High Quality Connections: Noticing the Good in Everyday EncountersJun 12, 2018
By Henry Emmons, MD
What is it that sets very happy people apart from the not-so-happy? Is it a healthy diet? Exercise? An active spiritual life? Or simply being fortunate enough to have mostly good things happen throughout life?
A study of 222 undergraduates screened for high happiness levels found none of the above reasons. So, what was the happiness booster? The upper 10% of consistently happy people in the study had stronger social connections. While it may not be enough to create happiness by itself, a richly satisfying social life appears to be a necessary foundation to happiness.
Does that mean you need to be a social butterfly with a huge contact list? Nope, that quantity over quality adage applies here as well.
Jane Dutton, a professor of business administration and psychology at the University of Michigan, says that her personal practice of being alert to high-quality connections (HQCs) are like vitamins that strengthen her from within. I like this notion, in part, because it has to do with regular, day-to-day encounters. It doesn’t require going to cool parties or even having close friends, healthy romantic relationships, or a good marriage. These are all great things, but science suggests that many benefits can come from simple, brief, routine encounters. Dutton also notes that “high quality” connections matter. What makes connections high quality and what can you do to create more of them in daily life?
The short answer is that connections are high quality when you notice them.
I consider mindfulness to be that simple—it’s the practice of noticing. When you notice something, you automatically become more present to it. You encounter it more fully. And it requires very little effort on your part to do this.
The reason it needs to be a “practice” is because so many things can pull you out of this simple presence. Most of the time, you aren’t even aware that you aren’t aware. There is nobody home to notice. You have to continually and repeatedly practice being present to your experience. And it has to be done intentionally or it likely won’t happen.
One strategy to engage in a mindfulness practice and create more of these vitamins for your soul is to practice being alert to high-quality connections. Here’s how:
Positive, vital encounters are happening all the time. Things like fatigue, being too guarded, and preoccupation can make those encounters hard to notice. The beauty of this practice is that you don’t have to change anything about yourself or the encounter. You don’t need to try harder, become more engaging, look for more interesting people, or be more outgoing. You only have to give it your attention.
This is similar to a breathing meditation: just breathe naturally and be completely present to it. You don’t have to change your breath. Just by bringing greater awareness to it, your breath will naturally deepen. In the case of an encounter with another, you can just be your natural self. Giving your full attention can allow the quality of the encounter to deepen.
While you’re attentive to the encounter, you can also place your attention on your own internal experience of it. Two levels of awareness can then occur simultaneously during your practice:
- Part of your conscious mind is aware of the other person as you notice their words and their way of being, the context of the encounter, and the shared conversation.
- Another part of your awareness is on your own internal experience of it. What do you feel as you meet this other? Awareness of your internal experience makes this a more transformative mindfulness practice. When you become the observer of your own experience, you strengthen your awareness muscles.
When you notice how you feel, you can also savor the experience. Feeling good is wonderful in itself, but if you realize that you feel good because you’re self-aware of your emotions, then you magnify it. Adding an element of appreciation enhances the meaning and joy that you get out of a positive experience.
This is also how you know you are having an extraordinary encounter, because you feel something good inside. As Jane Dutton put it, “I know that it is a high-quality connection when I sense vitality and aliveness in the interaction, even if it is a stranger.”
The very act of looking for good experiences increases your chances of having them. It’s easy to repeatedly forget to do this, so don’t hesitate to continually remind yourself to do so. Think of this as a new, good habit that you are trying to create. In order for it to stick, you have to turn it into a pattern. After some practice, you won’t have to think about it because it’ll be a routine part of your life.
Here’s a simple strategy to create that habit: Begin each day when you first wake up by reminding yourself: “Today, I’m going to look for the good when I interact with others.” At the end of the day, just before you fall asleep, go over your day and remember any encounter you had that felt positive. Do this for 30 days and see what happens to you. If you like the changes you see, keep doing it until it becomes second nature.
- Diener, E. & Seligman, M. E. P. (2002). Very happy people. Psychological Science, 13(1), 81-84.
- Newman, K. M. (2018). Nine scientists share their favorite happiness practices. Greater Good Magazine.