In today’s digital world, we enjoy unlimited access to our social networks. Some argue that we are more connected than ever before thanks to our access to text, email, and the social media that's at our fingertips. Yet despite advances in technology, we find ourselves in a loneliness crisis. The quantity of our communication may have increased, but has the quality?
I see manifestations of this in my practice constantly. My patients report daily contact with their peers through text and social media, yet they are overwhelmed with anxiety and feeling disconnected. When I ask them who in their life knows about the challenges they're experiencing, the most common answer is "nobody." Why is this happening? There’s no one easy answer, but one piece of the puzzle is better understanding what technology does, and does not do, for our brain.
Our brains play a large role in our emotional health. They emit specific chemicals traditionally linked to happiness, including the neurotransmitter dopamine. Dopamine, associated with pleasure and motivation, is triggered by expectation and reinforcement of reward. Studies have found that texting and using social media cause a surge of dopamine. So shouldn’t our excessive smartphone use be making us happier?
As it turns out, it's not that simple. Recently, some experts have reexamined what we understand about the brain and emotional health. Dr. Robert Lustig, author of a new book on the neuroscience of happiness, explains that the pleasure triggered by dopamine is actually a distinctly separate feeling from that of happiness. In fact, chronic dopamine overload is linked to addiction and depression, two of the loneliest and unhappiest states of the human condition. Dr. Lustig explains that happiness is actually more about a sense of fulfillment, contentment, and belonging. These feelings, he says, are triggered by the neurotransmitter serotonin, most of which is produced in our gut.
Other research shows that digital communication does not aid our quest for happiness and connection in part because technology does not stimulate the production of oxytocin. Oxytocin, often called the "bonding hormone," is a neuropeptide produced in the brain that is triggered by physical contact with others. We rely on oxytocin to build intimacy, trust, and healthy relationships.
Understanding that our digital interactions are triggering some, but not all, of the chemicals we need for optimal emotional health might give us some clues as to why being connected isn't translating into feeling connected. Taking this into account, here are three things to consider when you're working on connecting with others: