Feeling connected enhances mental and physical health – here are 4 research-backed ways to find moments of connection with loved ones and strangers

A woman and her fiancé joke and laugh together while playing video games after a long day.

A college freshman interrupts verbal harassment aimed at a neighbor, who expresses gratitude as they walk home together.

A man receives a phone call to confirm an appointment, and stumbles into a deep and personal conversation about racism in America with the stranger on the other end of the line.

Each of these scenarios was recalled by a research participant as a moment of meaningful human connection. One’s sense of belonging and emotional safety with family, friends and communities is built through actual interactions. As these examples suggest, these connections can come in a variety of shapes and sizes. Often small and fleeting and sometimes powerfully memorable, moments of connection occur with loved ones and strangers, in person and online.

I spent the past several years exploring moments of connection as a graduate student in psychology, with a particular eye toward how people experienced meaningful connection during the pandemic. It’s not just a little bonus to forge these connections; they have real benefits.

Feeling well connected to others contributes to mental health, meaning in life, and even physical well-being. When loneliness or isolation becomes chronic, human brains and bodies suffer, straining a person’s long-term well-being at least as significantly as major health risks such as obesity and air pollution.

Researchers know what kinds of behavior enhance feelings of social connection. Here are four ways to connect.

1. Heart-to-hearts

For many people, the first thing that comes to mind when asked about meaningful connections are heart-to-heart conversations. These are key moments of emotional intimacy. One person opens up about something personal, often emotional and vulnerable, and in return another person communicates understanding, acceptance and care – what researchers call responsiveness.

For example, I could open up to you about my current experience of becoming a new father, sharing complex and precious sentiments that I would not disclose to just anyone. If I perceive in that moment that you really “get” what I reveal to you, that you accept my feelings as valid, whether or not you can relate to them, and that I matter to you, then I’ll probably feel a sense of closeness and trust.

In emotionally intimate moments, personal sharing is often reciprocal, though a sense of connection can arise whether you are the one opening up or offering responsiveness.

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