There's little doubt that humans are social beings. Feeling close to others contributes to our overall feelings of happiness and fulfilment, and there are plenty of studies that confirm this from a scientific point of view. In fact, scientists believe our brains are hard-wired to be social and that our development as a species relied on our ability to maintain strong bonds.
But although we live surrounded by people, it seems that loneliness and isolation are some of the biggest social challenges of the 21st century. Researchers have noted that one can have a wide social network and interact regularly with others and still feel lonely or disconnected. This suggests that intimacy is a key factor in the development of meaningful connections with others. So, here are five easy exercises that can help deepen the connection you have with those in your life.
Meditation is a fabulous tool that can help you achieve greater awareness and connection with the world that surrounds us. Several studies have found that meditation practice has a positive effect on close relationships and helps develop a stronger sense of intimacy.
Meditation helps deepen connections with others
According to these studies, there are several reasons why meditation works: first of all, meditation makes us more accepting of our own flaws, so we can easily become more forgiving of others. Secondly, meditation improves our ability to separate thoughts from emotions and makes us less 'reactive', so we can continue working on developing closeness despite ups and downs in our relationships.
Shou-yi is a lesser-known form of meditation that comes from the Taoist tradition. The name itself means “to embrace the one”, so it's easy to see why this technique can help deepen a connection with others. Shou-yi brings to the forefront of your mind the fact that in one way or another, we are all interconnected and interdependent. This technique is also known as “quiet sitting” and involves contemplative meditation based on Taoist philosophy:
The goal of this technique is to achieve a deep insight into oneness and bring a deep sense of harmony between humans, the earth, and the cosmos. Once you are in the 'oneness mindset', it becomes easier to look at the forest instead of getting distracted by the trees (other people’s habits and traits that bother us). After all, there is a reason why Taoist philosophy has been used for peacebuilding and conflict management purposes.
A second exercise is loving-kindness meditation (LKM). The ultimate goal of LKM is to strengthen compassion, love, and appreciation for other beings, so it's the ideal technique to improve intimacy. A study of people who practised loving-kindness meditation for six weeks showed a reduction in the negativity levels of their relationships, and participants reported having a stronger support network and increased happiness. The technique is also simple:
The third exercise is writing gratitude letters. Letting people know we value them and care for them can improve our relationship with others, since we become more likely to overlook people’s flaws, lessening any chance of conflict and helping us achieve a better appreciation of other people’s value. Gratitude letters can deepen connection because our feelings of gratitude are directly shown to the other person.
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This has a strong impact on the quality of the relationship, as well as a lasting effect that can span several weeks, as shown by studies at the University of Pennsylvania. Even if you don't send the letter, putting your gratitude in writing makes you more aware of your positive emotions and is bound to make you feel closer to others.
“Gratitude letters can deepen connection because our feelings of gratitude are directly shown to the other person.”
Gratitude letters work because when we direct our attention to gratefulness, we automatically divert it from toxic or negative emotions. And as some researchers have found, the benefits multiply over time, since cultivating an ongoing gratitude practice causes changes in brain activity in areas related to decision-making, meaning that there is a link between gratitude feelings and how we act towards others.
Say thanks: develop intimacy by writing a gratitude letter
The fourth method on deepening connections is a 36-question exercise that you can use to understand others better and get a better picture of who they are. For this exercise, you'll need to set at least 45 minutes aside and take turns asking the questions that you can find here.
Research at US universities has shown that this exercise is effective in helping deepen connection and closeness between people. This is because the exercise relies on mutual self-disclosure as opposed to small talk, and because it requires both sides to open up, providing a safe environment where there's no fear of feeling vulnerable or one-sided.
Devoting time to properly listening to others (instead of simply exchanging views or acknowledging information) is one of the best ways of showing we care for them. Mindful listening can also help increase empathy, because in doing so we get to understand better other people’s motives, needs, and fears, gaining a more accurate picture of who they are as human beings.
“Meditation practice has a positive effect on close relationships and helps develop a stronger sense of intimacy.”
So, next time you have a conversation with someone, focus on what they're saying without judging or interrupting, and do your best to be present in the moment, being supportive and receptive. It's also useful to have some guidelines in mind:
Deep listening works because by not being judgmental and overlooking differences in opinion, others feel more inclined to trust us. Overall, mindful listening improves the quality of our relationships and sets a solid foundation for authentic interpersonal encounters.
Listen and learn: deep listening equals deeper connections
We live in a society that's increasingly individualistic, so it's always good to remember the benefits of crafting a deeper connection with others and of cultivating intimacy in relationships. The benefits are both physical and emotional: being able to connect with others at a deeper level generates empathy, which has been proven to give a sense of purpose and to strengthen the immune system.
Other studies show that stronger connectedness with others is a key component of our support system, can lower stress and anxiety levels, and has been linked to lower heart disease rates.
Of course, lasting closeness, intimacy, and loyalty will not come automatically. There is no magic pill when it comes to deepening your connection with others, but the exercises we have discussed here are a good starting point that can help your enjoy richer and more meaningful relationships. ●
A social sciences graduate with a keen interest in languages, communication, and personal development strategies. Dee loves exercising, being out in nature, and discovering warm and sunny places where she can escape the winter.
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