Humans are social creatures. Sure, some of us like a little solitude now and then, but even introverts need to feel connected, cared for and understood. Our DNA compels us to seek relationships that satisfy those needs. From the most basic viewpoint, the biological need for connection may stem from the survival instinct; propagation and protection of the human species depend on the bonds of our relationships.
But love and connection provide much deeper benefits than a simple response to the instinct to survive. Positive relationships contribute to better physical and mental health, longevity and, yes, happiness. Although your closest relationships, those with your partner, children and inner circle of friends, are most essential to your well-being and life fulfillment, feeling connected at work or in your community also contributes to happiness.
You may not define your work or social connections as love, but when nurtured, they can stimulate a physical and emotional response that mirrors the benefits of close personal relationships. In his book Social: Why Our Brains Are Wired to Connect, UCLA neuroscientist Matthew Lieberman presents evidence that social connection is as important to our survival as food and shelter. In fact, positive relationships are one of the strongest predictors of life satisfaction.
In a Harvard study of nearly 300 men over the course of 75 years, having meaningful relationships is identified as the only thing that truly matters in life. George Vaillant, one of the principal researchers, noted in his book Triumphs of Experience: The Men of the Harvard Grant Study that even when the men had money, health and good careers, they weren’t happy unless they had strong, positive relationships.
When a person feels socially isolated, John has found, his or her body produces more of the stress hormone cortisol. As time goes on, too much cortisol in the system leads to organ wear and tear, which in turn can lead to a variety of maladies from depression to high blood pressure to major strokes. But if loneliness hurts, love and companionship heal, boosting both our health and our happiness.
The biology of love
“Just as your body was designed to extract oxygen from the Earth’s atmosphere and nutrients from the foods you ingest, your body was designed to love,” says Barbara L. Fredrickson, Ph.D., director of the Positive Emotions & Psychophysiology Laboratory at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, a leading researcher on the benefits of connection and the author of Love 2.0: Finding Happiness and Health in Moments of Connection. “Love—like taking a deep breath, or eating an orange when you’re depleted and thirsty—not only feels great but is also life-giving, an indispensable source of energy, sustenance and health,” Barbara says.
When you feel loving, kind and trusting toward someone, Barbara says, your brain releases oxytocin into your body. Oxytocin is the calming and connecting hormone. What’s more, when your body releases oxytocin, it can stimulate a release of oxytocin in the other person, Barbara says. That’s why a crying child can often be calmed by a loving parent’s touch. It’s also how mutual trust is fostered in relationships.
Besides producing oxytocin when we have warm and trusting feelings for another person, our bodies quell production of the stress hormone cortisol. This tandem event—a boost in oxytocin and a tamping down of cortisol—allows us to handle stressful situations, such as a conflict with a spouse or business person, more easily.
Just as important as oxytocin’s role in our ability to connect with others is that of our vagus nerve, which links our brains to our hearts and other organs. The vagus nerve regulates the heartbeat and, working with oxytocin, stimulates the “calm and connect” response, Barbara says. “It stimulates tiny facial muscles that better enable you to make eye contact and synchronize your facial expressions with another person,” she says, adding that it even allows our ears to better distinguish another person’s voice against background noise.
Finally, we are built not just to connect and love, but also to share those loving, good vibes. A 20-year study of 4,739 people known as the Framingham Heart Study concluded that happiness is contagious, spreading from person to person.
Love is all you need
Relationships compose one of the largest pillars upon which our happiness is built. So take time out for the people who matter to you. Deepen your existing relationships and be open to forming new connections. The three stories shared here show how, by nurturing the positive in a variety of relationships—with a spouse, family or one’s co-workers—life becomes rich in the truest sense of the word. Because when considering the famous question, “What’s love got to do with it?” the answer, as far as your happiness is concerned, is everything.
Shawn Achor and Michell Gielan: When happiness experts fall in love
A former TV reporter and anchor Michelle Gielan had shifted her career path to pursue a master’s in positive psychology. As part of her coursework, Michelle had read—and loved—Shawn Achor’s book The Happiness Advantage. So when she needed a mentor in her new field, she e-mailed the Harvard-trained happiness expert and asked to set up a meeting.
It wasn’t the only reason she was looking forward to meeting him. “I had definitely looked at the back flap of the book and seen his picture,” Michelle laughs. A few short months after that first meeting, the two began dating and today they are married and have a toddler son, Leo.
“When we see each other for the first time after we’ve been away on a trip or for just a few hours, we always make sure to start our interaction by sharing something positive that’s happening,” Michelle says. Making the initial encounter a positive one sets the tone for the rest of the day.
They also help each other recognize less-than-positive attitudes and behaviors so they can be stopped or adjusted. “We call each other out when one of us is going down an unproductive thought path,” Shawn says, “and suddenly you realize that the negativity isn’t going anywhere—it’s just spinning you around on an emotional cycle.”
By the same token, when either party is stressed by work, travel or parenthood, the other asks for three good things that are happening at that instant. “So if she asks me to do that, suddenly I’ll realize, yeah, I’m traveling to give a talk on happiness that will help people,” Shawn says. “Or we’re on our way to the airport for a great, fun vacation. Or I’m with the people I love.”
During disagreements, Michelle explains that the first thing to consider is that the other person is coming from a place of love. “I know that he’s got my back. So when we have a disagreement, we’re disagreeing about the thing, the event, not the other person fundamentally. And we’re also very big on communicating along the way, talking issues through as they pop up, so that they stay small things and don’t become big things.”
Gary and Vicki Flenniken: More to love
For 14 years, Gary and Vicki Flenniken lived full, mostly happy lives as a DINK couple (double income, no kids). But they felt that something was missing. They tried for years to have children and finally went through fertility testing. But just three days after Vicki began treatments, Gary’s old friend called in the midst of a family crisis. She told Gary that Child Protective Services (CPS) had removed her sister’s two children—one of whom was an infant—from her home and they were now in the friend’s care. The friend was panicked: She already had four children and felt overwhelmed.
Gary and Vicki immediately offered to care for the baby. Suddenly, they were parents. “We brought her into our home with zero preparation. We didn’t have bottles, a bedroom for a baby, diapers; we didn’t have anything,” Gary says. Anything, that is, except love to share in abundance. During the next two years, the Flennikens waded through the long process of adoption and continued to love the little girl, whom they knew could be taken away from them at any moment. “It was an incredibly stressful time that taught us how to pray. We understand lamentations,” he says. “The joy, the relief that finally came when the judge said she was legally ours was overwhelming.”
Ten years after welcoming their daughter, Sydney, into their lives, a phone call expanded their family once again. “We got a call from a friend who said her daughter was pregnant and in jail. She asked if we could be of any help finding a place for the baby,” Gary says. After hanging up, he turned to his wife and asked, “Are you ready for a baby?”
In less than a year, their family grew from three to seven members. “I wouldn’t trade any of it,” Gary says. For the first time in our life, we’re looking for places where kids eat free on Tuesday nights.” They laugh a lot, but sometimes there are tears, too. “The 2-year-old had been burned in hot water and was just traumatized when we put him in the bathtub the first time,” Vicki recalls. While his older brother splashed and played in the water, the little one screamed, “Hot, hot! Burn, burn!”
“For 14 days, he just screamed at bath time, and it broke my heart. The first time he took a bath and didn’t cry, it was amazing,” Vicki says. “It took 14 days for him to trust me. God makes these little people so trusting. We need to learn from that. You can start over, and life can be good again. Now when we say, ‘Hey, it’s bath time,’ he’s the first one running up the stairs.”
Gary and Vicki expect there to be ups and downs as the children grow and bond with them, but, says Gary, “We are blessed beyond belief, and we want people to know that adopting is a way to bring joy not just to the child, but to the entire family. We couldn’t be happier.”
Jenn Lim and Ton Hsieh: Happy at work
A 2013 Gallup report, State of the American Workplace, shows that happy workers are good for business: They’re more productive, more loyal and make the office a more enjoyable place to work. Jenn Lim, chief happiness officer of the Zappos spinoff consulting group Delivering Happiness, can attest to that: She was instrumental in helping Zappos founder Tony Hsieh create an environment where employees feel respected, cared for and connected.
In 2003, the company was growing and its customer service was unparalleled, but the culture needed some work. Tony suggested that Zappos should hire people whom existing employees might “also enjoy hanging out with after work,” he recalls in his book Delivering Happiness. A movement was born, starting with the development of 10 core values based on input from everyone in the company. Two of those values include “Build open and honest relationships with communication” and “Build a positive team and family spirit.”
“That one action made me realize the strong connection I felt with my co-workers and the Zappos culture. It was essentially my home away from home.” Zappos gave her the time she needed, volunteered to cater the funeral service, offered her a shoulder to cry on and was her “refuge” and “healing place.” “We watch out for each other,” Tony says in Delivering Happiness, “care for each other, and go above and beyond for each other, because we believe in each other and we trust each other. We work together, but we also play together. Our bonds go far beyond the typical co-worker relationships found at most companies.”
Jenn echoes this sentiment. “A sense of connectedness, that is, meaningful relationships, is one of the most sustainable forms of happiness. Relationships matter because people don’t show up to work because they have to—but because they want to be with their friends, their tribe. And they matter because people tend to go above and beyond when they share mutual respect and trust.”
Deborah K. Heisz is the CEO and Editorial Director of Live Happy.