LIFE’S GREATEST JOY
It’s easy these days to get drawn into a variety of small boxes: computers, televisions, iPads, Kindles, smartphones… or occasionally even an actual book. There are a lot of wonderful possibilities within each of these (particularly books, but I’m old-fashioned), but they can deprive us, if we’re not careful, of life’s greatest joy: the treasure of human connection.
Fortunately, it’s fairly easy to counter this tendency, and enjoy the benefits of a richer emotional life and a healthier physical life as a result.
One of my favorite researchers is Barbara Fredrickson of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Her new book is Love 2.0, in which she looks at "love from the body’s perspective." She has been studying how the experience of the emotion of love affects your physiology, including your physical health.
Now, when we hear the word "love," the first form that usually comes to mind is romantic love. But this is only one framework within which we feel the emotion of love. The emotion of love requires safety and trust. And a long-term, committed romantic relationship can create the opportunity for feeling the emotion of love often – but it is not the only place. We love our children, we love other family members and we love our friends…
We even feel a kind of love in what Fredrickson calls "micro-moments of connection." The nice conversation we have with the checkout person at the grocery store; the warm greeting of welcome by a new acquaintance at a meeting; even the moment of eye contact with a stranger who holds open a door – that wonderful warm feeling is something that is much more ubiquitous than we might expect.
Surprising Benefits of Love
It turns out that these micromoments of connection are actually filled with stuff that is good for us, emotionally, psychologically and in terms of our overall health… just as a good meal is filled with nutrients.
The more positive emotions we have, the better our "vagal tone" is. Our vagal tone is the strength and health of our vagus nerve, which connects our heart with our brain and our internal organs. Our vagus nerve, among other things, controls our heart rate variability.
Heart rate variability is the natural ebb and flow of our heart rhythm that occurs with each breath. Our heart speeds up just a little bit on each inhale, and slows just a bit on each exhale – or, at least, it should do this. Healthy heart rate variability is one sign of better health, particularly in the form of better heart and glucose regulation, and better regulation of emotions and attention.
These micromoments of connection improve our heart rate variability. They can also bring a great deal of joy to our daily life… if we’re looking for them. If we’re thinking of love as only the romantic kind, we can miss the warmth and joy of connection all around us.
Eye contact is one of the ingredients for making the most of these moments. We take in so much information visually, and those moments of seeing each other are filled with potentially good, warm feelings and better understanding.
"Now wait a minute, you’re throwing this word ‘love’ around pretty loosely, aren’t you?"
Yes, I suppose so, but there’s a reason. A long-term, committed romantic relationship is fantastic. It can be one of the most rewarding, satisfying and profound experiences on this Earth. It is one of the foundations of our culture. It’s important to honor this, and to affirm the vital role of romantic love.
Other Kinds of Love
But by speaking of love exclusively in terms of romantic love, we run the risk of missing the importance of the entire universe of human connection. If we don’t appreciate that the love we feel for our friends is also important, we can tend to minimize their importance to us.
If we don’t appreciate how important all the small moments of connection with different people throughout the day can be, then we can ignore them, gloss over them and miss out on the great good that these moments can bring.
These are often the very moments we miss when we’re "in our boxes"; absorbed in texting or emailing or calling while there are actual people all around us with whom we might be having a very nice interaction, if only we remembered to value it.
In fact, many people can miss the importance of these moments within their romantic relationships; and it is these moments of connection, the little things you do with and for each other every day that show and share your love, that really make a marriage work and a romance flourish.
My purpose here today is to aim your awareness toward these micromoments, these opportunities for connection, in your daily life.
Even thinking of these connections can have a positive effect. Here’s an exercise to try, from Fredrickson’s book:
At the end of the day, think about the three longest social interactions you’ve had that day, and ask yourself how "connected" and "in tune" you felt with the people with whom you spent your time. This can be family, friends, coworkers or completely new acquaintances. It doesn’t matter whether the same person shows up in more than one interaction.
Here’s the moral of today’s story: Pay attention to the moments of human connection; value them, care for them as you would value small treasures throughout the day. If you were to notice a precious gemstone on the sidewalk, would you pick it up? Or would you ignore it and walk along, lost in your own thoughts?
Today I’m asking that you look for the treasures of human connection that are all around you. Notice them and engage in them – just as you would notice and appreciate that precious gem. Look for those moments of connection; savor those moments, and make it a point to create more of them this week than you did last week.
Joel F. Wade, Ph.D. is the author of Mastering Happiness. He is a marriage and family therapist and life coach who works with people around the world via phone and Skype. You can get a FREE Learning Optimism E-Course if you sign up at his website, www.drjoelwade.com.