Twelve Points for Making Meaningful Connections with Others

Take the Dr. Hallowell Inventory of a Connected Life Quiz

For most people, the question is not whether to connect, but how to connect. Often people say to me, “OK, I agree that I want to be connected. But practically speaking, how can I do it. Can you give me some specifics. Some practical tips?”

One of the big problems these days is balance. How can we balance just family and work? And how can anyone balance all twelve kinds of connection in one life? Certainly, for most of us, there will not be a perfect balance, but there does not need to be. If you work for a living, you will put many more hours into work than into your connection, say, to pets. My only point in mentioning many categories, is to allow you to survey the variety of connections in your life, then decide what you want to deepen or change.

I offer here a set of concrete suggestions to get you thinking in practical terms on how better to connect. One reason people lead disconnected lives is that they give up too soon. They assume they can’t make changes that matter. Use these suggestions as a springboard for adding your own practical steps you can take to develop a more connected life.

Following are my five suggestions for improving each of the twelve areas of connection. You can make up many more of your own, ones that fit your life.

I. Family of Origin:
1.    Make sure you see everyone in your family of origin at least once a year.
2.    Speak to everyone at least once a month, or use email or snail mail.
3.    Try to make up with family members from whom you are estranged.  Don’t take “no” for an answer, either from them or from yourself!
4.    Discuss with family members how they feel about the family. Then, try to change whatever is wrong, if possible.  Just naming the problem can set in motion a process of repair.  Often there is an elephant in the room and no one is talking about it. If you start talking, the elephant begins to disappear.
5.    Don’t let anyone drift too far away.

II.    Immediate Family:
1.    Eat family dinner as often as possible.
2.    Read aloud to children every day, if you can.
3.    Have family meetings from time to time to discuss plans, problems, solutions, and goals.
4.    Make peace before you go to sleep.
5.    Limit TV, video, and computer time so that you still have time to talk to each other in person and do things together.

III.    Friends and Community:
1.    Make a regular date to see a friend once a week.  Put it in your calendar, and never cancel unless you absolutely must.
2.    Try to get to know one neighbor you don’t already know.
3.    Use email to stay in touch with friends if you can’t see them.
4.    Volunteer for some community organization, even it only means doing something once or twice a year.
5.    Call one friend you have “been meaning to” get in touch with.

IV.     Work, Mission, Activity:
1.    Resolve to make your workplace more connected.  Then, do what seems appropriate.  Speak to your boss if that seems right, speak to co-workers, or simply take steps—like asking how things are going, or putting up pictures of the last staff party—that can create a more connected atmosphere.
2.    Take trivial contact seriously.  Smile in the elevator, don’t just stare up at the floor numbers.  Say hello at the water cooler.  Make eye contact and give a nod as you pass someone in the corridor. Be pleasant even to those people you don’t know.
3.    Try to think of what you could do to increase human moments among co-workers: for example, organize a pizza lunch out now and then, or an exercise group, or a trip to a ball game or a play.
4.    Make time, even only a half-hour a week, for a non-work activity you love but neglect—like playing an instrument, growing a garden, reading a novel, or cooking a new recipe.
5.    Go speak to people in person, rather than using email, now and then.  Human moments, though less efficient, create much for positive feelings than electronic ones.

V.    Beauty:
1.    First, identify which kinds of beauty you would like to connect with more fully. Music?  Fine Arts?  Literature?  Dance?  Theater?  Movies?  A few of these?
2. See if someone would like to join you in this pursuit.
3. Take a course, if one is available and you want to.
4. Put aside feelings of intimidation.
5.    Engage as much as you can with whatever form of beauty you want to develop a connection with.  This is the most important step.  Go to museums, go to concerts, read books, go to movies—whatever you choose. Just do it.  The beauty will work its magic on you once you are in its presence.

VI.   The Past:
1.    Get to know as much of your family’s history as you can.  Talk to grandparents or other family historians, read any books that might be relevant, develop a family tree (you can find services on the Internet).
2.    Visit the gravesides of loved ones every year.  This provides a time and place for remembering and reconnecting with the past.
3.    If you have big gaps in your knowledge of world history, try to read a book or two on those areas.  Ask your librarian or bookstore owner to guide you to the most interesting such books, as getting bored will only disconnect you further.
4.    Talk to old people.  They are natural historians.  They are usually extremely interesting when you get them talking.
5.    Talk to your children about current events in terms of their historical meaning.  For example, on voting.  Or, use the Fourth of July not only for a barbecue and fireworks, but for discussion of some exciting part of American History.  There are hundreds of opportunities throughout the year to use a current event or holiday as a spring board for historical discussion with your children.

VII.  Nature and Special Places:
1.    Make it a point to stop and notice nature every day.  Even if you live in the city, there are plenty of chances to do this.  It only takes a second or two, it’s free, and it feels good.
2.    Keep in your mind, as possible “things to do in free time,” hiking, walking the beach, or just strolling down the road.  If you have a regular route you walk, not only will you connect with nature, you will start noticing all kinds of details on the walk, from the animals you meet to the state of the vegetation, to the amount of moss on a rock, to the people you usually encounter.
3.    Adopt a small, local store or restaurant as “yours.”  Go in often, get to know the owners. Pretty soon this will become a special place for you, an oasis of welcome.
4.    Visit the places that have meaning to you as often as you can.  Your old school, a reading room in a certain library, the coffee shop that has the special easy chair where you can read the newspaper, a bench in the park.
5.    Try to experience one new form of nature every year or so.  For example, if you’ve never been to a canyon, try to visit the Grand Canyon, or a waterfall, head to Niagara (it really is amazing!), or if you’ve never climbed a mountain, try climbing a small one in summer, or if you’ve never seen a wheat field, take a drive through Kansas, or of you’ve never seen and felt snow, find a reason to come up north some winter, or if you’ve never seen a brook trout, see if you can’t find some brook and a fisherman who’d like your company, and maybe your kids’ as well.

VIII.   Pets and Animals:
1.    Not everyone can do this, but if you can, try to own a pet.  Studies have shown that people who do, of all ages, feel happier.
2.    If you can’t own a pet, try to make a friendly relationship with the pets you encounter.  This may sound ridiculous, but pets bring out important parts of us. There is physiological evidence that people who are inhibited, for example, can bond with an animal but can’t with a person.
3.    Try to support public agencies, like the SPCA and the agencies that help control over-population among stray cats.
4.    Take your children to zoos and petting farms, especially if you can’t have pets at home.
5.    Read book about animals, both for yourself and for your kids. Just look in the animal section of any big bookstore.  You’ll be amazed at how large and varied is the selection.

IX.   Ideas and Information:
1.    Above all, recognize that fear is the worst problem when it comes to developing a solid connection to ideas and information.  Work within yourself, or with a friend, teacher, or counselor to put aside fear.  Remember, the only stupid question is the one you don’t ask.
2.    Try to become computer literate and gain access to the Internet.
3.    Limit how much information you try to digest each week.  If you try to take in everything, you will get overwhelmed.
4.    Consult with experts in areas you feel unqualified.
5.    Let yourself play with ideas. Important ideas often start off as impractical notions or even whims.

X.    Institutions and Organizations:
1.    Join one volunteer organization you believe in and attend its meetings regularly. The MacArthur Foundation study showed that this is one of the main factors that is associated with a long life.  The organization may be your church, or it may be the Boys’ Club, or it may be the Elks.  It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it matters to you, and you attend its meetings.
2.    Find out the names, addresses, and telephone numbers of your elected representatives, both local, state, and national.  If you call the reference desk of your local library, the person there can help you in finding this information.  Once you have the names of these people, get in the habit of contacting them when you have a concern.
3.    If you have children or grandchildren in school, get to know their teacher or teachers.  Spend a few minutes just chatting with the teacher now and then, and give him or her your thanks.  Teachers, along with parents, do our society’s most important job, but they get little support or credit.
4.    Take your children down to city hall. Explain to them how your town or city works. On different outings, take them to the fire department, the police station, the local library, the hospital, and maybe on a tour of a large business if there is one in your area.
5.    Speak up in the institutions and organizations that matter to you.  Try to encourage others to do the same.  Apathy and disengagement are the great enemies of connection.  Support a political candidate, if you like one.  Vote in the elections in your professional organization. You might even consider running for office yourself!

XI.   God or the Transcendent:
1.    The key here is to make the connection, rather than ignoring it.
2.    Meditate or pray on a regular basis, every day.  Many studies have shown that people who do this are happier and healthier than those who do not.
3.    Talk about this connection with your children and/or grandchildren.
4.    Exercise your faith, if you have one, on a regular basis by attending services and/or observing other rituals that have meaning to you.
5.    Come to terms, in your own mind, with how you make sense of death, unnecessary suffering, evil deeds, and unexpected losses, so that when these things happen you will have the foundation of a response.

XII.   The Connection to Yourself:
1.    “To thine own self be true,” and, “To thine own self be enough.” These are the two cornerstones of a healthy connection with yourself.  Be a hero, not a star. Remember that success and failure are both, to quote Rudyard Kipling, “imposters.”
2.    Practice being good to yourself.  This starts with giving yourself permission to do so.  Remember, being good to yourself is not the same thing as being selfish. Indeed, if you are good to yourself, you will be better equipped to help others.
3.    If there is a part of yourself you would like to change, make a plan to do so.  Often consulting with a specialist—like a good psychotherapist, or a diet specialist, or a hair stylist, or an experienced salesperson in your favorite clothes store, or a fitness expert—can start you off in a positive direction.
4.    Try to keep in touch with your creative side.  You can do this by taking a creative writing or painting class, or reading a book on lateral thinking, or attending some creativity , or just by giving yourself time to pursue whimsical ideas.
5.     Be real.  You are not the same person with everyone, but you can always be genuine in a given context.  Being fake is a sure way to disconnect from yourself.  Pretty soon, you don’t know who you are.  On the other hand, genuine connection may be the greatest pleasure life has to offer.

Adapted from Connect: 12 Vital Ties that Open Your Heart, Lengthen Your Life, and Deepen Your Soul, Simon & Schuster, Inc., 1999.

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