• How to live a meaningful life: Connection & Community

    September 23, 2017 | curtrosengren
  • connection and community

    If I had to pick just one single source of meaning I’m exploring in this series that is vital to weave into your life, this would be it.

    Not because its value is greater than any of the others, but because it is so deeply a part of who we are as a species (so much so that Abraham Maslow included “belonging” as one of the key elements in his hierarchy of needs). Whatever way you slice it – psychologically, neurologically, sociologically – we’re wired to connect. We’re wired to connect with individuals, and we’re wired to connect with the greater whole (e.g., community).

    As I explored the idea, three primary themes in the story of finding meaning from connection stood out:

    • Individual connection
    • Belonging
    • Support

    I’ll look at each of those in turn below.

    Individual connection

    In its most granular form, connection happens at the one-to-one level. It’s about the relationships we create in our lives, all the way from the fleeting interactions we have as we go about our day to the deep and long-lasting relationships that define our lives.

    The Harvard Grant Study

    Perhaps the most compelling evidence for the importance of that individual connection is the Harvard Grant Study, a 75 year ongoing study of Harvard undergraduates that starts with the class of 1938 – 40.

    This article quotes George Vaillant, the Harvard psychiatrist who oversaw the study from 1972 – 1994 and wrote a book about it.

    “As Vaillant puts it, there are two pillars of happiness. ‘One is love,’ he writes. ‘The other is finding a way of coping with life that does not push love away.’

    Vaillant has said that the study’s most important finding is that the only thing that matters in life is relationships. A man could have a successful career, money and good physical health, but without supportive, loving relationships, he wouldn’t be happy…

    ‘Joy is connection,’ Vaillant says. ‘The more areas in your life you can make connection, the better.’

    The study found strong relationships to be far and away the strongest predictor of life satisfaction. And in terms of career satisfaction, too, feeling connected to one’s work was far more important than making money or achieving traditional success.

    ‘The conclusion of the study, not in a medical but in a psychological sense, is that connection is the whole shooting match,’ says Vaillant.”

    Positivity resonance

    Another perspective on why connection can be such a source of meaning comes from Barbara Fredrickson. In her book, Love 2.0, Barbara Fredrickson writes:

    “…love is far more ubiquitous than you ever thought possible for the simple fact that love is connection.”

    She gives the examples of the stretching of your heart as you gaze into a newborn’s eyes or share a farewell hug with a dear friend. But she also gives less obvious examples, like “the fondness and shared sense of purpose you might unexpectedly feel with a group of strangers who’ve come together to marvel at a hatching of sea turtles or cheer at a football game.”

    While the premise of her book is a new definition of love, I found that definition an awkward stretch (not least because I already have a well-worn groove in my brain about what love means) . Fortunately she offers another phrase to describe what she’s talking about – “positivity resonance.”

    This article sums it up nicely:

    Fredrickson zooms in on three key neurobiological players in the game of love — your brain, your levels of the hormone oxytocin, and your vagus nerve, which connects your brain to the rest of your body — and examines their interplay as the core mechanism of love, summing up:

    “Love is a momentary upwelling of three tightly interwoven events: first, a sharing of one or more positive emotions between you and another; second, a synchrony between your and the other person’s biochemistry and behaviors; and third, a reflected motive to invest in each other’s well-being that brings mutual care.”

    She shorthands this trio “positivity resonance” — a concept similar to limbic revision — and likens the process to a mirror in which you and your partner’s emotions come into sync, reflecting and reinforcing one another…

    What I love most about the positivity resonance way of looking at things is just how much potential there is to weave it into the fabric of your life. Whether it is with loved ones, co-workers, or the check-out clerk at the grocery store, our days are packed with opportunities to experience moments of positivity resonance.


    At a broader level, meaning comes from a sense of belonging. Again, this is how we evolved to thrive. From Maslow’s hierarchy of needs to Baumeister’s and Leary’s “belongingness hypothesis,” a sense of belonging has consistently been seen as a fundamental part of who we are as a species.

    More and more, researchers are finding that one of the key components to the meaning derived from social connection is belonging.

    For example, a recent set of four studies demonstrated that “a sense of belonging predicts how meaningful life is perceived to be.” This article describes one of those studies:

    “The effect was revealed in one experiment in which participants were asked to close their eyes and think of two people or groups to which they really belonged. Then they were asked about how much meaning they felt life had.

    This group was compared with two others where participants (1) thought about the value of other people and (2) the help that others had provided them.

    Compared with these two conditions, participants who had been thinking about the groups they belonged to felt the highest levels of meaning in life.

    So, belonging to a group provided meaning over and above the value of others or the help they could provide.”

    Numerous studies over the years have reflected similar findings.


    Finally, there is an aspect of connection and community that has the potential to have an enormous impact on your quest for meaning, even if it isn’t a direct source itself.

    One of the things that comes with the territory of life as a social critter is the need for support. That’s true in general, but even more so when we are trying things that are beyond the connect-the-dots reach of our normal, everyday lives.

    For example, if one of the ways you aspire to find meaning is to pursue your vision for making the world a better place by being a social entrepreneur, or launching a local volunteer program aimed at giving less-advantaged kids a leg up – or anything that is a stretch beyond your comfort zone – support will be a vital piece of the puzzle.

    You’ll need multiple kinds of support. For example:

    • Emotional support: People who will both support you when things are hard and to reinforce your successes with celebration.
    • Inspiration support: People who inspire you to act, or keep going, or reach farther than you originally thought possible. Not just by saying, “hey, keep it up,” but by modeling it.
    • Knowledge support: You can’t know it all. You’ll need people in your life to fill in those gaps.
    • Belief support: People who believe in you, even in those times when you don’t.

    The same is true for many of the potential sources of meaning I’m exploring in this series, whether that is pursuing your passion, living an authentic and aligned life, or bringing more creative expression into your life.

    Support can be the bellows that fans the flames, life support when your efforts feel wobbly and weak, or the compass that keeps you on the right track.

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