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Trying to make sense of life and to learn living it happily.

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Friday, October 3, 2014

Cultivate Connection

We humans are open systems, continuously exchanging feedback with the external environment. We look well defined and finite, but our feelings, thoughts, words and actions reach far beyond the space our physical bodies occupy. No man is an island. We impact everything around us just by being. And in return we are influenced by it all. Therefore, while it is good to be introspective and self-sufficient, we flourish in connecting to the outside world and being a part of something bigger than we are.

By connecting I do not mean the polite small talk at a meeting or a Facebook account. Connection that leads to the feelings of happiness, wellbeing and, some researchers say, even health benefits is the internal feeling of a strong bond with someone or something.

People are fulfilled in all kinds of connections. One of the biggest bonds we feel is the connection to other people through love, friendship, parenthood, volunteering, work, through sports, shared hobbies and projects.

Art by Amanda Hall
Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand tells a story that showcases beautifully how people make the same circumstances into hell or heaven solely by their attitude[1]. It also shows the importance and effects of connecting with other people.

As a reward for her benevolent life, Ariella, a lamed-vavnik (one of the thirty-six people in the world who are completely good) was taken to see Hell and Heaven. In Hell she saw a magnificent palace with an opulent dining hall. The tables were filled with the most delicious food: fragrant soups, creamy cheeses, fresh vegetables, juicy fruits, and exquisite cakes. But the people in the room all looked thin, hungry and unhappy. When Ariella looked carefully, she noticed why the people did not eat the scrumptious food: they all had splints strapped to their arms so they could not bend their elbows. They could pick up the food, but there is no way of getting it into their mouths. She was sad that they sit amongst plenty but starve.
Next, the lamed-vavnik went to visit Heaven. She found herself in a beautiful palace once again. The dining hall was also laden with all kinds of fragrant and delicious dishes. And the people at the table all looked healthy and well fed. They were happy and chatted with each other as they settled down to eat the wonderful meal laid out before them. But to her surprise, Ariella noticed that everybody in Haven had exactly the same splints on their arms as the people in Hell.
Art by Amanda Hall
“Same palace, same meal, same splints, same everything,” she murmured to herself. “The same challenges and opportunities exist in Haven as in Hell. What is different?” And then Ariella saw that although the people in Haven could not bend their arms to feed themselves, they were stretching the arms to feed each other. And if food dropped from someone’s fork, or missed a person’s mouth, they simply laughed and tried again. The people had fun. No one was angry, and everyone was getting enough to eat.
Ariella understood the difference between Heaven and Hell. She returned home and told others about her visit and the lessons she has learned. “Heaven and Hell are not just placed that you go to after you die,” she would tell the children who sat at her feet. “They are also part of how each of us looks at the world every day. And people who reach out to others are already halfway to Heaven.”

Cultivating connection with others does not mean we must be friends with heaps of people. Research shows that the well-being resulting from connecting comes not from the number of friends we have, but from our internal sense of bond toward others. So it is enough to have one friend. And we we feel deeply connected to someone on the inside, we are still benefiting from that feeling even if that person is not our friend[2].

Sarah Yoheved Rigler, a prominent Jewish speaker and author, teaches that marriage is the opportunity for the deepest and the biggest connection with another human being[3]. Unfortunately, we do not always use this opportunity. At times we feel hurt and disconnected from our spouses and other family members. We get upset, frustrated and annoyed with our life partners, children and parents. And so we tarnish the deep connection with people closest to us by arguing with them, and mostly about rather inconsequential things. That puts a major hamper on our happiness.

When it happens, Ms. Rigler suggests we stop looking at the circumstances through “right or wrong” glasses, trying to make everything right every time someone else is wrong. Instead she offers to put on “connection or disconnection” glasses, when the most important is not to prove that you are right at any cost, but to stay connected with the other person. When we consciously choose connection as our ultimate goal, our behavior changes. Ms. Rigler finds that spouses who choose to cultivate connection have much happier marriages while still being able to solve any disagreement in friendly and respectful ways.

Art by AthenA-gRace
Another very powerful feeling is the connection to a higher power, to God, to the creation, the connection to spiritual plane of our world. In Judaism, being connected to HaShem (God) is the purpose of practicing the Torah Law and the true path to happiness[4]. In the highest level of yoga called Samadhi, connection with all the creation is the ultimate goal of the practitioner. Any spiritual practice cultivates connection to something bigger than us by praying, meditating, believing. Many people experience tremendous joy from these kinds of connections.

There are other important and very gratifying connections in our lives: to nature, to animals, to expression through art and music, or even to abstract ideas.
When we feel connection through loving someone, feeling strong about an idea, or believing in the higher power we get charged with energy and the motivation to do great things, as well as the satisfaction and happiness.

As with everything else in life, we must exercise moderation, a proper balance. Connecting with the wrong people or the wrong ideas may be draining or even hurtful. We need to know who and what to reach out to and what to distance ourselves from.

Feeling connected to something recharges our batteries. It is also important to enjoy solitude and be content with your own company. Maxwell Maltz, a Jewish-American doctor and author said "If you make friends with yourself you will never be alone." We cannot be harmonious beings through connection only. We need self-reliance, introspection and some quietness. Being alone can recharge our batteries as much as the feeling of connectedness. Striking the balance that is right for you promotes happiness.

Practice:
  • Start by smiling. Smile to strengthen your existing bonds (with family and friends) and smile to create new ones. People are attracted to a smiling face.
  • Connect with like-minded people. You may feel that you do not have anything in common with others to develop a bond. But rest assured: there are people like you out there. And probably they feel the same way.
  • When in conflict with the closest family members, such as your spouse, your kids or your parents, ask yourself what is most important to you overall – to prove that you are clever and right or to stay connected and close. On the whole, do you want to be in the world of connection with them or in the world of estrangement? Once you decide you want to choose connection over estrangement, you may realize that disagreements can be solved without insults or bickering[5].
Art by m1kikey
  • Hugging is one of the easiest ways to connect, and a very effective one. And now it has been scientifically proven that hugging for 20 seconds releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes us feel happier. Strengthen your bonds with hugs, you will feel happier and more content with life![6]
  • Connect through a shared project. Buddy up for activities such as exercise, going to museums, or whatever you can think of. Volunteer for your community organization. Enroll into sport teams or classes that interest you. Make the practicing of happiness skills a family project. When you share your goals, support and motivate each other, you develop a connection (and as a bonus, achieve your goals faster).
  • Connect with happy people. When we are close to content, happy people, we learn from their attitude and may begin emulating their happiness.
art by kceb14
  • If having a feeling of deep connection with other people is challenging for you, focus on other connections as discussed above.
  • Explore a connection through spirituality by going to places of worship and/or going on nature walks. Connect with the uniqueness and the preciousness of the present moment through being in awe with the vastness of the Universe, the beauty of a starry sky, or the limitlessness of the horizon[7].
  • Set time aside just for you, for being with yourself. Enjoy the solitude. Connect with the rich world inside of you. Meditate.



[1] Heaven and Hell, The Barefoot Book of Jewish Tales by Rabbi Shoshana Boyd Gelfand
[2] Emma M. Seppala, PhD., http://www.psycologytoday.com/blog/feeling-it/201304/8-powerful-ways-turn-loneliness-deep-connection
[3] Sarah Yoheved Rigler, http://www.sararigler.com
[4] Rabbi David Aaron, Living a Joyous Life: The True Spirit of Jewish Practice
[5] Kesher wife workshop by Sara Yoheved Rigler
[7] Association for Psychological Science. "Being in awe can expand time and enhance well-being." ScienceDaily. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2012/07/120719161901.htm

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