In 1938, in the middle of the Great Depression, one of the longest-running studies examining adult life began at Harvard University. Some 80 years later, the data is clear: IQ, genes, economic success and fame don’t promote mental and physical health, happiness and well-being relationships – specifically high-quality relationships – do. Those who were the most satisfied with their relationships at age 50, who leaned into relationships with friends, family, and community, had observably better health outcomes at age 80.
The study, known as the Harvard Study of Adult Development, provides convincing evidence for the power of emotion contagion, the neurobiological “upward spiral” that surges into our brains and bodies when we are engaged in authentic relationships with people who feel like sunlight. It’s clear who these individuals are: people whose very presence helps us feel seen, heard, and valued, freeing up access to adaptive and flexible “broaden and build” mindsets that helps us to open up and shine our light.
Close friendships require an investment of time and energy, a concept laid out in “Dunbar’s Number” At any one time we have the emotional and physical capacity for close, high-quality relationships with about 5-15 people. It is these individuals who comprise our inner circle, love us for exactly who we are, and to whom we devote about 60% of our relational resources. When we have cause to celebrate, these priceless friends feel our joy as if it were their own (mudita!) and when we need a ride to the emergency room at 3 am, these are the friends we call first.
These soulmate friendships are the very definition of intimacy (into-me-you-see), whether with a family member, a platonic friend, or a romantic partner. Intimate relationships share certain qualities – such as vulnerability, honesty, empathy, authenticity, and reliability. These friends that give us the comfort to let it all hang out. The intensity of these relationships naturally wax and wane over time, following life’s unpredictable twists and turns, and it’s important to expect the occasional speedbump, and even the occasional giant pothole. Don’t sweat this – conflict and challenge are not only expected but valuable. Within these trusted relationships exists the greatest opportunity for the kind of learning that helps us develop into our best selves.
If 60% of our relational energy goes to friends in the inner circle, the other 40% is devoted to middle and outer friendship circles. We interact with these people less frequently and perhaps more superficially, but they are still of vital importance. These friends and acquaintances provide us with the convoy of social support, our own personalized community, one that defies geography and time. Each friend, regardless of where they lie in our concentric relationship circles, has the capacity to recharge our emotional batteries. As we express a unique part of our multi-dimensional selves within the context of the chemistry of that particular relationship, we are imprinting ourselves into their epigenomes, and they into ours. Therein lies the central tenet of human beings as social animals – stronger together than apart. We need our friends like we need food and water.
– Christy Evans
The precise manner in which high-quality human interaction unfolds on a biologic level is complex, so much so that it has been termed the “dark matter” of social neuroscience (think: the brain equivalent of the study of black holes). But here’s what we do know about the neurobiology of human connection – the ingredients, and as they say in the medical field, the “dose-response” relationship between them:
One Dose of High-Quality Human Connection = A Neurobiological Response of….
Oxytocin: The “love” neuropeptide (molecules that can cross the blood-brain barrier) is a key ingredient in the recipe for positive feelings stemming from human bonding and love.
Opioid-like neuropeptides: Mother Nature’s built-in pain relievers and biological wellspring of euphoria, catalyzed by social connection and physical touch.
Serotonin: Feel-good neurotransmitters that are natural happiness boosters and gastrointestinal system stabilizers.
Dopamine: Mood-boosting neurotransmitters associated with novelty, excitement and reward.
Cortisol: the stress hormone that influences inflammation, blood sugar levels, metabolism, and memory formation, which social support helps to keep in equilibrium.
These biochemicals are all actors in a larger performance that features four major networks in the brain, each of which is believed to play both a specialized as well as integrative role in processing social information.
1. The “social perception” network is centered on the amygdala (the brain’s “emotional smoke detector,”) and shapes the effects of emotion on:
- social decision-making (particularly as related to perceived threat)
- social saliency
- creating bonds with others
- social pain
2. The “mentalizing” network is engaged when actively thinking about others, and also when reflecting on oneself. (There is major overlap here with the default-mode network, which is “on” when our attention to the outside world is “off.”)
3. An “empathy-focused” network kicks in when individuals have a vicarious emotional experience from seeing and feeling the emotions of others.
4. The “mirror” network (home to the “mirror neuron”) operates when we observe the actions of others, and it activates the very same neural pathways in the observer’s brain as the ones engaged in the activity. The mirror network is thought to play a key role in learning through observation.
Like a game of neurobiological “tag,” positive human connection catalyzes a powerful chain reaction. “Relational energy” initiates a molecular cascade that starts with an emotion (e.g. joy), which in nanoseconds (“tag, you’re it!”) kickstarts adaptive brain-based cognitive processes (e.g. improved flexibility, creativity and memory), which enhance well-being, productivity and quality of life.
ALL WE NEED IS…
Ways to Cultivate Relationships that Feel Like Sunlight:
- Prioritize quality over quantity!
- Find ways to have face-to-face time with your Sunlight Tribe – even if it has to be virtual for now. Physical/visual proximity maintains close connections.
- Schedule friend time! Set “Mweetings” (me + we = Mwe) that you both agree on. Only have 15 minutes for a video chat, or half an hour for a power walk outside? Grab it when you can and dream together of the fun adventures that lie ahead.
- Breathe in the sunlit energy that is friendship, listen non-judgmentally with your whole heart (this means no multi-tasking)
- Bring the people you love together, for now via Zoom, and later in person. Share stories, jokes, laugh, cry, sing and dance. The shared strand of relational DNA runs through our entire “Tribe of Sunlight…” relish the energy that comes from being together.
- Don’t feel constrained to humans! Our canines ALWAYS feel like sunlight – the pure, unadulterated kind that’s rooted in unconditional love.
The investment of personal and emotional resources in friendship is vital. In other words, to have a friend, we have to be a friend. When someone we love has a bad day, bad week or a bad month, needing more sunlight, care and nurturing than usual, try and be patient. Aspire to be the friend you’d wish for if the shoe were on the other foot. Sunlight friends – human or animal, a generation (or two!) above or below, in- or outside of the school or workplace – help us feel our joy, and quite literally –reduce our pain. This is highlighted by a remarkable overlap in the neural systems involved in both physical and social pain. We must be there for one another – even when it’s hard – knowing that even on cloudy days the UV rays of friendship seep through, filling our souls with the warm glow of sunlight.
As we think about the road ahead, post-pandemic and otherwise, cultivating high-quality relationships is priority #1. In particular, as we think about creating the conditions for going back to school, infusing sunlight into our student-teacher relationships is particularly important. It is these relationships that will provide the requisite emotional foundation upon which to scaffold academic re-engagement – which means that teachers will need fuel from their Sunshine Tribes more than ever. After the long quarantine, positive student-teacher relationships are the non-negotiable predicate to the bright beacon of hope on the horizon. Hand in hand, we will get there.
Circling back to the “long game” of life, let’s all take a page from the Harvard Study and surround ourselves with people who feel like sunlight. By nurturing our high-quality connections, we get to experience the health promoting, life-affirming, psychologically liberating, spiritually fueling, priceless moments of relational energy that, in the end, inspire the greatest story of all: a life well-lived and a multi-generational legacy of health and happiness fueled by Vitamin C (CONNECTION) and Vitamin L (LOVE).
Who are the people (and animals!) in your Sunlight Tribe? Spend a few minutes planning the days ahead, schedule a “Mweeting” or two, and fill your emotional gas tank with “human being” rather than “human doing.” We look forward to next week’s article, the last in our Back to Basics series, which will celebrate and integrate the learning journey we’ve undertaken together. Until then, be well!