another person’s emotions. For example, if one person is embarrassed, another person may blush on their behalf.

Being empathetic is vital in developing strong human connections and relationships. When people feel that they are being listened to and others understand their emotions, they are more likely to feel a deep connection. Similarly, those who can understand others’ emotions on a deeper level feel stronger levels of connection to others as well.

Research has suggested that mirror neurons are responsible for empathy. These neurons fire when people see others experiencing a specific stimulus, such as when someone flinches when watching somebody else experience pain or blush when someone else is embarrassed.[3]

Strengthening and Maintaining Connections

Maintaining close relationships and connections can be a challenge for many people. It can sometimes be difficult to find the time to see loved ones and build upon relationships. However, taking the time to do so is a key way to maintain connections and reduce the risk of social isolation.

Making time for people can be anything from calling them once a week to setting aside an entire weekend to spend with them. Even small gestures such as sending a card or text after not seeing somebody for a long time can go a long way toward fostering and maintaining connection.

Even when they are spending time with the people they love, many people struggle to disconnect from other things in their lives. This can damage relationships, as constantly checking emails and sending texts can signal to others that the person is not interested in them or what they have to say. Putting the phone down and doing something without distractions, such as going for a walk or playing a board game, is an excellent way for people to be completely present and to bond with no outside influences.

Strengthening and practising empathy is another way to maintain strong relationships. Although empathy is a natural feeling, it can be developed even further with practice. This can be through noticing more body language cues, such as tones shifting or physical hints like shoulders curving or turning away, as well as simply focusing more on listening to other people.

Conclusion

Connection with other people is something that all humans need. General health and well-being drop significantly without it, and people suffer immensely. A lack of connection is associated with poor physical and mental health, greatly shortening the human lifespan.

Connection cannot exist without empathy. The ability to feel what others are feeling and being empathic allows people to build deeper, more emotional connections which make a difference in other people’s lives.

Sources:

[1] Hawkley, L. and Capitanio, J., 2015. Perceived social isolation, evolutionary fitness and health outcomes: a lifespan approach. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 370(1669), p.20140114.

[2] Humanloneliness.com. 2022. The Barriers to Connection | The Human Loneliness Project by Riley Cillian. [online] Available at: <https://www.humanloneliness.com/reports/the-barriers-to-connection> [Accessed 27 April 2022].

[3] Baird AD, Scheffer IE, Wilson SJ. Mirror neuron system involvement in empathy: A critical look at the evidence. Soc Neurosci. 2011;6(4):327-35. doi:10.1080/17470919.2010.547085

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