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Mindful Living

The brain chemistry behind human bonding

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Julia Malacoff February, 14, 2020

Writer, trainer, nail art aficionado

Life is best when you have the right people to explore it with. Research shows that putting work into maintaining close friendships and healthy bonds with family members can make you feel happier and live longer.

This is true for many reasons. However, it's well established that social connection and human bonding have a significant impact on brain chemistry. When we feel close to others, certain hormones make their way through our bodies and brains.

Understanding what these hormones do and how connections between people are formed can help you make the most of your family bonding time, friendships and romantic relationships. Here's what you need to know.

How human bonding works

So, what is bonding, when you really get down to it? Feeling bonded with someone essentially means you're attached to them. What this looks like changes from person to person. Chances are family bonding is part of your social support system, but you also probably feel strong bonds with your friends and coworkers. You might even be bonded to people you may see for only a few minutes a day, such as the barista who always gets your order right.

Sure, these emotional attachments are all in your head — specifically, they're attached to certain brain processes that have been instilled in us since infancy. Here's why you feel the way you do when you connect with other people:Love is in the air! Beautiful young African couple sitting close to each other and looking through a heart shape made with their fingers

  • Oxytocin is one of the main neurotransmitters involved in that feeling of closeness with others. Not only does it play a role in attraction, it's also behind the bonding relationship between mothers and infants. When you hug or kiss a loved one, your pituitary gland releases oxytocin into the bloodstream, giving you a feel-good buzz. It's also involved in individual and social trust, another incredibly important element in feeling close to others!
  • Dopamine, sometimes called the "happy hormone," may also be involved in developing meaningful relationships, according to recent research. Dopamine plays a central role in the brain's reward cycle. When you get an urge and act on it, you get a reward, and then your brain gets rewarded with a hit of dopamine — so, the more you complete that series of behaviors, the more second-nature the cycle becomes.

Everyday occurences constantly reinforce these brain processes and behavioral patterns. If every time you pick up a baby, they smile, you might be more tempted to do it again. And this goes both ways! The baby will begin to associate being picked up with feelings of happiness, making them more likely to continue smiling each time you pick them up.

4 Easy ways to feel closer to others

Forming strong personal relationships takes work and time, but there are some simple strategies to help you deepen your connection. Here are four straightforward actions you can take to feel closer to others and strengthen your shared bonds.

1. Capitalize on the power of touch

One of the simplest ways to encourage human and family bonding is to reach out to them — literally. When you're nervous, something as simple as a hug or a few seconds of hand-holding from someone you love (with their consent, of course) can lower your blood pressure, slow your heart rate and decrease your stress hormones. It'll also boost oxytocin, which enhances your ties with that person.

2. Take note of what makes you feel close to others

Dopamine's stimulus and reward cycle means that, in theory, the more you reinforce the cycle in your relationships, the stronger those bonds will become. Take notice of which actions and behaviors with others give you that warm, fuzzy feeling, and try to repeat them!

3. Do what you say you'll do

Trust is an essential element of human bonding. Every time you follow through on a commitment — whether it's something big, like staying faithful to your romantic partner, or something small, like fulfilling your promise to pack PB&J for lunch for your child — you strengthen the trust in the relationship and, in turn, your bond as well.

4. Make time for play

Being physically active together is an amazing way to facilitate human bonding. Aside from the obvious health benefits, exercise also boosts serotonin, which may help improve mood and lead to positive associations with being active together!

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