Episode 22: Brains wired for connection. Practice "noticing the positive" to cultivate healthier relationships with other people.

Episode 22: Brains wired for connection

Ryan D Thompson Collaboration, Modern, Neuroscience, Skills

Key ideas

Finding ways to better deal with people is fundamental to our wellbeing and success. It isn’t easy, but we flourish when we’re connected to other people. Practice "noticing the positive" to cultivate healthy relationships with others.

  • Imagine that you’ve just had a big win at work. Your peers admire your leadership. But then one negative comment completely rains on your parade. This situation illustrates the negativity bias: We have a tendency to overweight negative experiences over positive ones. 
  • Human connection is one of the pillars of wellbeing. However, collaboration with other people will inevitably involve some difficulty and conflict. Our ability to navigate those difficult interactions influences our wellbeing and the quality of our relationships.
  • The neurochemical oxytocin plays a crucial role in the quality of our interactions with others. Oxytocin increases trust. Trust, in turn, makes possible the wide variety of social interactions we engage in every day.
  • The practice of noticing the positive can be a helpful way to improve our connection with others and reduce the effects of the negativity bias. It helps us to  cultivate the qualities of gratitude, appreciation, or a sense of shared humanity.


Imagine you’ve just had your best day at work in recent memory. You were leading a project, and it was a huge success. Your colleagues celebrated the big win, pointing out how your leadership was stellar. You’re feeling great, like floating on a cloud, satisfied with how your hard work paid off. Until someone, perhaps your boss or a coworker, pointed out some mistake you had made. And not in a “constructive criticism” sort of way, but rather in a “take-you-down-a-notch” sort of way. How do you think you would feel? Still floating on cloud nine? 

If you’re anything like me, that one comment would likely get under your skin. Maybe even keep you up that night ruminating. Alternating between self-doubt as you question your abilities and resentment at this person who had to go and ruin your big win.

Now, if we look at the situation, you’ve just racked up some success at work, you’ve earned the accolades of your peers, and you’re satisfied at putting in some great work. But then one comment, one negative thing out of 10 positive things, all but cancels out the good feelings. Why is this? And how can we overcome this tendency to let negative events or people undermine our well-being? 

This episode is part of a series on dealing with people. I’m going to explore some ideas from neuroscience that can help make sense of this strange tendency. Working with people means invariably encountering some folks who are difficult. Finding ways to work well with people in all situations and connecting in meaningful and productive ways is essential for our well-being and success. 

I’m going to start with a basic premise that has appeared and will continue to appear in this podcast: we all want to experience well-being. Whether we call this happiness or contentment or success or something else, we all share this fundamental desire to feel positive emotions and avoid negative ones. Many of us seek happiness in material comforts, others in achievement. A smaller portion of humankind seek their well-being and contentment through contribution — a life dedicated to giving back. No matter our path, but especially for those seeking to make some kind of impact, success relies heavily on our ability to collaborate well with others. But let’s face it: working with people can be tricky.

Volumes could be written about the ways in which collaboration goes wrong. Or the ways that people can make our lives and our progress difficult. You probably don’t need a reminder of the negative, though. You hear and no doubt experience enough of that first hand. So instead, I’m going to focus on factors that contribute to healthy relationships and effective teams.

But first, some of the neuroscience underlying effective connection and collaboration. According to research by Paul Zak, director of the Center for Neuroeconomics Studies at Claremont Graduate University, the neurochemical oxytocin plays a crucial role in the quality of our interactions with others. Oxytocin increases trust. Trust, in turn, makes possible the wide variety of social interactions we engage in every day. As Zak describes, “oxytocin appears to reduce the fear of trusting strangers.” When we trust the people we’re interacting with, our jobs, families, communities, and organizations flow more smoothly. Trust is foundational to our ability to cooperate and collaborate — both with people we know well and those we don’t.

Now, in the experiments Zak and colleagues ran, they used a nasal spray to administer a small dose of oxytocin. I recognize this is perhaps not a method we can easily rely on in daily life to increase our capacity to trust others. So what other tools are at our disposal?

Research from Cortland Dahl, Richie Davidson, and their colleagues at the Center for Healthy Minds at the University of Wisconsin-Madison indicates that human connection is one of the four pillars of well-being. As Dahl describes, “connection is a sense of care towards other people that promotes supportive relationships.” Our connection may arise in the form of gratitude, appreciation, or perspectives of shared humanity. And cultivating concern for others also benefits us in the process. Healthy relationships are crucial for both our mental and physical well-being.

Conversely, unhealthy or lack of relationships can literally be bad for our health, posing as much risk as smoking or alcohol abuse. Their research indicates that connection is an active process – one in which we intentionally cultivate care for others. How can we do this?

One of the practices recommended by the Center for Healthy Minds is to be aware of the negativity bias. As demonstrated in the story at the start of this podcast, we all tend to focus more heavily on negative events. This tendency very likely arose on the ancient savanna, helping to keep our ancestors alive. It was far more critical to identify a threat, like a predator lurking in the shadows, than to notice an edible berry in the bushes ahead. It’s nice to find lunch, but way better to avoid being lunch. While our brain’s tendency to focus on threats kept us alive in the ancient world, it can also produce tremendous anxiety in the modern world. Our brains don’t really know the difference between an actual threat like a hungry lion and a perceived (or at least non-lethal) threat like a conniving coworker. Both situations will put us into survival mode, with a hefty dose of the stress hormone cortisol to increase our energy and reduce our sensitivity to pain. Which is good if you’re preparing to fight for your life. But not so good if you’re dosed up on this stress hormone all the time, as it can lead to all kinds of health issues.

Bringing awareness to this negativity bias is an important step in increasing our capacity for connection. When we recognize that we are more likely to see the negative, we can pause to question our initial reactions. Is this as bad as I think it is? Do I see the whole picture? Perhaps we misunderstood someone’s words or the intentions behind them. Maybe someone said something horrible to us, but they recently had a major loss in their lives. Adding some space between the incident and our reaction can help us assess the situation more clearly.

Another practice that Dahl and Davidson recommend is the reverse: to practice noticing the positive. Knowing we tend to overemphasize negative qualities, we can seek to intentionally identify positive qualities in a person. Maybe they have done something nice to us or others in the past. We might have similar interests we haven’t discovered before. Perhaps they have a skill, hobby, or interesting background we weren’t aware of. If we actively look for positive characteristics, we can cultivate those qualities of gratitude, appreciation, or a sense of shared humanity. As a result, we can forge deeper bonds with a wider variety of people – and have a much richer life experience.

On that note, this exploration of perspectives on how to improve our connection with other people has been a rewarding experience for me — and I hope for you as well. This episode wraps up the first season of the Changemakers Field Guide. I’ll be back in a month or so with a whole new lineup of topics, ranging from the awe of existing in the universe to practices for clarifying our purpose to staying calm under fire. If you enjoy the podcast, please leave me a review or even just a quick five-star rating – it really helps. Be sure to subscribe for more episodes. And please share this with a friend if you think it will be helpful to someone. Until the next season, be well!


Podcast soundtrack credit:

Our Story Begins Kevin MacLeod (incompetech.com)
Licensed under Creative Commons: By Attribution 3.0 License