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Experiences of Meaningful Connection in Social Interactions

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Abstract

Feeling meaningfully connected to others is an important aspect of lifespan development. Given that a sense of connectedness should be, in part, contingent on the kinds of social interactions people have in their daily life, this dissertation aims to explore across three studies what kinds of social interactions are perceived as meaningful connections, how people experience such interactions, and how these experiences are related to important aspects of well-being. The first study explores qualitatively what kinds of interactions people experienced as meaningful connections in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thematic analysis of written stories of meaningful connection from 88 participants identified four overarching themes: openness to the other, affirmation of the self, emotional uplift, and meeting of basic needs. The context of the pandemic also enhanced the meaning of social connection, offered a common struggle to connect over, and motivated prosociality. The second study investigated people's lived-experiences of feeling meaningfully connected to others. Thirty adults were interviewed about recent social interactions that felt to them like meaningful connections. Phenomenological analysis identified a central theme of feeling regarded. Five auxiliary themes were also identified as essential to experiencing meaningful connection: interest, sincerity, attending, mutuality, and safety. The third study leveraged a person-centered quantitative approach to empirically describe different ways in which people may experience a sense of meaningful connection in social interactions. A scale was created from themes of the first two studies of this dissertation that includes nine interpersonal and psychological indicators of meaningful connection. Responses from 341 adults were analyzed using latent profile analysis and five distinct profiles of interactions experienced as meaningful connection were identified. Further analyses explored differences between participants belonging to each profile in terms of how meaningfully ii connected they felt in their reported interactions, as well as their global levels of psychological well-being and loneliness. Heterogeneity was found for meaningful connectedness and psychological well-being, but not for loneliness. Overall, this dissertation suggests there are a variety of ways of experiencing meaningful connection in social interactions, and contributes descriptive nuance to the important literature around social connection.
Experiences of Meaningful Connection in Social Interactions
by
Dave Smallen
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
(Human Development and Family Studies)
at the
UNIVERSITY OF WISCONSIN – MADISON
2021
Date of final oral examination: 12/17/2021
The dissertation is approved by the following members of the Final Oral Committee:
Robert L. Nix, Professor, Human Development and Family Studies
Sigan L. Hartley, Associate Professor, Human Development and Family Studies
Marie-Louise Mares, Professor, Communication Arts
Linda J. Roberts, Professor Emerita, Human Development and Family Studies
Vivian L. Tamkin, Postdoctoral Research Fellow, Obstetrics and Gynecology
i
Abstract
Feeling meaningfully connected to others is an important aspect of lifespan development.
Given that a sense of connectedness should be, in part, contingent on the kinds of social
interactions people have in their daily life, this dissertation aims to explore across three studies
what kinds of social interactions are perceived as meaningful connections, how people
experience such interactions, and how these experiences are related to important aspects of well-
being. The first study explores qualitatively what kinds of interactions people experienced as
meaningful connections in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Thematic analysis of
written stories of meaningful connection from 88 participants identified four overarching themes:
openness to the other, affirmation of the self, emotional uplift, and meeting of basic needs. The
context of the pandemic also enhanced the meaning of social connection, offered a common
struggle to connect over, and motivated prosociality. The second study investigated people’s
lived-experiences of feeling meaningfully connected to others. Thirty adults were interviewed
about recent social interactions that felt to them like meaningful connections. Phenomenological
analysis identified a central theme of feeling regarded. Five auxiliary themes were also identified
as essential to experiencing meaningful connection: interest, sincerity, attending, mutuality, and
safety. The third study leveraged a person-centered quantitative approach to empirically describe
different ways in which people may experience a sense of meaningful connection in social
interactions. A scale was created from themes of the first two studies of this dissertation that
includes nine interpersonal and psychological indicators of meaningful connection. Responses
from 341 adults were analyzed using latent profile analysis and five distinct profiles of
interactions experienced as meaningful connection were identified. Further analyses explored
differences between participants belonging to each profile in terms of how meaningfully
ii
connected they felt in their reported interactions, as well as their global levels of psychological
well-being and loneliness. Heterogeneity was found for meaningful connectedness and
psychological well-being, but not for loneliness. Overall, this dissertation suggests there are a
variety of ways of experiencing meaningful connection in social interactions, and contributes
descriptive nuance to the important literature around social connection.
Keywords: social interaction, meaningful connection, intimacy, social support, loneliness
iii
Acknowledgments
I would like to extend special thanks to my advisors and mentors across my graduate
studies: currently, Dr. Robert Nix and formerly, Dr. Linda Roberts. I am so grateful for the
dedicated time, thoughtful attention, and heartfelt care you invested in my development as a
scholar over these years. My deep appreciation goes out to my committee members, Dr. Vivian
Tamkin, Dr. Sigan Hartley, and Dr. Marie-Louise Mares for the valuable time and energy you
invested in my work throughout this dissertation project. Thank you to the people who make up
the department of Human Development and Family Studies and the School of Human Ecology at
University of Wisconsin-Madison for supporting my graduate studies in myriad ways. Special
thanks to my colleagues in HDFS whose own experience and wisdom helped me to approach and
complete this dissertation: Dr. Ye Rang Park, Christina Kim, and Dr. Allie Barringer. I am also
so appreciative of Dr. Jeffry Simpson and everyone involved with the Social Interaction Lab at
University of Minnesota for warmly including me in your work and investing in my growth as a
relationship scientist. Thank you to my wife, Caitlin, who has offered such care, encouragement,
and, yes, meaningful connection, throughout the course of this project. To my friends and family,
who helped me to pilot my projects and cheered on my progress: Thank you all so much. Finally,
this project is the sum of hundreds of acts of generosity from each participant who opened up
about their meaningful connection experiences for these studies. I am deeply honored to be
trusted with these stories from your lives.
iv
Table of Contents
Chapter 1: Introduction....................................................................................................................1
References............................................................................................................................7
Chapter 2: Experiences of Meaningful Connection in the First Weeks of the COVID-19
Pandemic………...…….................................................................................................................10
Introduction........................................................................................................................11
Method...............................................................................................................................18
Data Analysis Plan.............................................................................................................20
Results…............................................................................................................................22
Discussion..........................................................................................................................35
References..........................................................................................................................39
Chapter 3: Experiencing Meaningful Connection: A Phenomenological Investigation of
Nourishing Social Interactions.......................................................................................................44
Introduction........................................................................................................................45
Method...............................................................................................................................49
Data Analysis Plan.............................................................................................................53
Results…............................................................................................................................54
Discussion..........................................................................................................................74
References..........................................................................................................................82
Table 1...............................................................................................................................87
Figure 1..............................................................................................................................89
Appendix A........................................................................................................................90
v
Chapter 4: Varieties of Meaningful Connection Experience: A Latent Profile Analysis of
Nourishing Social Interactions.......................................................................................................91
Introduction........................................................................................................................92
Method...............................................................................................................................98
Data Analysis Plan...........................................................................................................102
Results…..........................................................................................................................103
Discussion........................................................................................................................109
References........................................................................................................................118
Table 1.............................................................................................................................124
Table 2.............................................................................................................................125
Table 3.............................................................................................................................126
Table 4.............................................................................................................................127
Table 5.............................................................................................................................128
Figure 1............................................................................................................................130
Figure 2............................................................................................................................131
Appendix B......................................................................................................................132
Chapter 5: Conclusion..................................................................................................................133
References........................................................................................................................138
1
Chapter 1:
Introduction
2
Introduction
Social connectedness is key to well-being and healthy development across the lifespan.
Close relationships (Reis et al., 2000) and a sense of belonging (Baumeister & Leary, 1995) are
fundamental human needs. People rely on close others, friends, and strangers to meet the
requirements for basic essentials, such as care and safety. People also depend on social
connections to attain a sense of meaning in life (King & Hicks, 2021). So fundamental is the
human need for connection with others that, like hunger or thirst, humans experience felt pangs
of loneliness in response to perceived social deprivation (Cacioppo et al., 2015). Outcomes
associated with chronic loneliness or social isolation evidence how foundational social
connection is to lifelong well-being. Lacking sufficient social connection has been shown to be a
risk factor for diverse mental and physical health struggles, including a notable increase in
mortality risk (Holt-Lunstad, 2017). The United States population currently faces particular
struggles with social connection, to the extent that the surgeon general, Vivek Murthy (2020),
describes an “epidemic” of loneliness as a pressing public health issue.
The etiology of issues around social connection is complex, arising from distal factors
such as how culture and society are constructed as well as individual factors such as personality,
social skills, and cognition (Jeste et al., 2020). Social connection may be beneficially examined
at the level of people’s experiences of particular social interactions. People form and maintain
the relationships that nourish their lives through particular experiences of social interaction (Reis
et al., 2000). Scientific efforts are currently uncovering much about the nature of social
connection and disconnection, yet there is still much that is unknown about what kinds of
interactions fulfill people’s social needs (Tomova, 2020). A concrete conceptualization of the
kinds of social interactions experienced as meaningful is one of the underdeveloped areas in this
3
literature (Litt et al., 2020). It is likely that well-researched kinds of social interactions are
elemental to such experiences. For example, perceived partner responsiveness (Reis & Clark,
2013), emotional intimacy (Reis & Shaver, 1988), and social support (Taylor, 2011) all likely
point to kinds of interaction processes through which people cultivate a sense of connection with
one another. Yet both applied and research efforts may benefit from more clarity around which
diverse interpersonal and intrapersonal processes might contribute to a sense of connection in
particular interactions.
The terminology for describing nourishing social interactions is also still vague. Different
conceptualizations from diverse fields aim to conceptualize satisfying experiences of connection.
Yet these conceptualizations tend to reflect the goals of particular disciplines. Examples include
high-quality connection in managing workplace social environments (Stephens et al., 2012),
patient-provider connectedness in nursing (Phillips-Salimi et al., 2011), or positivity resonance in
positive psychology (Fredrickson, 2013). Well-cited empirical studies often define loneliness as
a state of lacking meaningful social connections or relationships (e.g., Masi et al., 2011;
Hawkley et al., 2003), and this terminology may be useful for defining nourishing social
interactions in general across disciplines. The term meaningful connection has potential benefits
for applied work as it is a term used in popular discourse (e.g., Brown, 2012). A research based
understanding of social experiences that people label as meaningful connection could therefore
aid translation efforts from academic literature to popular knowledge. The term, meaningful
connection, also provides a link to the well-developed literature of personal meaningfulness
(King & Hicks, 2021), an aspect of human coping and thriving of which social connections are
foundational.
4
This dissertation employs a mixed-methods approach to explore meaningful connection
in interpersonal experiences. Across three studies, I seek to understand what kinds of social
interactions people perceive as meaningful connections, how people experience such
interactions, and how different ways of engaging in and experiencing meaningful connection are
related to important aspects of well-being. The goal of this dissertation is to contribute to both
basic science research and prevention efforts. In seeking to better understand which interpersonal
and psychological experiences that people identify as constituent to meaningful connection, this
dissertation has the potential to fill important gaps in the literature. It may offer a more granular
and concrete articulation of the various dimensions of meaningful connection experiences in
general. This articulation may support a more organized understanding of possible pathways to
meaningful connection in social interactions that can inform research across disciplines.
Research Design
This dissertation includes three studies, following an exploratory mixed-methods design
(Creswell & Plano Clark, 2017). The first two studies will utilize qualitative methods to explore
people’s accounts of meaningful connection experiences. The third study will quantify these
findings to employ a person-centered statistical analysis as a means of empirically describing
various kinds of meaningful connection experiences.
The first study of this dissertation will qualitatively explore people’s experiences of
meaningful connection in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic. Two-hundred-and-sixty
stories of such interactions from 88 participants will be analyzed using thematic analysis.
Themes will be identified around the kinds of interactions people experienced as meaningful
connection when they are most salient, during a period of collective crisis. Themes will also be
identified regarding how people perceived the COVID-19 pandemic as affecting how meaningful
5
connections were motivated, enacted, and experienced. The aim of this study is to inform the
dissertation’s other two studies by identifying salient dimensions of meaningful connection
experiences. Given the relevance of social connection to coping in collective crises (Hobfoll, et
al., 2007), this study also aims to inform future research and practice around promoting
meaningful connection in future emergencies.
The second study in this dissertation will explore how people experience interactions
perceived as meaningful connection. Given that one’s sense of being meaningfully connected
should be contingent on how one perceives an experience of social interaction (Cacioppo et al.,
2015), it is important to explore individuals’ nuanced personal perceptions around meaningful
connections to identify common themes of lived-experience. Thirty interviews will be analyzed
from a phenomenological perspective, an approach focused on identifying themes relevant to
lived-experiences and perceptions. This study will allow for more richly detailed descriptions of
meaningful connection experiences to emerge than in Study 1. It will also offer the opportunity
to explore such experiences in a more typical context than the crisis context of the first weeks of
the COVID-19 pandemic.
The third study of this dissertation will be informed by the findings of the first two
studies. Study 3 seeks to empirically describe different ways that meaningful connection
interactions may be experienced. This study will also examine the relations between these
identified types of meaningful connection experience and important aspects of well-being.
Survey items will be developed based on the themes identified in Studies 1 and 2. Latent profile
analysis will identity particular heterogeneous groups of individuals related to how participants
report engaging in and experiencing meaningful connections. Differences between people in
each of these groups will be examined in terms of their reports of feeling meaningfully
6
connected, as well as their reports of psychological well-being and loneliness. Ultimately, Study
3 will provide an empirical description of the kinds of interpersonal and intrapersonal
experiences people may be having when they describe an interaction as a meaningful connection.
This descriptive analysis may inform research as to which kinds of social interactions may be
beneficial to study as promoting people’s sense of connectedness in general. This analysis may
also inform applied efforts by offering nuance as to the kinds of social experiences that may be
targeted in promoting meaningful connection.
In total, the three studies in this dissertation offer an exploration of meaningful
connection experiences from three perspectives. Each study involves a different sample, method,
and data analytic approach which should facilitate a more richly detailed exploratory description
of meaningful connections than one perspective could provide. These three studies also are
iteratively linked such that the two qualitative studies inform the third quantitative analysis. It is
my hope that the studies described in the following pages contribute to greater understanding and
effective promotion of this essential experience of human life.
7
References
Baumeister, R. F., & Leary, M. R. (1995). The need to belong: desire for interpersonal
attachments as a fundamental human motivation. Psychological Bulletin, 117, 497–529.
Brown, B. (2012). Daring greatly: How the courage to be vulnerable transforms the way we live,
love, parent, and lead. New York, NY: Gotham Books.
Cacioppo, S., Grippo, A. J., London, S., Goossens, L., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2015). Loneliness:
clinical import and interventions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(3), 238–249.
Creswell, J. W., & Plano Clark, V. L. (2017). Designing and conducting mixed methods research
(3rd ed.). Los Angeles, CA: SAGE Publications
Fredrickson, B. L. (2013). Positive emotions broaden and build. In P. Devine & A. Plant
(Eds.), Advances in Experimental Social Psychology (Vol. 47, pp. 1–54). San Diego, CA:
Academic Press.
Hawkly, L. C., Burleson, M. H., Berntson, G. G., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2003). Loneliness in
everyday life: cardiovascular activity, psychosocial context, and health behaviors. Journal
of Personality and Social Psychology, 85(1), 105–120.
Hobfoll, S. E., Watson, P., Bell, C. C., Bryant, R. A., Melissa, J., Friedman, M. J., … Ursano, R.
J. (2007). Five essential elements of immediate and mid–term mass trauma intervention:
empirical evidence. Psychiatry, 70(4), 283–315.
Holt-Lunstad, J. (2017). The potential public health relevance of social isolation and loneliness :
prevalence, epidemiology, and risk factors. Public Policy & Aging Report, 27(4), 127–130.
Jeste, D. V, Diego, S., Cacioppo, S. (2021). Battling the modern behavioral epidemic of
loneliness: suggestions for research and interventions. JAMA Psychiatry, 77(6), 2020.
8
King, L. A., & Hicks, J. A. (2021). The Science of Meaning in Life. Annual Review of
Psychology, 72, 561–584.
Litt, E., Zhao, S., Kraut, R., & Burke, M. (2020). What are meaningful social interactions in
today’s media landscape? A cross-cultural survey. Social Media + Society, 6(3), 1–17.
Masi, C. M., Chen, H., Hawkley, L. C., & Cacioppo, J. T. (2011). A meta-analysis of
interventions to reduce loneliness. Personality and Social Psychology Review, 15(3), 219-
266.
Murthy, V., (2020). Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely
World. New York: HarperCollins.
Phillips-Salimi, C. R., Haase, J. E., & Kooken, W. C. (2011). Connectedness in the context of
patient-provider relationships: a concept analysis. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 68(1),
230–245.
Reis, H. T., & Clark, M. S. (2013). Responsiveness. In J. A. Simpson and L. Campbell (Eds.),
Oxford Handbook of Close Relationships. (pp. 400–423). New York, NY: Oxford
University Press.
Reis, H. T., & Shaver, P. (1988). Intimacy as an interpersonal process. In S. Duck (Ed.),
Handbook of Personal Relationships (pp. 367- 389). Chichester, England: Wiley.
Reis, H. T., Collins, W. A., & Berscheid, E. (2000). the relationship context of human behavior
and development. Psychological Bulletin, 126(6), 844–872.
Stephens, J. P., Heaphy, E., & Dutton, J. E. (2012). High-quality connections. In K. S. Cameron
& G. M. Spreitzer (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of positive organizational scholarship (pp.
385–399). Oxford University Press.
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Taylor, S. E. (2011). Social support: A review. In M. S. Friedman (Ed.), The Handbook Of
Health Psychology (pp. 189-214). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
Tomova, L., Wang, K. L., Thompson, T., Matthews, G. A., Takahashi, A., Tye, K. M., & Saxe,
R. (2020). Acute social isolation evokes midbrain craving responses similar to hunger.
Nature Neuroscience, 23, 1597–1605.
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Chapter 2:
Experiences of Meaningful Connection in the First Weeks of the COVID-19 Pandemic
Note
This is an Accepted Manuscript of an article published by SAGE Publications in Journal of
Social and Personal Relationships on 6 September 2021, available online:
Smallen, D. (2021). Experiences of meaningful connection in the first weeks of the COVID-19
pandemic. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 38(10), 2886–2905.
https://doi.org/10.1177/02654075211040221
11
Introduction
The weeks following the declaration of COVID-19 as a pandemic were marked by fear
and uncertainty in the United States (Asmundson & Taylor, 2020) and brought sudden shifts in
the organization of social life as people maintained social distance, some spending more time
with others at home and some becoming more isolated. These disruptions to regular patterns of
social behavior raised concerns about how the COVID-19 pandemic might impact individuals’
access to sufficient social connection and support (Saltzman, et al., 2020) and affect the quality
of their existing relationships (Pietromonaco & Overall, 2020). Such concerns are significant
given the importance of relationships and social connections for general psychological well-
being (Ryff, 2014a) and physical health (Pietromonaco & Collins, 2017), as well as for coping
during and after collective crises (Hobfoll et al., 2007).
The subjective quality of relatedness to others so essential to bolstering well-being and
quelling loneliness is referred to by various terms. Yet both scientific literature (e.g., Masi et al.,
2011; Hawkley et al., 2003) and popular press and conversation (e.g., Parker, 2020), make
references to this phenomenon as meaningful connection. The term meaningful connection
therefore provides a useful through-line from basic research to clinical efforts and popular
understanding, and captures the important association between social connection and another
factor related to coping and flourishing: meaning (Park, 2010). The onset of the COVID-19
pandemic in the United States, a time of collective fear, uncertainty and adjustment, provided a
window into exploring the interpersonal experiences that facilitate an individual’s sense of being
meaningfully connected to another person in the midst of crisis. Research points to particular
interpersonal processes that may bolster people’s sense of being meaningfully connected to
others in emergency contexts, such as social support or emotional intimacy (Zaki, 2020), yet
12
further research may help identify and richly describe the particular shared qualities of these
interactions. This qualitative study sought to explore what kinds of social interactions were
experienced by individuals as meaningful connections in the first weeks of the COVID-19
pandemic, and how people perceived the pandemic as affecting the way they experienced and
engaged in such interactions.
The Necessity of Social Connection
Diverse well-substantiated lines of research link a sense of connectedness to others with
well-being. Self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000) holds that relatedness is a basic
psychological need, along with autonomy and competence, that is integral to people’s
adjustment, development, and flourishing. Carol Ryff’s (2014a) model of psychological well-
being holds positive relations, characterized by warmth, openness, empathy, affection, and trust,
as an essential dimension of well-being. One’s sense of connection to others, and their
orientation toward close relationships, does not arise in a vacuum, but is built upon interpersonal
experiences throughout child and adult development (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003). People are
motivated to feel meaningfully connected to others, and ongoing connections must be initiated
and maintained through interpersonal processes comprised of nuanced patterns of behavior,
cognition, and affect (Reis et al., 2000; Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Research to specifically
understand the kinds of interactions experienced as meaningful connections is still breaking
ground. A recent study (Litt et al., 2020) examined a large sample’s reports of meaningful
interaction experiences (of which meaningful connection experiences would likely be
constituent), and found such interactions to have a perceived life-enhancing emotional, tangible,
or informational impact. Further research may explore the nuances of the psychological and
interpersonal processes underpinning these positive impacts, the nature of meaningful
13
interactions where people specifically feel connected to others, and how such interactions vary
across contexts.
In the context of collective emergencies, social connectedness is an asset for coping and
resilience against stress and trauma (Hobfoll et al., 2007; Masten & Obradovic, 2008). The onset
of the COVID-19 pandemic was not only a collective emergency but added the potential risks of
social isolation and loneliness to people’s well-being. Loneliness is the subjective experience of
lacking sufficient social connection (Cacioppo et al., 2015), what some researchers have termed
meaningful social connections or relationships (Masi et al., 2011; Hawkley et al., 2003). Even if
not lonely or isolated, people may risk deprivation in important aspects of social connection,
such as affection (Floyd & Hesse, 2017). Interpersonal experiences that bolstered the feeling of
being meaningfully connected were of unique importance to people’s well-being in communities
impacted by COVID-19 given the increased risk of loneliness resulting from social isolation and
shifts in patterns of social behavior at that time (Killgore et al. 2020). Yet despite disruptions and
strains on people’s relationships in the chaotic first weeks of the pandemic, there were also hints
that some people were finding themselves more meaningfully connected to others (Slatcher,
2020).
The Necessity of Meaning
Recent research and theory identifies the dimensions of the experience of meaning in life
as a sense of purpose, coherence of one’s sense of the world, and a sense that one matters (King
& Hicks, 2021). Many researchers focus primarily on coherence, yet one recent longitudinal
study found that a sense of mattering, but not coherence or purpose, temporally preceded reports
of a sense of meaning in life (Costin & Vignoles, 2020). Meaning in life is a sustaining factor in
personal well-being (King & Hicks, 2021), as we benefit from experiencing the world as making
14
coherent sense, cultivating goals we can purposefully move toward, and feeling as if our
existence holds significance. Yet chaotic and uncertain collective experiences, like the onset of
the COVID-19 pandemic, may disrupt one’s sense of meaning, and such violations of meaning
may cause distress (Park, 2010). Cultivating meaning is therefore an important resilience factor
in the face of crisis and adversity (Ryff, 2014b).
The meaning maintenance model (Heine et al., 2006) suggests how social connections
may function to reinforce a person’s sense of self in situations that threaten their meaning
framework. A person’s meaning framework refers to the web of connections that human minds
construct to organize the elements, internal (e.g., personal beliefs and perceptions) and external
(e.g., social norms, attributes of other people), that make up one’s world. Individual experience is
filtered through these personal structures of meaning, offering people an ongoing overarching
sense of stability in life, despite normative flux across days and years. People are motivated to
maintain the framework of meaning that gives structure and direction to their lives. When the
coherence of one’s meaning framework is threatened, a person tends to seek to affirm the
comprehensibility of meaning in their life by focusing on domains which can be made coherent.
In the uncertainty of the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, when many areas of life were thrown
into confusion, social relationships may indeed have been a domain in which people could
maintain coherent meaning, or construct new meaning that helped establish a sense of coherence.
Interacting with others allows a person to consider different perspectives and to have their own
sense of the world validated (Park, 2010).
Increased reminders of human mortality ushered in by a pandemic are also especially
salient threats to the coherence of one’s meaning framework. Research following terror
management theory suggests that people ease mortality-related anxiety by conforming to a
15
cultural worldview and seeking to enhance their self-esteem by living up to the expectations
presented by this worldview (Pyszczynski et al.,1999). Social relationships can buffer existential
anxiety through the sharing of worldviews and promotion of self-esteem that comes with others’
validation (Plusnin et al., 2018).
Interpersonal Processes in Collective Crises
Burgeoning research shows that collective crises can foster prosocial behavior, what
Jamil Zaki (2020) terms catastrophe compassion. Underpinning catastrophe compassion is
empathy, the emotional and psychological process characterized by the cognitive act of inferring
the internal state of another person or the emotional experience of taking on another’s affect
(Zaki, 2014), two related yet distinct processes which may or may not occur simultaneously.
These imaginings and emotional echoes are not necessarily true to another person’s experience,
and therefore are subject to the empathizing person’s particular reality. Experiences of empathy
can, but do not always, arise with a sense of empathic concern, a motivation to help others in the
context of empathizing. Catastrophe compassion also rests on a heightened sense of shared
identity among those who together face an emergency, as all people impacted by a crisis are
swept up into a shared experience which binds them, often even into cooperative group behavior
(Drury, 2018).
Interpersonal processes that may be experienced as meaningful connections in an
emergency context are likely varied. In popular culture, “deep” emotionally intimate interactions
are often described as meaningful connections. These are interactions that involve self-disclosure
and responsiveness such that, following personal and emotional self-disclosures, individuals feel
understood, validated, and cared for by their interaction partner’s response (Reis & Shaver,
1988). Yet in emergency contexts, emotional intimacy might not be the most salient kind of
16
interpersonal process for fostering meaningful connection, or may be one kind among many.
Although sustaining intimate bonds in close relationships is vital to resilience (Masten &
Obradovic, 2008), social support is shown to be uniquely valuable in times of emergency
(Hobfoll et al., 2007). Instrumental or informational support may be especially important to
meeting people’s pressing survival needs, and less readily available than emotional support
(Kaniasty & Norris, 2009). Social support may be meaningful to the provider of support too. The
provision of social support is shown to enhance feelings of connection and provide increases in
self-esteem and reductions in stress for the giver of help, so long as they act out of their own
volition and perceive their support as effective (Inagaki & Orehek, 2017).
Another factor relevant to the kinds of social interactions experienced as meaningful
connections is familiarity of the interaction partners. People have evolved capacities for social
engagement based on how familiar they are with another person, which may be articulated in a
social-ecological model with three layers: collective, relational, and intimate (Cacioppo et al.,
2015). At the outermost ring of this ecology is the collective level, an acquaintance group of
recognizable but not well-known people. The middle ecological rung consists of ongoing
relationships, the relational level, of which people can expect regular interaction and an
exchange of social support. People generally have a central circle of emotionally intimate bonds,
the intimate ecological level. Different kinds of interactions are considered appropriate and
expected at each level of one’s social ecology, so meaningful connections may consist of
different kinds of experiences depending on how well individuals know one another.
Meaningful connections are psychologically nourishing experiences, and may therefore
be accompanied by positive feelings. Indeed, positive emotional experiences are shown to
predict greater meaning in life (King & Hicks, 2021). Interpersonal experiences of connection
17
may not only be accompanied by rich boosts of joy and love, but even amplify these feelings
(Frederickson, 2013). Meaningful experiences may too be fraught with difficult emotions or even
suffering (Ryff, 2014a). Yet negative emotions may still be accompanied by an affective
experience of appreciation – a positive meta-emotion arising from the meaningfulness of an
emotionally challenging event (Oliver & Bartsch, 2011). Overall, mixed-emotions may be
expected in some meaningful connection experiences.
The Present Study
Interactions experienced as meaningful connections are of likely value to human coping
and flourishing, and an asset to resilience in collective crises. In collective emergencies, people
benefit from connectedness in cooperating on practical issues of safety and survival, and rely on
their social connections to emotionally regulate and make meaning of the event, buffering
against ongoing psychological distress (Hobfoll et al., 2007). Understanding the kinds of social
experiences that people experience as meaningfully connecting in a particular crisis event, and
how people perceive the crisis as impacting their social experience, may usefully inform ongoing
research and future interventions aiming to mitigate negative social and psychological impacts of
emergency situations. Whereas certain kinds of interpersonal events may generally be expected
to be experienced as meaningful connection experiences, there may be a variety of interpersonal
processes that are perceived as such, contingent on the context of the interaction and the
relationships among those involved. This descriptive study set out to explore the following
questions: “What kinds of interactions did people experience as meaningful connections with
others across the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Unites States?” and “In what
ways did people perceive the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as affecting how meaningful
connections were motivated, enacted, and experienced?”
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Method
This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of University of Wisconsin-
Madison (Protocol number: 2020-0435).
Participants
Data were collected from Amazon MTurk master workers and students in psychology
courses at an urban midwestern state university. Participants were required to be over the age of
18, living within the United States, and English language speakers, and they were required to
pass a CAPTCHA intended to filter out bots or server farms.
The sample included 88 participants: 52% women, 47% men, and 1% identifying as non-
binary. Participants ranged from 19-72 years in age, the mean age being 40, with a standard
deviation of 13.2, and the median age being 38. Racial and ethnic background was reported as
follows (with participants selecting one or more option): 83% White, 9% Asian American or
Pacific Islander, 5% Black or African American, 6% Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish Origin.
Annual household income ranged from $10,000-$150,000 with the mode being in the range of
$30,000-$40,000. Regionally the sample was 47% suburban, 34% urban, and 19% rural.
Procedure
Participants completed an online survey inquiring about experiences of meaningful
connection since the outbreak of the coronavirus in their area. This data collection strategy was
chosen to ensure participant and researcher safety and to gather data expediently enough that
responses would reflect the onset period of the COVID-19 pandemic. Data were gathered from
three to seven weeks following the World Health Organization declaration of a pandemic on
March 11, 2020.
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Measures
Descriptions of meaningful connections were collected via a set of open-ended questions
regarding specific experiences of meaningful connection following the onset of the COVID-19
pandemic in the United States. Participants completed this set of questions in response to three
different interpersonal experiences: with persons at the collective, relational, and intimate level
of familiarity. Participants were asked to think of a person, describe their relationship to this
person and to, “Tell us the story of the meaningful moment of connection you had with this
[stranger; person you know somewhat well; person you know very well].” Participants then were
asked to describe the context of their interaction by selecting, a response to the question, “How
did this interaction occur?” from a checkbox list of responses, such as “In-Person” and “Phone
Call.” Participants then responded to two open-ended follow-up questions: “Why was this
interaction meaningful to you?” and, “How did this meaningful connection impact you
afterwards?”
Emotional experience was explored via a 10-item checklist for participants to select what
emotions they experienced in each meaningful connection (e.g., “Happiness” or “Anger”), with
an additional “No Emotion” item and an “Other Emotion(s)” item which allowed participants to
write in emotional description to a blank text box. Participants could select multiple emotions.
Personal beliefs about meaningful connections in general, were collected after
participants completed all three descriptions of meaningful connections. Participants responded
to one open-ended question: “After describing your three meaningful connections above, do you
have additional ideas about what makes a moment of connection with another person
meaningful, in general?”
20
Experiences of meaningful connection in the pandemic context was explored by asking
participants at the end of the survey how they think their experiences were different or similar to
connections before the coronavirus outbreak, via an open-ended question: “Are the experiences
you shared with us the same or different than meaningful connections you had before the
coronavirus outbreak? Please explain.”
Analysis
A total of 92 participant responses were gathered. After removing responses from four
participants who clearly did not understand the research questions, stated that their interactions
were not actually perceived as meaningful connections, or who provided insufficient, incoherent,
or questionable responses, 88 surveys remained for analysis. Partial responses were retained
from three of these remaining participants, as one or two descriptions of their particular
meaningful interactions were deemed unanalyzable for the above reasons. On average
participants wrote 537 cumulative words in their survey responses, and the total data analyzed
from all participants amounted to 47,304 words. This included 260 descriptions of particular
meaningful connection interactions. Descriptions of particular meaningful connection
interactions (each participant wrote about three particular interactions) ranged from 16 to 423
words each, with an average response of 139 words.
Thematic analysis was chosen as the analytic method for this study (Braun & Clarke,
2006). Beginning with a data-driven inductive orientation toward analysis, themes were initially
identified that represented patterns relevant to the kinds of interactions that participants described
as meaningful connections during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United
States, and how they perceived the pandemic affected such connections. Themes were drawn
from the explicit descriptions in participant responses, with minimal interpretation of latent
21
meanings underlying respondents’ descriptions of meaningful connection. A more interpretive
analytic approach was then used to interpret explicit themes and to make sense of latent
connections between themes in light of existing theory.
Coding was conducted over six phases. Careful notes, kept concurrent with analysis,
documented the coding process and the evolution of themes as they were refined across these
phases. The first phase involved printing a hard copy of participant responses and reading the
data carefully to engage in familiarization (Phase 1), followed by open-coding (Phase 2) with
pen and paper, underlining key phrases that spoke to the kinds of experiences of social
connection that were meaningful to participants, and documenting codes and notes in the
margins. Codes were both interpretative and descriptive (Braun & Clarke, 2012), meaning that
some codes were generated from the author’s own interpretation based on their conceptual and
theoretical framework, and some codes represented the particular language offered by
participants. Potential themes were written down as patterns were identified across the data
during and following this initial phase of coding (Phase 3), and a second round of coding used
NVivo software to identify and collate data relevant to each potential theme. Phase 4 included a
thorough review of potential themes, collapsing some themes together into single themes and
setting aside themes that appeared less germane to the research questions. Hand-drawn thematic
maps provided a visual aid and documentation for this process. Excerpts of data identified as
relevant to each key theme were then reviewed to check coherence and consistency of the
underlying data in relationship to each thematic concept. Phase 5 included giving themes final
names, and writing coherent definitions which served as the foundation for writing this
manuscript (Phase 6).
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Results
Themes identified in response to both research questions are described below. To provide
context, themes identified as relevant to motivation, enactment, and experience of meaningful
connections in the COVID-19 pandemic are presented first, followed by themes relating to the
kinds of interactions experienced as meaningful connections. Participants’ identifying numbers
are noted in brackets.
Perceived Impact of the COVID-19 Context on Meaningful Connections
Three themes were identified as relating to participants’ perceptions of how the COVID-
19 pandemic context affected motivation, enactment, and experiences of meaningful connection:
enhanced meaning, common struggle, and prosocial motivation.
Enhanced Meaning
Many participants reported a greater sense of significance in their social connection, for
example: “In these uncertain times you feel much more special and significant than usual” [25],
and “Little encounters seem all the more valuable and special” [13]. Both the social deprivation
caused by the pandemic and the potential risks of the virus outbreak were stated as reasons why
connections felt more significant. The following quote captures this theme:
The experiences I shared here are similar to the connections I had before the outbreak,
but they are more meaningful than they would have been prior to the outbreak because I
am able to appreciate them more now. I have more of a craving for meaningful
experiences now because I realize how important they were before. Before the outbreak I
didn't even think about things like this and I took them for granted a little bit, but now I
savor them and realize how needed they are for happiness in life [31].
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Such enhanced meaningfulness is evident in interactions that in non-emergency contexts are
normed such that they are often performed in a rote fashion, such as engaging with store
employees. For example, one participant describes an unexpected meaningful impact of thanking
a Costco employee – perceived as “agitated” – whom she had asked for assistance:
My friend and I made sure to thank her and that we realize they are very busy, not to
worry, and we appreciate everything she and everyone else were doing. As we were
walking away, it looked like her eyes were filling with tears. I could not tell you exactly
why that was but I feel long before the term “essential workers” came into play, the stress
of the pandemic was already here within them…. It seemed to give her validation at a
time when it was needed most [82].
This participant notes the “stress of the pandemic” context as a factor in increasing the
significance of this interaction. Another participant went even further to venture that, “The
possibility of dying or others’ dying make people more grateful for the people in their life and
helps strengthen connections” [24], an assertion resonating with the anxiety buffering potential
of relationships in terror management.
Common Struggle
Having the pandemic as a shared topic to ignite conversation, or a shared struggle to
work through, gave many participants common ground on which to connect, and offered them an
opportunity to break cultural or familial norms to do so (e.g., conversing with strangers at the
grocery store, or having an emotionally intimate discussion with a typically withdrawn family
member). This participant explains why an interaction with a stranger was meaningful due to
their common struggle: “Just connecting with someone I did not know on a subject high on
everyone list [these] days, it is like we are all connected in a strange way by a common foe so to
24
speak” [65]. Another respondent echoes this when reflecting in general on meaningful
connections in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic: “I feel that the experiences I have
now are more mutually shared with everyone that I interact with. We are all in this together and
we are all trying to struggle through it” [28]. This theme resonates with research showing
collective crises as promoting shared identity (Drury, 2018).
Prosocial Motivation
Participants reported choosing to engage with and help both familiar people and strangers
in interactions experienced as meaningful connections. Some of these engagements involved a
higher level of “risk,” “sacrifice,” or investment for participants than they would likely take on in
a typical context given the closeness of a relationship. Many stories involved acts of instrumental
support to strangers, especially in helping them to secure scarce protective equipment. One
participant observed that, in the context of the pandemic, people were “… showing more
compassion and consideration for each other. I think this has helped to create new relationships
and strengthen existing ones” [39]. Another participant reported their perceived prosocial shift
more bluntly: “I would not have cared enough to make these connections before the virus” [16].
Such compassion or care resonates with catastrophe compassion (Zaki, 2020) observed in other
collective emergencies. Participants generally described their prosociality as intrinsically
motivated or “inspired,” and gratifying in itself: to be there for others felt like an “… opportunity
to do something good” [25]. As one participant noted, “It makes my heart happy to know that I'm
helping my family and loved ones in this uncertain time” [41].
Themes Central to Experiences of Meaningful Connection
Four themes were identified across diverse accounts that bind together experiences of
meaningful connection. Interactions experienced as meaningful connections involved openness
25
to the other, affirmation of the self, emotional uplift, and meeting of basic needs. These themes
represent aspects of experience that were relevant across a diverse set of interpersonal processes
that participants reported as meaningful connections.
Openness to The Other
Participants’ accounts included diverse patterns of interaction that were experienced as
meaningful connections, yet a common thread of openness to the other ran across the sample.
Participants reported openness to engaging with others, but especially salient was their
perception of others as open to them. Openness was displayed via simple facial or gestural
expressions, such as smiling or waving, acknowledgment of another’s presence or contributions
in a social space, initiations of conversation, expressions of affection, intimate self-disclosure,
and overtures of social support. Participants also described others as openly receptive to them,
accepting engagement in conversation or invitations to spend quality time together, perceiving
them as receptive to their opinions or advice, personal self-disclosures, attempts at humor, or
provisions of support. Displays of openness occurred across diverse forms of communication and
media. Participants reported engaging in-person through verbal or gestural communication, via
phone calls or video chat, via digital media such as text messages and interactive use of
messaging, chat, and comments on social media platforms, via written communication, and
through symbolic means, such as a participant who described a meaningful connection when
witnessing a child noticing a stuffed animal she had placed in her window for children to see
from the street [17].
In accounts involving social support exchanges, mutual openness to the other was
apparent in the descriptions of active attempts to help, as well as evidence that assistance was
openly received, for example through verbal expressions of appreciation or even through
26
witnessing “tears in [the] eyes” of those they had helped. Emotional intimacy, involving self-
disclosures and perceived responsiveness (Reis & Shaver, 1988), was prevalent in responses,
especially with others who were known well. This participant’s account of an interaction with his
mother is an example:
We usually don't talk much and keep things private but since the coronavirus I've noticed
that her and other family members are being more warm and opening up to each other…I
felt warm and accepted by my mom. We talked in the car for about an hour and talked on
the phone to other family members. The interaction was more connected and meaningful
than our past interactions…. It was meaningful because there was less tension and I felt
more loved and accepted by my mom. I was able to open up and be more honest with her
and instead of fear or shaming, she was accepting and helped me work through some of
my problems [24].
This participant elaborated on how emotional intimacy creates an opening for meaningful
connection, writing, “…it breaks through the surface level talking and both people share
something about themselves that they normally wouldn’t. This opens up the doors of
communication and allows others to strengthen their bonds” [24].
Perceived openness took less obvious forms as well. Evidence of another person’s
openness was salient to many participants’ reports of often brief interactions with strangers in
public settings. For example, this participant describes an escalating set of exchanges beginning
with non-verbal expressions that indicate one another’s openness to connect and moving to a
brief verbal exchange:
I had an encounter with an older gentleman when I was at Target in the cleaning supplies
aisle. We were both practicing good social distancing, but were looking at the shelves
27
where the Clorox disinfecting wipes were all sold out. He looked at me and I looked at
him, he smiled and in a laughing tone said, "Aww darn, there isn't even anything here we
can fight over is there!?" I chuckled and replied, "No, no unfortunately there is not." This
simple exchange with a stranger seemed to lighten my mood a bit [85].
Beyond facial expression and the initiation of a verbal exchange, humor is a means of openness
in this interaction, and was commonly featured in meaningful connections described by other
participants. This is consistent with other research showing humor as promoting intimacy and
solidarity (Roth et al., 2011).
Some participants also described meaningful connections in which others were open to
experiencing activities important to the participant:
We decided to do a home date night…we laid around watching the Lord of the Rings
trilogy for the entire night. She knows that this is one of my favorite movie sets and made
it a point to ask me a lot about the lore and the characters and their history…. I love this
series and it was a nice experience to share when all else in the world is pretty crazy….
Made me appreciate my girlfriend even more than I already do [77].
The participant clearly finds this to be a bonding experience with someone he cares for deeply.
Simply spending quality time with another person is making oneself open to connection. Yet this
person’s perception of their partner as intentionally making “a point” to engage with something
that was so special to him stands out as a key example of openness and a key ingredient to the
meaningfulness of their connection.
Affirmation of The Self
The second theme identified around experiences of meaningful connection consisted of
the participant’s self being affirmed. This occurred via interactions that upheld or bolstered the
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sense that a person is “good” or that they “matter” to others, as well as interactions that validated
the coherence of one’s personal meaning framework, or even updated that framework in an
appreciated way.
Participants reported experiencing a sense that they matter when their interaction partners
expressed verbally or through actions that they valued the participant, or in experiences in which
participants were able to recognize their own positive impact on other people. Experiences of
being affirmed in mattering were diverse, from being greeted and remembered by acquaintances,
to experiencing others as interested in spending quality time or engaging in special activities, to
having others engage on an emotionally intimate level. These interactions demonstrated to
participants that they are worthy of time, energy, attention, and care.
Exchanges of social support were especially salient in affirming the self. Participants felt
valuable when they perceived that they had positively affected others by providing instrumental
or emotional support. Yet, receiving support was also a means for participants to perceive that
they mattered enough for those others to sacrifice in small or large ways to help them. For
example, this participant describes why her son’s going shopping for her at the onset of the
coronavirus outbreak was meaningful: “It was meaningful because it made me realize that my
son still cares about me even though he's busy with his own life and starting out in the world. I
was feeling like I didn't matter anymore” [22]. Another participant who works at a grocery store
describes how being appreciated for helping a customer with a disability reach an item allowed
her to feel valued for her ability to positively impact others’ lives:
She let me know I've helped her more than I know already, and she is so appreciative of
the work I was doing in spite of the pandemic....It really stuck with me and I felt really
good to be able to help and make someone's day like that. Especially as I am constantly
29
anxious and unsure from day-to-day myself. It made me feel important and useful, and
like I actually made a difference in someone's life…. It made me feel more calm for the
rest of the day. I've been thinking about the experience off and on after. It helps to
remember it when I am feeling useless or the work I do is all for nothing [26].
Social interactions that affirm the coherence of one’s meaning system also provided
affirmation of the self. Such interactions uphold or enhance the stability and order of the self,
such that one’s experience of one’s inner and outer world “makes sense” (Heintzelmen & King,
2014). Affirmations of one’s self through enhanced coherence occurred through experiencing the
simple presence of a person who is meaningful to the participant’s life narrative, such as a
beloved relative or old friend, or through another person’s sharing in an activity that is important
to the participant’s identity. One way that participants articulated such affirmation is through
describing meaningful connections as facilitating a sense of “normalcy.” For example, one
participant described relief in experiencing this sense of normalcy while spending time talking
with neighbors around an outdoor campfire, a typical social activity for her before the pandemic.
For her it was, “…something normal at a time when nothing is normal, when we [feel] like we
are under house arrest in a police state…. It took me out of this situation, finally, and much
needed” [56].
Validation of one’s worldview, either through others’ empathizing or expressing
similarity or agreement seemed to affirm both a person’s meaning framework and their sense of
being of value. This occurred when interaction partners actively “validated” participants’
psychological experiences or beliefs, or when participants perceived “similar” aspects “in
common” between themselves and another person. For example, in reflecting on a conversation
30
with an acquaintance in which they both acknowledged that they were unpartnered yet
appreciated being single, this participant wrote: “It was meaningful because finally someone like
me. Pretty much in my age range and same situation…. She was really nice and we
connected….it was nice knowing that she and I had the same situation and we are making the
best out of it” [22]. It seems that encountering another person in her situation helped this
participant to affirm the acceptability of her own experience, that it can make sense for a person
to be okay with being unpartnered.
Some accounts of affirmation of self in meaningful connections described participants’
being confirmed in their beliefs via others’ receptivity to or agreement with their worldview. For
example, this participant bonded over shared judgment of other peoples’ behavior while
shopping at the grocery store:
I was looking around for some food and I was describing how, wow, people went out and
hoarded everything and I just said out loud that some people are idiots. Me and the grocer
agreed and said we always have food and toilet paper. We agreed this will be over soon
and probably nothing will be learned from this. We have to keep moving forward….
[This was meaningful because] there was rational people out there still that follows the
rules. It made the day pretty positive because in this awkward time, everyone is
experiencing the same thing [50].
This interaction highlights that meaningfully connecting over agreed-upon beliefs may affirm
one’s sense that their self is good or right. It also displays an important nuance to affirmation of
the self: such affirmation may come at the expense of forming more generally prosocial attitudes
and instead rest upon shared negative attitude toward specific people or groups. A dangerous
case of such self-affirming meaningful connections is presented by a participant who self-
31
identified as a member of the violent far-right extremist Proud Boys, designated a hate group by
Southern Poverty Law Center (2020). This participant’s examples of meaningful connection
included self-affirming conversations with a gas station attendant who agreed with his worldview
and a younger member of the hate group to whom he considers himself a “mentor” [12].
Emotional Uplift
The third theme identified around meaningful connection involved how interactions
shifted the valence of participants’ emotional state in a positive direction (e.g., from distressed to
relieved, from neutral to joyful, from sad to appreciative). Participants described the emotional
context of the onset of the pandemic using words like, “stress,” “fear,” “anxious,” “scared,” or
“worried,” yet descriptions of the impact of meaningful connections generally reflected positive
affect, with participants’ using words such as, “happy,” “grateful, ” or “relieved,” noting that the
interaction made them “feel better” or “feel good.” Many participants described feeling a
“weight off,” feeling “lightened” or “lifted,” as is clear in this response:
Talking about our fears about COVID-19 made me feel heard, and understood…it really
helped release some of my anxiety and fears regarding the situation. While the
conversation was not in general "happy" I did feel happier and like a weight had been
lifted off of my shoulders afterwards [23].
Results from the emotions checkbox measure corroborate this theme. A majority of
interactions were marked by positively valanced feelings of happiness (82%), and gratitude
(54%). Compassion (44%) was chosen by participants to describe many of the interactions,
indicating the emotional underpinnings of prosociality. Negatively valanced emotions, such as
anger, anxiety, and sadness, were each selected for 10% or less of the interactions. Despite the
32
stressful context of the vast majority of interactions described by participants, participants
characterized most meaningful connections by the positive affective shift rather than by the
negative valanced emotions that were also experienced. This resonates with the salience of
positive emotions in experiences of meaning (King & Hicks, 2021). For zero interactions was
“no emotion” selected to describe the experience, displaying the significance of emotion in
meaningful connection experiences.
Participants reported a particularly strong sense of the bittersweet when interacting with
people with whom physical contact is salient – an intermixing of joy and grief as they practiced
social distancing. Participants especially lamented not being able to hug people important to
them. In describing a socially distanced driveway visit with her daughter and grandchildren, this
participant articulates the grief that tinged this meaningful connection:
My heart ached not being able to hug them. I've thought about the moment many times
since then and I still feel the little heartache from not being able to hug them all. We're all
huggers. It was a little sad in that aspect, but it was so wonderful to just see them, laugh
with them…Honestly as wonderful as it was, it made me yearn for more. I was a little
sad. It felt unfinished without the hugs. But it was so great to get to see them all, so it did
uplift me as well [32].
Similar mixes of positive emotions and a yearning to hug or be physically together were reported
in accounts of meaningful connections that occurred with family or close friends over video chat.
Meeting of Basic Needs
Finally, experiences of connection described by respondents as meaningful generally met
basic needs, both psychological needs and needs related to survival, security, and safety.
According to self-determination theory (Ryan & Deci, 2000), basic psychological needs consist
33
of autonomy, relatedness, and competence. These growth needs are separate from deficit needs
regarding safety and security. Most responses in this study displayed the meeting of needs for
relatedness, but many reports of meaningful connection included participants acting through their
own autonomous volition in competent ways, such as when choosing to assist someone and
receiving appreciation for their assistance. For example, one participant persuaded his mother to
let him do grocery shopping and other instrumental tasks for her, given her risk of serious illness
if exposed to the coronavirus, “She initially got frustrated…but I explained to her that I did not
want to take the chance of her getting sick because I loved her” [14]. He explained why this
conversation was meaningful by reporting that it was not only an opportunity to express care, but
“It makes me feel like I am doing a good job taking care of my mother. I am kind of proud.” This
participant experienced relatedness to his mother, while feeling that he was competent in
providing for her autonomously. In receiving support, many participants mentioned that the other
person “did not have to,” suggesting that the autonomous agency of interaction partners relates to
the sense that it is meaningful, whereas an action done out of obligation that still meets a
person’s needs may not be experienced as such a meaningful connection.
Some participants found their needs for competence met through receiving expressions of
appreciation that demonstrated that others had seen their efforts. For example, the following was
reported by a participant whose co-worker acknowledged him in a meeting during a stressful
time of transitioning their operation to remote work:
At one point he paused and looked right at me. 'You know we couldn't do this without
you. You're keeping everything organized and making it simpler for everyone.' Then he
went on with the next item on our agenda. It warmed my heart. My position is pretty
invisible, behind the scenes, and I don't always get called out for good work. But [he]
34
knew what I'd been doing, what I brought to the situation, and showed his appreciation in
the only way that really mattered [55].
Here we see this participant not only having his basic need for competence being met, but he also
offers evidence of the above central themes: his co-worker opened up by physically turning
towards him and offering appreciation; he received feedback that affirmed his self, that he
matters to his co-workers and is integral to their work; and his emotional state lifted as his heart
warmed amidst a stressful situation.
Meeting of deficit needs also threaded through responses, especially in the form of aid in
receiving protective equipment, basic hygienic supplies, and getting groceries. For example:
I was doing some quick shopping, and doing my best to minimize contact with
everything and my best to stay away from others, as myself and my elderly parents who
live with me are all high risk for the virus. I got to the aisle with the toilet paper and there
was none. I started to cry because we were out completely and this woman who saw me
took the time to comfort me (from 6 ft away) and to tell me to come to her restaurant
after I was done shopping and she would give me a few industrial/food service sized rolls
from her restaurant. I did and she did and she refused payment. There was so much
thought by her in this moment and it was quite meaningful to me…she saw me, saw me
suffering and did something to alleviate it…it made me much happier for the rest of the
day, gave me faith in my fellow man [33].
This experience of meaningful connection was particularly responsive to this participant’s
vulnerability, as this stranger offered care not only by comforting her emotionally, but by
actually alleviating suffering by meeting a need for a tangible item related to basic hygiene.
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Discussion
This qualitative study explored what kinds of interactions people in the United States
experienced as meaningful connections following the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and
how people perceived the pandemic context as affecting meaningful connection experiences.
Meaningful connections were experienced with others at varied levels of familiarity, ranging
from close family to strangers. These experiences were representative of some well-defined
types of interpersonal processes (e.g. instrumental social support), as well as forms of interaction
that are not as clearly defined in the literature (e.g. recognition of another’s presence), and
occurred via diverse forms of communication and media. Despite these variations, meaningful
connection experiences generally included openness to the other, affirmation of the self,
emotional uplift, and the meeting of basic needs.
Together this general thematic pattern may reflect a sense of greater security or
flourishing for an individual experiencing the phenomenon of meaningful connection, with each
theme representing an aspect of experience that reinforces or enhances personal well-being. In
meaningful connection interactions during the pandemic onset, participants tended to experience
benefits of information, experiences, or resources that met personal needs and therefore
supported their well-being. Affirmation of self relates to well-being enhancement too, as
connections that reinforce meaning framework coherence bolster a person’s sense of security by
reinforcing the reliability and predictability of one’s world (Heine, et al., 2006; Heintzelman &
King, 2014). The sense of belonging associated with one’s mattering to others is also related to
individual security (Baumeister & Leary, 1995). Perceiving others as open to connect may also
enhance a sense of belonging or the security that arises from available attachment figures
(Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003). These various beneficial experiences are accompanied by an
36
emotional uplift, an indication of enhanced physiological regulation (Damasio & Carvalho,
2013); or to put it another way: feelings representing an increase in well-being.
In a time of collective emergency, interpersonal pathways to feeling secure or flourishing
are of special importance given risks to physical safety and mental health in the midst of
uncertainty and danger. Yet, one potential asset of the context of collective emergencies is that
experiences of meaningful connection may be readily available, as suggested by themes related
to the COVID-19 context: People in one’s social network may suddenly be more oriented toward
prosocial behavior; the common struggle of a collective emergency offers shared experience and
purpose to connect over; and experiences of connection may feel more meaningful than normal,
given the risky nature of the context. These findings echo the growing literature on the
beneficent social impulses of those collectively facing crises (Zaki, 2020), as well as theory
suggesting that existential risk motivates efforts to initiate and maintain meaningful relationships
as a means of terror management (Plusnin et al., 2018). Importantly, powerfully meaningful
connections were reported at all levels of familiarity in participants’ social ecologies, suggesting
that beyond close relations and friends, acquaintances and even total strangers might be available
resources for social connection in a collective crisis.
Efforts to promote well-being in the onset of collective emergencies could potentially
take advantage of a population’s heightened propensity toward connecting meaningfully by
fostering contexts that encourage engagement in interactions that are an appropriate fit for their
situation and needs. Facilitating people’s ability to support one another in shared crises may be
especially salient given their motivation to do so, but opportunities for people to engage with
meaningful people or activities that allow them to feel “normal” may also be beneficial. Given
37
the diverse interpersonal processes that may be experienced as meaningful connections, efforts
can be tailored creatively given the population and the context.
The present findings resonate with recent research on the nature of meaningful
interactions, in general. The themes of emotional uplift and meeting of basic needs compliment
Litt et al.’s (2020) finding that meaningful interactions provide a positive emotional or
instrumental impact, and the themes of affirmation of self and openness to the other capture
potential processes underpinning this impact. Participants in both studies also report meaningful
interactions as occurring across varying modes of communication.
Caveats and Conclusion
There are important limitations to this study. First, although the recruited sample was
diverse in terms of socioeconomic status, region of residence, age, and gender, it would have
benefitted from greater diversity in terms of the racial and ethnic background of participants.
Secondly, as participants provided anonymous written accounts, there was not an opportunity to
clarify researcher interpretations with participants, which would be a benefit of studies gathering
data via live interviews and further engagement with participants throughout analysis. It is also
relevant to note that as a qualitative study conducted in a particular collective moment, there are
limits to generalizability. Future studies can elaborate on this study by examining if the central
themes identified here are representative of experiences of meaningful connection in non-
emergency contexts, and seek to generalize these findings statistically through quantitative study
in the event of future collective crises.
This study showcases how examining people’s experiences of meaningful connection
may help identify and organize links between diverse lines of research relevant to coping and
well-being. This may be especially valuable in further articulating the relationship between
38
social connection and meaning in life. Research already indicates that positive social interactions
are the most robustly predictive variables of meaning in life (King & Hicks, 2021). According to
a 2018 Pew Research study, Americans are most likely to mention family when asked about
sources of meaning in their lives. Belonging, or the sense of membership in a social group, has
also been shown to predict a sense of meaning (Lambert et al., 2013). Relationship science may
too benefit by further exploring how meaningfulness relates to interpersonal processes and
relationships.
Overall, this study provides a descriptive window into the kinds of interactions
experienced as meaningful connections during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in the
United States. Given that meaningful connection experiences may contribute to coping,
resilience, or flourishing, it is hoped that this qualitative account may be generative toward
further delineating a scientific understanding of the properties of such interactions, as well as
applied efforts to promote meaningful connection in the face of stress and loneliness.
39
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Chapter 3:
Experiencing Meaningful Connection:
A Phenomenological Investigation of Nourishing Social Interactions
45
Introduction
Across the lifespan, people’s well-being is supported by the quality of their social
connections (Pietromonaco & Collins, 2017). Promoting the experience of social connection is
increasingly recognized as a crucial effort for public health in the United States, with studies
indicating that feeling meaningfully connected to others holds major lifelong benefits for both
mental and physical health (Holt-Lunstad, 2021). Given the importance of feeling meaningfully
connected to others for personal and collective well-being, it is worthwhile to explore
experiences of meaningful connection at many different levels of analysis. Social connectedness
has been studied at the social network level, at the level of interpersonal relationships, within
particular social interactions, in terms of individual psychological sense of being generally
socially connected in the world (Townsend & McWhirter, 2005), and even at the neurobiological
level (e.g., Tomova et al., 2020). This qualitative study seeks to contribute to the literature by
exploring meaningful connection at the level of personal experience in specific social
interactions.
Meaningful Connection: A Multidimensional Concept
The term meaningful connection is used in both general and scientific discourse to refer
to nourishing social interactions, and therefore offers research efforts a useful linguistic bridge
for understanding people’s experiences in such events (Smallen, 2021). Although, for many
people, it may be straightforward to identify an interaction in their lives that is experienced as a
meaningful connection, defining meaningful connection as a construct is more challenging. A
conceptualization of meaningful connection experiences may be approached by consideration of
the literature on both the concepts of personal meaningfulness and social connectedness.
Meaning in life is clearly defined in the literature as a subjective sense of purpose in regards to
46
one’s future goals, coherence in terms of one’s sense of the world, and feeling like one matters
(King & Hicks 2021). Social connectedness is likewise multidimensional yet less well organized
in its conceptualization at the level of interactions.
Following from attachment theory, some literature focuses on a sense of security and
experiences of emotional regulation as promoting a sense of connectedness (Pietromonaco &
Collins, 2017; Hagerty et al., 1993). This likely involves responsiveness in events of social
support and intimacy, such that interaction partners feel understood, validated, and cared for in
the interaction (Reis & Clark, 2013). This process is built on empathy perceived by one’s
interaction partner as accurate, and ultimately builds trust. Interpersonal processes promoting
secure connection are likely enhanced by a perceived authenticity in the behavior of self and
other (Kernis, & Goldman, 2006), whereas inauthenticity may be perceived in experiences of
disconnection (Sedikides et al., 2017).
Other research and theory focuses on how connectedness could be experienced through
shared experiences among two people. For example, connectedness may be promoted through
experiencing affective or behavioral synchrony (Fredrickson, 2013) and offering mutual
attentiveness to one another (Reis et al., 2021). Connectedness also may arise through perceiving
that another person shares one’s understanding of reality (Rossignac-Milon et al., 2021). Indeed,
simply perceiving a person as similar to oneself can promote a sense of closeness and liking
(Sprecher, 2014).
In some conceptualizations of connectedness, there is clear overlap with the construct of
meaning in life. This is especially so in regards to mattering, as interactions promoting
connectedness may include communications that affirm one’s value to others through perceived
respect, compassion, and concern (Stephens et al., 2011; Phillips-Salimi et al., 2011). A mutual
47
purpose could involve the bonding promoted by shared goals (Wolf et al., 2016). Coherence may
be enhanced by making meaning of a shared reality with another while connecting. The
interrelatedness of meaning and connection are also evidenced in research showing that
interactions perceived as personally meaningful are likely to contribute to a sense of relatedness
to others (Reis et al., 2000; Hall, 2018), and positive social connections are understood as key
predicters of meaning in life (King & Hicks, 2021).
Despite the common terminology, few studies look specifically at what people describe
as experiences of meaningful connection in social interactions. A recent mixed-methods study
(Litt et al., 2020) explored people’s experiences of “meaningful interactions” and found that they
consisted of interactions that had a perceived life-enhancing impact on individuals. Although
life-enhancement might most clearly demonstrate personal meaning and not necessarily
connection, interactions rated low in meaningfulness often included the perception of being
judged or dismissed, indicating disconnection. A qualitative analysis of written accounts of
interactions experienced as meaningful connections in the first weeks of COVID-19 pandemic
identified themes of openness to the other, affirmation of the self in terms of mattering or
coherence of one’s personal meaning system, emotional uplift, and meeting of basic needs in
participant stories gathered during that time of collective crisis (Smallen, 2021). These themes
relate to enhanced security and feeling valued, though participants’ accounts also indicated the
importance of shared reality around the pandemic in facilitating connection.
It is clear that meaningful connection experiences are likely to be multidimensional,
comprised of many different interpersonal and intrapersonal processes. What is common across
all combinations of these processes is the interpretation and perception of the subjective
experience as an instance of meaningful connection.
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Meaningful Connection as Subjective Experience
Although we can observe social interactions, the individual psychological outcome of any
interpersonal process depends on the unique perceptions of that individual. For example, partner
responsiveness, a key construct in the study of close relationships and an essential aspect of
important relationship processes such as intimacy and social support, is contingent on the
perception of being understood, validated, and cared for by another person (Reis & Clark, 2013).
One of the more robustly researched topics related to meaningful connection is loneliness,
defined as the subjective sense of lacking social connection that satiates one’s needs or desires
(Caccioppo et al., 2015). Research on loneliness highlights the importance of personal
subjectivity in terms of what kinds of social experiences are felt as meaningfully connecting, as
ongoing loneliness tends to include maladaptive social cognition, such that social interactions are
more likely to be perceived negatively. Although there are likely common aspects of affect,
cognition, and behavior that persist across most moments of meaningful connection, the still
largely subjective nature of such experiences must be taken into account.
A social interaction perceived as meaningful connection with another person can be
understood as a phenomenon, or a particular event or situation that has been experienced.
Phenomenological research seeks to set aside personal judgments on a topic and to investigate
people’s lived experiences with an openness that allows for a richly detailed investigation of
what it is like to experience a certain phenomenon, going beyond simply describing attitudes or
actions and explicating the event complexly at the level of sensory experience and perceived
meaning (Finlay, 2012).
Experiences related to meaningful connections have been explored phenomenologically
in particular settings, especially in regards to mental health contexts. For example, a series of
49
studies analyzed accounts of young Norwegian persons receiving social support in mental health
contexts (Sommer, et al., 2019). The quality of support participants described was best termed in
Norwegian as fellesskap, which the authors translate as, “nourishing communion,” a particularly
fulfilling sense of togetherness with another person. Another phenomenological study explored
therapeutic connections in counseling settings, and demonstrated how experiences may vary
depending on one’s role in the context: Clients in the study described experiences such as feeling
seen, understood, and accepted at an emotional level with an ensuing sense of relief; counselors,
on the other hand, described experiences such as attending to a client’s pain, feeling called to
help, and renewed energy and purpose following connection (Dollarhide et al., 2012).
The Present Study
Given the importance of social connection for mental and physical well-being, the
present study seeks to contribute to this literature by phenomenologically investigating people’s
experiences with meaningful connection. In particular, this study explores the research question,
“How do people experience social interactions that they perceive as meaningful connections with
others?” This kind of qualitative study generates thick description (Geertz, 1973) of the qualities
of important human experiences and may therefore compliment quantitative approaches to
generate an epistemologically holistic research-based understanding of the topic of meaningful
connections and inform applied efforts to promote such experiences. This study also may help
ensure that voices and experiences beyond those of researchers inform our understanding of the
phenomenon.
Method
This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of University of Wisconsin-
Madison (Protocol number: 2020-1288).
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Recruitment
This study was advertised via posts on social media platforms and other online forums,
and it was shared via word of mouth. It also was included as an option to receive class credit in a
psychology department research pool at a non-residential state university. The study was
described to potential participants as “A research study about meaningful human connections
that occur in daily life.” The description indicated that the study was gathering, “stories and
thoughts about meaningful connection.” Participants were told they would receive a $15 Amazon
gift card for participating, which would take about one hour of their time. Eligibility
requirements included only being a resident of the United States, over 18 years of age, and
proficient in English.
Participants
Thirty adults participated in this study. Participant ages ranged from 18 to 74, with a
mean age of 37 and median age of 34. In terms of gender, 17 (57%) participants identified as
women, 12 (40%) identified as men, and 1 (3%) identified as trans masculine. Participants
reported their racial/ethnic background as follows (participants could select more than one item):
26 (87%) selected White, 4 (13%) selected Asian or Pacific Islander, 3 (10%) selected Hispanic,
Latino, or Spanish Origin, and 1 (3%) selected Black or African American. This sample skewed
toward highly educated, with 10 (33%) participants reporting to have Master’s degrees, 8 (27%)
with bachelor’s degrees, 5 (17%) with PhDs, 4 (13%) with a high school degree, and 3 (10%)
with a 2-year degree.
Researcher Positionality
It is important to acknowledge my positionality, as the researcher conducting both
interviews and analysis. I am a white cisgender male doctoral student in my mid-30s who teaches
51
psychology at an urban mid-western public university. My biases around meaningful connection
experiences include a conviction that such experiences are generally beneficial to personal
fulfillment and well-being, and that by better understanding people’s individual experiences of
meaningful connection, efforts at the individual and collective levels to improve people’s sense
of social connection may be enhanced. This understanding is built not only on the growing
literature relating social connection to mental and physical health, but from my own subjective
experience: I personally have experienced meaningful connections with others as central to my
own coping and enjoyment in life. When examining my own personal experiences of meaningful
connection, emotionally intimate moments of personal sharing and responsiveness are most
salient. In approaching this study, I attempted to maintain awareness of these personal outlooks
and to engage in the interview and analysis process without judgement.
Procedure
Semi-structured interviews were conducted over Zoom. One hour was set aside for each
interview, and each interview was allowed to run its natural course, with some interviews ending
before the 1-hour mark, and others lasting longer with permission from participants. Interview
times ranged from 42 minutes to 1 hour and 56 minutes.
The interviews followed a semi-structured interview guide (Appendix A). Participants
were first asked to share a little bit about themselves. They were then asked to describe a social
interactions in which they experienced a meaningful connection with another person within the
30 days prior to the interview. Very few participants struggled to identify a recent experience
that felt like a meaningful connection, and the few who initially found it challenging were able to
identify an experience after a brief moment of thought. If participants had difficulty describing
the experience in detail, they were asked questions about their experience for each step of the
52
interaction, from beginning to end. Participants were then asked specifically what emotions they
recalled experiencing across the arc of the experience and what impact they felt the interaction
had on them. When participants described what they believed an interaction partner was thinking
or feeling during the meaningful connection, they were asked to describe what they perceived as
evidence of their interaction partner’s thoughts or feelings. To encourage a discussion about what
aspects of their experience were essential to the phenomenon of meaningful connection,
participants were asked what would have had to be different in their experience for the
interaction to not have felt like a meaningful connection.
After describing one meaningful connection interaction, participants were asked if they
could describe another recent meaningful connection interaction with someone at a different
level of familiarity: with people they know very well, as well as those they know less well and
not at all. All participants discussed at least two interactions, and answered follow-up questions
regarding what made the experience feel to them like a meaningful connection. When
participants had described three meaningful connections – or after 45 minutes – they were asked
to describe what they thought, in general, makes an experience with another person feel like a
meaningful connection. Participants often considered their own responses to prior interview
questions while responding to this prompt, noting particular themes that cut across their multiple
descriptions of meaningful connection experience. To close the interview, participants were
asked several questions about their interview experience. Participants were asked whether there
was anything not covered in the interview that they would like to follow up on, whether they had
any feedback regarding the questions asked of them, and if any of the questions surprised them.
Throughout the interviews I strove to engage in the phenomenological practice of
bracketing (Finlay, 2012), which involves the sincere attempt of the researcher to notice and set
53
aside preconceived biases and to seek to be directly informed by each participant’s experience. I
strove to maintain an awareness of when participant responses met or contradicted my own
notions of meaningful connection, and to limit my own judgments from guiding the interview.
Throughout the interviews I practiced pausing and checking with participants to ensure my
nascent understanding of their experience was accurate. In analyzing interview transcripts, I
practiced orienting myself nonjudgmentally toward the content in an attempt to be as unbiasedly
accepting of participants’ experiences as possible.
Interviews were recorded via Zoom. A transcription platform, Otter.ai, was used to assist
the first phase of the transcription process, generating a roughly accurate text of the interview. I
then carefully corrected each AI-generated transcript, which allowed me to become more
intimate with the content of each interview before beginning analysis. To maintain participant
confidentiality, identifying information was removed from data and names were replaced by
identifying numbers in data and research reports. Identifying numbers were chosen rather than
pseudonyms with the consideration that numbers would be easier for readers to track given the
relatively large sample for a phenomenological study. Video recordings were deleted and only
audio recordings and transcripts were retained in password protected online storage. All
identifiers were stored in password protected online storage separate from research data.
Analysis
This study followed the transcendental phenomenological approach (Moustakas, 1994)
in the processes of interviewing and analysis. This method involves analyzing interview
transcripts through several stages. First, I identified significant statements from the transcripts
describing important aspects of experiences of meaningful connection from the participants’ own
words. I carried forward the practice of bracketing into the analysis, and therefore each
54
significant statement was considered as equally important. Significant statements were then
clustered into non-overlapping themes. Drawing on both participants’ own significant statements
and the identified themes, I drafted a textural and structural description for each participants’
descriptions of experiences with meaningful connection. The textural description drew verbatim
text from each participant’s significant statements, combining them into a description of what
happened in their experiences. Structural descriptions elaborated on this “what” to describe
“how” meaningful connections occurred – describing the psychological and social contexts
within which meaningful connection was experienced. Finally, I integrated these descriptions of
individual experiences into a composite description of the phenomenon that represents the
themes identified across the entire sample of my study.
Efforts were taken for this study to meet criteria for qualitative rigor and validation
practices (Creswell, 2007). Multiple forms of validation were conducted to ensure
trustworthiness, including triangulation with literature from multiple disciplines and rich
description. The transcendental phenomenological approach also lent itself to the documentation
of an audit trail of the analysis process. A record of each stage of the analysis was maintained,
including the significant statements, themes, textural descriptions and structural descriptions for
each participant. A notebook was kept that includes documentation of the researcher’s
considerations at each step in the analysis. Member checking was not conducted after the
interviews, but several participants were contacted to clarify the researcher’s understanding
during the process of analysis.
Results
Findings will be presented in the following order. First, I describe the core theme
identified in participants’ experiences of meaningful connection: regard. Second, I explain each
55
of five auxiliary themes, which were experienced as facilitating or accompanying the experience
of regard: interest, sincerity, attending, mutuality, and security (see Figure 1). This is followed
by an explanation of how participants described relations between these themes. Participants’
identifying numbers are noted in brackets.
Regard: The Central Theme
The central theme of experiences of meaningful connection may be described as regard,
consisting of a perceived recognition of oneself as being of value to others in the interaction
context, often coupled with one’s own regard for others. Experiences of being regarded ranged in
participant accounts from feeling deeply cared for or loved, at one extreme, to the most minimal
experiences of acknowledgement as a human being.
One participant described experiencing a meaningful connection in which she felt treated
with regard having cut herself while washing knives at her job as a part-time student worker in a
university dining facility. An “older gentlemen” who worked full-time in the kitchen helped her
bandage the wound and then showed her how to safely wash a knife:
I wasn't super bothered until I started seeing myself bleeding. And then I was like, “Oh
shit! I have to go take care of this”…And when he came over, I was kind of like “Ugh,
like, he just watched me cut myself. This is so embarrassing. I can't believe I was just
stupid enough to cut myself.” But then he took time out of his shift to tell me where the
Band-Aids were, help me wrap it up…he was like, “Come back.” So I was like, watching
him wash the knives and…I almost started tearing up because I was embarrassed but also
just really, really appreciative…[3]
This participant described feeling physically and emotionally vulnerable, and noted how much
she appreciated her co-worker’s stepping away from his own work to help take care of her. This
56
experience was particularly significant given the context of living away from her parents for the
first time, as a college freshman. She expressed the value with which she regarded this man by
experiencing him as briefly standing in for close family:
I don't know if it was just because I was missing my parents. But the fact that this older
parental figure took time out of his shift to be like, “I want to make sure that she never
has this issue again. Let me actually teach her how to protect herself against washing a
knife.” It really warmed my heart and I was just really appreciative.
This participant seemed to value how her co-worker responded to her immediate wound and
demonstrated concern for her future skills and safety. Her perception of being regarded was
particularly clear given the contrast with her expectations, as students workers are usually “,,,
there for a semester, like you’re probably going to quit in the next two weeks…. To some of the
more experienced cooks you’re just a nuisance.” Yet, in the face of this expectation, this
participant felt valued by her co-worker in witnessing his orientation toward her: “… turning
towards me, making eye contact with me when he was saying something instead of just being
frustrated and looking away.”
Some participants described a sense of regard when providing others with support. Even
if the focus of an act of support is on the person receiving help, meaningful connection was
experienced by support providers when they felt appreciated. For example, one participant
described feeling meaningfully connected to an acquaintance she encountered while walking
home with a friend late at night:
…it was dark out, and there was this girl that was standing there by herself. And she was
kind of being harassed by this homeless person…I was like, “Walk back with us.” … I
think I first felt kind of relieved that we were able to get her out of that situation, and that
57
it was effective in helping her. And then I think I also just felt like pretty good about
myself…had she like, not talked to us or thanked us when we walked back, I think that
would have been less meaningful…I think the reciprocation from her and the gratitude
was part of it, the connection [8].
Even when acting with a sense of regard for another person, this participant describes how she
feels regarded herself through the “gratitude” of the woman she helped, and how her sense of
connection hinged on that reciprocal acknowledgement on a personal level.
Regard was not only perceived through receiving or offering support. Sometimes it
resulted from other people’s willingness to disclose personal information. For example, one
participant described a meaningful connection while volunteering at a prison and talking with an
incarcerated man, serving a life-sentence, whom he was getting to know:
Most men in prison don't talk about their crimes, and it doesn't make any sense to be
telling everybody that you're innocent. So I don't think [he] ever chose anyone else other
than maybe one or two guys living in the prison to tell them, “I don't belong here,” you
know?… I mean, he saw something in me that he did not see in someone else. I mean,
there were other facilitators at that workshop, who were more spiritual Quakers, more
accomplished workshop providers, better educated, better looking… he chose me to tell
me that story…There's an incredible honor to be gifted with that, that someone would
share that level of intimacy with me … to be sort of singled out, looking face to face, this
guy sitting across from me like this saying, “Here's my secret: I don't belong here” [27].
Central to this participant’s experience of a meaningful connection was feeling valued, having
been chosen as trustworthy to receive a rare self-disclosure.
58
Like that participant, other participants described variations of the experience of being
“seen” or of “seeing” another person in some way. This was described by some as an experience
of witnessing of one’s “humanity.” One participant described how experiencing one’s own
humanity as witnessed and being regarded thereafter was core to his experience of meaningful
connection:
So for me, a meaningful connection is one in which we see ourselves and we see the
other more clearly, where we understand the complexity of the other person and we
accept it sort of – not necessarily unconditionally, but with some kind of
unconditionality, where your humanity is, is validated, and it's important [14].
Not all experiences of regard included deep witnessing, intimacy, or support. One
participant used the example of connecting with a store worker ringing up his purchase to define
the bare minimum of regard that could provide for him a felt experience of meaningful
connection:
…I said hello to the cashier, and they said “Hi” back. And there's nothing really behind
that beyond just two people being pleasant, but you honestly don't have to be pleasant.
You don't have to talk to anybody. You don't have to exchange any type of interpersonal
energy or put anything out there. So just the fact that two people are going out of their
way to even have the briefest, shallowest moment, like, "Hey, how you doing?”, “Good
thanks, how you doing?" – I think can be nice…let's like, have a friendly exchange, like
maybe we don't actually care all that much. But like, let's just like have a friendly
exchange that demonstrates that we mean no harm and…whatever it means to be friendly
is what we're gonna do [28].
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This participant delineates a basic threshold of regard that elicits a sense of meaningful
connection: the point from which indifference to another’s humanity crosses over to an
acknowledgment of their value, even if the actual level of care for one another is marginal.
Five Auxiliary Themes
Accompanying the perception of being regarded, five additional themes were identified
as core to participants’ experiences of meaningful connection: interest, sincerity, attending,
mutuality, and safety.
Interest
First, in interactions perceived as meaningful connection, participants often expressed
experiencing interest, a perception that others desired to engage in an interaction with them, and
that they themselves desired to engage with the other person. Participants overwhelmingly used
variations of the word “interested” in describing meaningful connection experiences, as well as
terms such as “intrigue” or “curiosity.”
One participant described a meaningful connection on a date-night with her husband as
hinging on the perception of each of them as interested. To her, interest is experienced as a
counterforce against a potential sense of division:
Sometimes when I talk about what I'm doing, I don't know if it's maybe he's not
interested, maybe he just doesn't care, or maybe he doesn't quite get it, I don't know. But
you can just kind of tell there's a divide… So I think the fact that we were both putting
out sort of that same message to one another, that we're both interested, we were both
able to kind of take part in that. And that's kind of what made it meaningful [7].
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As perceived evidence of interest, participants frequently described instances in which
the interaction partner actively sought to expand interactions, especially through questions or
other means of elaboration. As one participant put it, “I just love to be asked clarifying
questions…because I think it it’s like, if you don't understand something and you just don’t ask,
it’s like you're not really interested” [29]. This participant described a sense of meaningful
connection she experienced while defending her dissertation for a doctorate, when a committee
member, a poet and scholar whom she did not know, but whose work she had admired for 20
years, “… asked questions and seemed invested.The participant described how the committee
member’s questions, “… made me feel kind of like, ‘Oh, I have something to say that he's
interested in.’” She contrasts this with her sense of what she would have expected his behavior
would have been if not interested: “It didn't feel like he was on the other side, kind of waiting for
his thing, or waiting to say what he wanted to say.” This participant summed up what makes an
interaction feel like meaningful connection by saying, “It kind of feels like the person wants to
be there…or maybe both people want to be there. There’s no sense that the other person maybe
wishes you were talking about something else.” Her experience highlights the impact of
perceiving another person as desiring to be engaged. Interest may validate the value of what she
brought to the interaction, in this case a project which is integral to her sense of self.
Another participant described how the perception of another person as interested reflects
the value of one’s self as worthy of interest:
Growing up in a small town, we only had a couple things. And one thing we did have,
especially in Texas, is Whataburger and they were 24 hours, right? And in high school, I
used to make friends, and then you would meet up at Whataburger at like 8 at night. And
it would be 8 in the morning, and you would still be sitting in the same booth having
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these long conversations, and you felt like – I think part of that was you’re trying to
establish an identity. But secondly, you felt like you were you were someone, right? Like
you felt like you had an identity and you felt that you are interesting… You would think,
as you get older, people would say more to you, things that you hear when you’re
younger, like “Man, you should write a book, you've been through some things” [13].
In this case, fledgling identity development is nostalgically recalled not only as being witnessed
but regarded as “interesting.” It may be that another person’s interest evokes a sense of being
“someone,” which suggests the possibility that without interest one might perceive themself as a
non-entity, as not mattering.
Another participant’s account echoes this notion of becoming more fully alive as a
“someone” in the midst of another person’s desire to engage. She describes the experience of
being regarded as interesting as evoking an “enlivening” sensation: “For me, it’s a feeling of
coming alive to be able to share your truth, your real perspective, without pretense, without
having to hold anything back, and to feel like somebody actually wants to hear more” [25].
Several participants described the belief that one could have agency over their own sense
of interest in others, and regarded the active cultivation of interest in others as a means of
ushering interactions toward meaningful connection. For example, one participant stated, “Even
when I'm not genuinely interested in a subject, having people talk about something they're really
interested in tends to make me interested” [28]. Some participants experienced the cultivation of
interest in another person as a relatively easy feat, with one participant bluntly stating, “People
are fucking interesting, even the boring people are interesting, on some level, at least for fucking
10 minutes” [10].
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Sincerity
A second auxiliary theme identified in analysis is that of participants’ experience of other
people’s sincerity in the interaction, the perception that their interaction partner’s manifest goals
or expressions within the interaction were aligned with their own actual intentions or experience.
Interaction partners in meaningful connections were often perceived by participants as “sincere,”
“genuine,” “authentic,” and “not fake.” Participants often described intuiting sincere intentions
as evidence that another person is not engaged in an interaction out of obligation or as a means to
an end other than connection. As one participant stated:
You could have manipulative intentions, you know – you can be kind to get what you
want…and then I think you can have sincere intentions…Genuinely sincere intensions. I
think that is meaningful because I've walked through a door that people have held open
for me and have said, “Thank you,” but knew that it maybe wasn't meaningful, like, I can
feel it. And I've walked through doors with people who did it not out of obligation but
just wanted to hold the door open, and I can feel that when I walked through the door
[22].
This participant highlights an intuitive sense that another person is engaging out of a genuine
desire to act with regard to them as a person. This intuitive sense that the other person was acting
with sincerity seemed to quash participants’ concerns that their interaction partner considered
them a burden. The perception of another person’s sincerity also appears to provide possible
assurance that there is not an ulterior motive to the other person’s involvement in the
interactions.
Some participants described how perceiving sincerity could inspire their own benevolent
attributions to others in social interactions. For example, one participant pointed out that
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perceiving another person as sincere allowed a sense of connection even in an interaction that
was not going smoothly: “Even if a person doesn't know what to say or is awkward or stumbling,
if you get the sense that they genuinely care and they want to be engaged in a conversation, I feel
like that leads to a more meaningful connection” [4].
Participants commonly described noticing in social interactions observable evidence that
informed them that an interaction partner was sincere in their motives. This evidence often
involved observations of how the other person behaved in the interaction relative to the
participant’s expectations for such behavior in that particular context. This was described by
multiple participants as perceiving someone as “stepping” outside of their expected “role.”
Participants often used language around social obligation to describe this calculation, that others
were “not obligated” or did not “have to” engage in the way they did, which is evidence of their
sincere interest. For example, another participant described how she felt meaningfully connected
to her partner when his response to their getting a parking ticket went beyond her expectations
for his obligations in that situation:
…it was really my fault that we got the ticket because I lost my wallet and I created the
whole chaos…I felt really bad and guilty but he's just very supportive…I knew that side
of him, but this little episode it kind of reinforced that. I was very appreciative…he's not
obligated to pay for half, right? But he's still doing that…I was joking, like, “Oh, I'll just
like starve for one week, it's fine,” and he's like, "I don't want you to starve!"
[laughs]….He knows I can still support myself financially, with paying like, $100, but it's
just a gesture that he cares, and he's really sorry that this happened to me [30].
In witnessing tangible evidence of her partner’s sincere willingness to go beyond her
expectations, this participant appeared to move through her guilt to feel his sincere care.
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Participants often described perceiving sincerity as key in parsing out meaningful
connections with people providing a service, or engaging in a context in which the manifest goal
was something other than human connection, such as between colleagues in a work environment,
or workers and customers. Participants frequently reported that the quality of such interactions
went beyond a “transactional,” “administrative,” or “tactical” exchange. For example, one
participant described receiving a reply from a co-worker to an administrative email that elicited a
sense of meaningful connection:
I definitely feel like she went out of her way and just thanked me for like how responsive
I am and like on the ball and supportive of our clients. And it was out of nowhere. It just
felt so nice…It felt genuine. It felt genuine and it felt like I was seen [22].
When describing what evidence they noticed that made them feel like their co-worker was
genuine, this participant stated, “Probably the smiley face [laughter]. Yeah, yeah, the smiley face
and you know, like, it felt like she was excited.” Although the emoji was a simple gesture, this
participant perceived it as breaching expectations for the workplace, thus giving weight to the
sincerity of the regard.
Attending
A third auxiliary theme identified in analysis is attending, or the experience of another
person’s and one’s own focused engagement within the context of an interaction. Descriptions of
attending ranged in intensity: Some participants described feeling meaningfully connected in
interactions as simple as receiving a text message from a loved one indicating they were being
attended to from afar, whereas other participants’ experiences included lengthy attentional focus,
such as in emotionally intimate conversations. Participants often described their interaction
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partners as “engaged,” “attentive,” or “in the moment,” and the nourishing quality of attention in
deep experiences of meaningful connection was commonly described as “presence.”
Many participants were careful to distinguish feeling attended to with presence from the
experience of simply sharing a social interaction with another person: “Just being able to feel
that you're not talking into an abyss or you're not there alone, like really feeling the presence of
someone else. Whether they're talking or they're not talking” [8]. This participant’s imagery of
engaging with an “abyss” suggests that one can experience another person as absent even if they
are ostensibly involved in an interaction, and that the quality of presence is not defined
necessarily by another person’s merely contributing content to an interaction, but rather a felt
sense of attentive accompaniment in an interaction.
As evidence of attention, participants often described observing their interaction partners’
body posture, the direction of their gaze, and tone of voice. Not surprisingly, participants
watched for other people’s engagement with screen devices to gauge their level of focus, as one
participant in her mid-20s described:
When I hang out with my friends who are my own age, sometimes they're like, always on
their phone, and always trying to keep up with social media. So when we have lunch
together, there's not really a meaningful connection there because even though…we're
physically present with each other, we're not emotionally present with each other. So
that's just a contrast between that and how I feel when I'm having a good conversation
where both of the people are present [2].
One account of meaningful connection from this participant illustrates her experience of being
deeply present, such that time passed quickly:
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When you're in a really deep conversation it's so engaging, like, it felt like a flow state
kind of when I was talking to her for so long. And I just felt like I didn't want the
conversation to end…time just went by so fast, and I didn't even notice it go by until it
was dark outside.
Participants also often noted in themselves the value of keeping their attention focused on
another person in a meaningful connection experience. For many participants, meaningful
connection experiences not only consisted of being attended to, but also attending to their
interaction partners. For example, one participant described this interaction with his new mother-
in-law:
I care very deeply about their opinion of me, I want to have a positive relationship with
them…[I was] trying to balance my nervousness with my desire to be respectful, because
it's not really respectful to ignore someone and just wait to say what you want to say –
and so I tried to be mindful of what she was talking about [18].
This participant appears to perceive his attending as a means of expressing how much he values
his new in-laws.
Mutuality
A fourth auxiliary theme identified in analysis is sense of mutuality, or a perception of
reciprocal understanding or involvement between oneself and another person. Participants often
described mutuality in meaningful connection when noticing similarity or agreement over
common interests, feelings, values, or goals, as well as in feeling that the interaction itself was
“collaborative.” Participants typically used language that described another person’s
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accompanying them in their own psychological space, with phrases like “common ground,” “on
the same page,” “in the same boat,” or “in it together.
One participant described feeling “surprised” then “jazzed” when an unknown woman
engaged with her while shopping and they found mutuality in their very particular shared
experiences of being white mothers of biracial daughters in a predominately white suburb:
I was in the grocery store and I was with my daughter, and she was kind of like toddling
around just being silly and this lady was like, “Oh, she's so cute. She looks kind of like
what my daughter looked like when my daughter was her age”… my husband's Black, so
my daughter is biracial…. It's not often that I will see someone necessarily that would
have a biracial child, especially out here…. I could tell that was something that she
wanted to connect on, that similarity. So then we just started having a conversation in the
middle of the aisle at the grocery store. We talked for seriously, like, almost 15
minutes.... There's not a lot of like diversity in this area. So that was cool that we we’re
connecting on that, and then we are both Christian, we're talking about faith…. There was
a lot of stuff in our conversation that we just agreed on…. I think I was just like, “She
gets it.You know, unless you have like a mixed-race family, it's not something that you
can just understand. I mean, people can have empathy, or try to understand or be open to
like, learning my experiences, but you don't get it unless you're in it…especially with the
racial climate in our country right now, it's very stressful…. I almost feel like I'm always
on the defensive…. I felt safe in that she understood [21].
This participant appeared to describe the experience of feeling sheltered through the perception
of similarity, being understood in terms of identity, religious belief, and especially lived and felt
experience, in an interaction that held special significance given the current “racial climate.” She
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described how the conversation deepened over an acknowledgement of shared experiences of
discrimination, yet this sober topic involved the mutual understanding of a humorous exchange:
She broke the ice by saying, “Has anyone asked you where you got her yet?” And I was
like, “Oh my gosh, yes.” So then I then I shared a situation where somebody came up to
me in another store and asked me if she was adopted. And I was like, “No, she came out
of my vagina, like, no!” [laughs] – I actually legitimately said that to that person – and
she thought that was funny.
For this participant, it appeared that mutual self-disclosure of experiencing discriminatory
comments very specific to their positionality offered a refuge of common experience. The
humorous aspect of her account also played an important role in ascertaining mutual
understanding, as the perception of her story being received as “funny” affirmed the shared
reality among this participant and the woman she met in the store.
Indeed, many participants discussed sharing humor as an indicator of mutuality in their
meaningful connection experiences. To understand a joke, both people must recognize what
expectation is upended and how the new framing of the situation makes sense. Another
participant described how the experience of humor facilitates, for him, this discovery and
affirmation of a shared sense of the world. He describes his inner-narrative when “… sharing
inside jokes or sharing a similar sense of humor …” as, “Oh, you sort of understand me as a
person. You understand my sense of humor. We get along in that way, like you understand what
I'm trying to get across” [28].
Some participants discussed how feeling the same way about something was another
indicator of mutuality in feeling meaningfully connected. For example, one participant described
feeling meaningfully connected to her friend when they talked about their shared feelings around
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the 2020 election: I think that was part of it….the commonality that we were both stressed and
worried about it...” [1]
Participants also described mutuality in terms of perceiving a shared purpose or goals.
For example, one participant described how collaborating with his wife to manage daily family
life contributes to his feeling meaningfully connected:
It could be a conversation just about virtual school and like how things are going … How
have we been engaging with the kids? Are we doing enough? Are we doing too much?
Like, what does that look like? And so just really thinking about how we're a team…it's
just constant throughout the day. And I think that it's all meaningful, whether or not it's a
text that she sent me while I'm working here, or it's a robust conversation that we're like
having at dinner… you have shared goals that you're working toward…the person is an
extension of yourself, and you're working towards the same things, and so I think that
puts a heightened value on any of those conversations... [16]
Another participant echoed the experience of the extension of selves into a shared purpose, when
describing an artistic collaboration as bridging herself and her collaborator in meaningful
connection: “He took something that I made…built on it and made his own creation…. It's
almost like having a mirror reflected to you, but not, not exactly as you see you. It's like, they see
you… but also they're now in the image, too” [11].
A sense of mutuality was not only described as arising from the content of the interaction
or discovery of similarities, but in the process of engaging in the meaningful connection
interaction itself. For example, one participant described, “Talking and sharing back and forth…I
think the meaningfulness comes from – at least for me – comes from the back and forth” [24],
whereas another participant stated, “When you're having a conversation with someone, and…the
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conversation can kind of build, you know, like, you kind of are going places with each other”
[29]. These two participants offer several images evoking an interactional aspect of mutuality, a
sense of shared involvement, participating in turn-taking behavior, assembling a conversation
together, or traveling along a shared path. This path of interactional mutuality need not even
involve significant content:
It wasn't like a moment that we were, like, being vulnerable or really talking about
anything…We were watching this really stupid show that we watch like every night now.
And it's just so stupid, but…we were sitting there watching that show, drinking out of
Twizzler straws. It was just like such a random moment and it felt really connected [8].
Safety
The fifth auxiliary theme, a sense of safety, was pervasive throughout many participants’
accounts of meaningful connection. As interactions unfold, participants often reported feeling
confidence in their emotional or sometimes physical security. They frequently used words such
as, being “supported,” “reassured,” or “accepted” by another person. This sense of safety seemed
especially salient in moments of interpersonal risk or vulnerability when interaction partners’
judgment could be emotionally painful. Many interactions were reported as beginning with a
participants’ feeling “stressed” or “anxious,” “raging,” or “scared.Yet, through the interaction,
the participants often described themselves as feeling “relieved” and “soothed.For example,
one participant described an emotionally regulating interaction with her mother when she was
feeling “… definitely anxious and upset because my son is to the point in his schooling now
where the next incident, he will be expelled” [20]. In talking with her own mother, this
participant described:
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…that energy makes a shift…now I don't have to be a mom. And like, I can naturally just
open up. And then I felt my anxiety went from about 50 to 0. Yeah, and it's a constant
battle for me, kind of like constant ups and downs like that throughout the day. But, with
this specific connection it was like, I was constantly at that high anxious level throughout
the day, and then we start talking, even though it's a tough subject, and it brought me
down.
This participant described the reassuring nature of this particular interaction as predicated on the
“security” that she had cultivated with her mother in their relationship:
I have a history of addiction and we definitely weren't getting along, because I was living
with her. And I also have a mental health issue history. So that was really hard… but now
that I've been clean and in therapy a couple of times, and like, my mom and I are on a
good page. Now it's a totally different connection, or, like when we have meaningful
connections now it looks and feels a lot different than it has in the past…. The overall
mood of both of us, we're not tense with each other. We both feel that security in
approaching each other now.
Like that participant, other participants frequently described feeling regulated in
interactions as an indicator of safety in their meaningful connections. This seemed especially
likely when trust had not yet been established. For example, one participant describes a
meaningful connection with a lab technician drawing their blood:
…I think I also felt like, comforted by him, because we had this little exchange, and then
he drew my blood. And it was uncomfortable, and I think he could tell I was kind of
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holding my breath and biting my lip. And he's like, "We're almost done." He was kind of
like talking me through it…. I felt reassured, appreciative [4].
Some participants also described taking advantage of contextual parameters that may be
leveraged to achieve the sense of security necessary for them to lean into meaningful
connections. For example, one participant, commented, “You might think that a super
meaningful connection is like staring in one another's eyes,” but then explained how having a
short car ride with her sister, in which they were both facing forward allowed for “openness and
vulnerability”:
We're next to each other and in a small space, but not like looking at each other… And
sometimes that makes it easier, at least for me, I think, so sometimes like phone calls, or
riding in the car can be easier… It allows for the vulnerability but also allows for an out.
So it's almost like if it gets too deep then you can like, comment on the car or the
tree…and then if I want to pick it back up, I can pick it back up and continue or she can
pick it back up and continue…It's like that out… the break, the breathing room… she can
be like really emotional, but also like, closed off. So then there's that opportunity to have
the conversation in a way that feels safe [24].
For this participant, there appeared to be safety in breaching vulnerable topics when she could
trust that the environment allowed for her to titrate the level of intimacy if it felt “too deep.”
Perceived Relations Among Themes
Participants described a variety of relations among the pervasive themes, as well as ways
in which themes were contingent on one another. All of the auxiliary themes were experienced as
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pathways to feeling regarded as valuable. Yet, without regard, the experiences appeared less
likely to feel like meaningful connections. For example, in the absence of regard, interest or
attentiveness could sometimes be experienced as disconnected: “You can have these times where
both people are really present and both people are really invested, but it's more combative…you
can be really invested in an argument” [29].
In other cases, many participants described wariness in response to other people’s interest
or attention when the participants were not sure of their interaction partners’ sincere intentions.
One participant described an interested and attentive engagement that was decidedly not a
meaningful connection when she told someone about her treatment for a serious chronic health
issue:
I was talking to [her], and I know that she is anti-medication…. I could tell she was
trying to like, motivational interview me about it…. That’s a big trigger for me when
other people think they know what’s best for me, and they’re trying to convince me in a
sideways way to take the approach that they would take. [4]
Another person’s presence was often described as contributing to a sense of mutuality:
“The presence of someone else being there, I think, is a form of like reciprocity” [8]. Even when
sincere interest and attention were present, interactions without mutuality in the exchange were
often perceived as lacking connection. For example, one participant stated:
If somebody is interested in you, even if you're not interested in them, if you're getting
the attention, you're like, “Oh, that was awesome. They made me feel good because
they're interested in me.” But that's definitely not necessarily -- connection being the
operative word there -- it's not a connection [10].
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Finally, participants perceived that another person’s sincere attention helped them feel
safe engaging. Yet, a sense of safety also helped participants to be present in the moment
themselves. For example, one participant described, “If I'm really stressed, I struggle making
meaningful connections” [7], and “I can put the being anxious and angry kind of into a jar…. If
I'm feeling any of these things, then I'm not going to have a meaningful connection with
somebody” [20].
Discussion
This phenomenological study investigated people’s lived experiences of interactions they
perceived as meaningful connection in daily life. Various kinds of interactions were described by
participants with others at various levels of familiarity. Consistent across descriptions of
interactions was a core experience of feeling regarded. Five auxiliary themes were identified as
accompanying or supporting the perception of regard. These themes involved interest, sincerity,
attending, mutuality, and safety.
The central theme of regard captured participants experiences of feeling valued by others
in social interactions. The experience of feeling valued was described in various shades of
intensity, from involved gestures of love or support to small gestures of kindness or appreciation
that some participants reported they might have forgotten had they not been prompted to
consider in the interview process. The experience of regard also cut across various kinds of
interpersonal processes such as emotional intimacy, social support, or simple financial
transactions. Although feeling loved in a moment of emotional intimacy should not be a
surprising example of meaningful connection, the most brief and simple instances of regard
described by participants were less expected and helped to delineate the basic elements of the
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experience of meaningful connection. The most basic regard was characterized by the experience
of being acknowledged as a living, feeling human being. This experience of acknowledgment
echoes conceptual threads such as humanization (Todres et al., 2009) or an I-Thou orientation
(Buber, 1971), which honor the subjectivity of others rather than orienting toward people as
objects. Such recognitions of others’ humanity should involve empathy, characterized by the
cognitive act of inferring the internal state of another person or the emotional experience of
taking on what is perceived to be another’s affect (Zaki, 2014). When participants described
feeling “seen,” they likely indicated that they experienced another’s empathy. The feeling of
being of value that regard inspires is reminiscent of dignity (Hicks, 2011), a sense that one
matters and is worthy of care simply for being human. By bolstering a feeling of mattering,
regard connects with the meaning aspect of meaningful connection, as mattering is a core
dimension of meaning in life (King & Hicks, 2021).
The central theme of regard echoes the Rogerian tradition of psychotherapy, which
involves the cultivation of unconditional positive regard for a client as a means of providing an
interpersonal context in which growth and healing are possible (Rogers, 1957/1992). The present
study shows similar orientations as normative to everyday interactions that feel like meaningful
connections. Yet many participants did not seem to assume that they would be valued
unconditionally in social interactions and often indicated that their expectations of interaction
partners were exceeded when experiencing regard. It was also not clear that participants intended
to extend regard to their interaction partners no matter what. Therefore, the experience of regard
described by participants may not extend beyond the context of the meaningful connection
interaction. It is even possible that in the face of potential conditionality around whether one will
be treated as valued, feeling regarded may be all the more meaningful.
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Nuances within Perceptions of Regard
Experiences of regard were often described as involving one or more auxiliary themes.
Interest, the first auxiliary theme in meaningful connection interactions, demonstrates one means
of communicating regard. Interest is understood as the emotional state of being intrinsically
motivated to learn and explore (Silvia, 2008). To perceive another person’s interest might be
interpreted as their wanting to learn about you, to better understand you. Feeling understood
contributes to social connection (Reis et al., 2017), and interest may communicate that another
person would value connecting with you. The positive experience of feeling “interesting,” as
communicated by some participants, suggests that another’s interest may promote a sense that
one matters. Another person responding openly to one’s interest by self-disclosing was also
described as communicating regard, that one is deemed worthy of knowing and being trusted
with another person’s personal information. Indeed, participants generally described
experiencing interest in meaningful connections as reciprocal, if unequal at times, begging the
question of whether one can experience a meaningful connection with another person whom they
are not intrinsically motivated to engage with. Importantly, there are social risks if another
person does not find you interesting in an interaction, as people perceived as boring may be
disliked (Leary et al., 1986). Perceiving another person’s interest, therefore, may offer not only a
sense of regard, but also security against rejection.
The second auxiliary theme of sincerity captured the interpretation that interaction
partners’ participation in a meaningful connection was “not fake,” but rather was consistent with
their intrinsic intentions and true regard for oneself. Research suggests that even with prosocial
intentions, such as lying to protect someone from feeling bad, insincerity has the potential to
negatively impact interactions (Lemay & Clark, 2008) or the security of a relationship (Kernis &
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Goldman, 2006), and participants indeed described being guarded against any insincerity.
Participants seemed to want to know that expressions of their value were not motivated by
simple politeness or social expectations, but rather another person’s intrinsic regard for oneself.
Such perceptions of sincerity ware also described as assurances against being deceived towards
ends unrelated to oneself. Consistent with other phenomenological studies, sincerity was
described by some participants as arising through the intimate process of self-disclosure and
acceptance (Montague, 2012) in which interaction partners displayed evidence of their sincerity
through a willingness to offer something of themselves they would not share with just anyone.
Yet, in the present study, interpreting sincerity in another’s behaviors mattered in less intimate
exchanges as well, such as in participant’s examples of a door held open or an email of
appreciation. In these cases, interaction partners still were interpreted as offering something of
themselves as a token of their sincere regard, even if it was only a little extra time, effort, or
enthusiasm in the interaction. Some accounts of sincerity also included an aspect of intuiting or
“feeling” other people’s sincerity. This may partially come from a recognition of another
person’s affective expressions, as most people exhibit distinct facial or vocal patterns when
experiencing intrinsically motivated interest (Silvia, 2008), or focusing their attention upon them
(Reis et al., 2021).
The third auxiliary theme of attending resonates with literature on building rapport and
interpersonal chemistry (Reis et al., 2021), in which experiencing other people’s direction of
gaze and body posture as attentive supports connection. This was evidenced in the anecdote in
which a participant was shown how to safely wash a knife after cutting herself: The way her
coworker turned his attention towards her communicated regard. Many participants used the
term “presence” to describe the quality of attending they perceived in meaningful connections.
78
Presence seemed to indicate attention that is oriented undistractedly, and with emotional
attunement, so that one senses the other person as being psychologically “there” or “with” them.
This is consistent with other phenomenological studies of nourishing social experiences that
identified presence as relevant to participant experience (Register & Henley, 1992; Montigue,
2012; Sommer, 2019). The present findings also differ from such studies, though, in that not all
descriptions of attending in meaningful connection interactions entailed the experience of deep
presence. Simple text messages and emails offered evidence of one person’s holding another
person “in mind.” Attending in response to a partner’s bids for connection is critical to building
strong relationships (Navarra & Gottman, 2019), even though these exchanges often occur in
unremarkable or fleeting interactions. Such actions communicate that another person is willing to
value you over other attentional draws in the environment. What seemed to matter to participants
was that attending felt appropriate to the demands of the situation and was motivated by sincere
regard.
The fourth auxiliary theme of mutuality captured the experience of shared understanding
or involvement. Participants tended to describe interactions where they perceived regard as
reciprocal. There were no clear examples offered from participants of meaningful connections in
which they perceived regard as clearly one-sided. Participants often described feeling
meaningfully connected when they interpreted other people’s thoughts, feelings, interests, goals
or values as consistent with their own. Research suggests that such perceptions of shared reality
should promote a sense of connectedness (Rossignac-Milon et al., 2021). As people make sense
of their shared reality, they co-construct a comprehensible meaning about the world. Thus, the
experience of mutuality may also capture personally significant aspects of coherence that
contribute to meaning in life (King & Hicks, 2021). Perceiving another person as sharing one’s
79
reality may also validate one’s beliefs and feelings, which may contribute to a sense of
mattering. In some cases, descriptions of mutuality also captured shared behavior and activity,
and this may relate to biobehavioral synchrony in some theories of positive human connection
(Fredrickson, 2013). Yet, mutuality was not always described as an interaction partners’
mirroring participants in body or mind, but rather the experience of being joined in shared
involvement, such as when one person provided support and another person received it. This
distinction is consistent with phenomenological accounts in which mutuality is not necessarily
experienced as sameness or symmetry, but rather shared or reciprocal participation in
interpersonal processes (Sommer et al., 2019).
The final auxiliary theme of safety aligns with the robust literature around how social
connection contributes to attachment bonds through interpersonal processes that affirm security
(Pietromonaco & Collins, 2017). Feeling regarded in actual interactions is shown to promote a
sense of security in one’s ongoing relationships (Overall & Simpson, 2013), and participants did
describe perceiving other people’s regard for them as helping them to feel to a sense of safety.
Participants often described meaningful connections with others as providing emotional comfort,
which is consistent with prior theories of connectedness (Hagerty et al., 1993). Many participant
responses involved perceived responsiveness to vulnerability, such that participants felt
understood, validated, and cared for (Reis & Clark, 2013). Indeed, these terms were frequently
volunteered by participants. Responsiveness is robustly shown to promote trust in interactions
between people at all levels of familiarity and closeness, from strangers to close relatives or
friends to romantic partners (Reis & Gable, 2015). Attaining a sense of comfort or security was
not the explicit goal of many interactions described by participants, yet these experiences may
still have promoted safety through the perception of sincere regard. If one perceives they are
80
valued, the threat of indifference or harm should be minimized, and safety need not be
considered.
Strengths and Limitations
This paper has several strengths in contributing to our understanding the phenomenon of
experiencing meaningful connections when interacting with others. First, given the public health
relevance of social connection, and the prevalence of the term meaningful connection, one of this
this study’s strengths is that it connects language people commonly use to describe nourishing
social interactions to various robustly studied interpersonal processes. Research like this should
help to align scientific understandings of important interpersonal processes with applied efforts
to promote meaningful connections in people’s lives. Second, the practice of bracketing within
both interviews and analysis helped to ensure findings are as representative as possible of
individuals’ experiences rather than the researcher’s personal biases.
Aside from those strengths, there are important limitations to this study as well. First,
there is a likelihood of self-selection bias for those adults who chose to participate. The sample
could be biased towards people who are comfortable discussing their social experiences and who
may commonly experience meaningful connections. Therefore, their experiences might represent
only a swatch of potential perceptions, behaviors, or considerations around meaningful
connection. Future studies might benefit from exploring experiences of meaningful connection in
a population more reserved about their social experiences. Second, this study recruited only
people residing in the United States, which limits the cultural relevance of these experiences in
other contexts. Indeed, the meaning of “meaningful connection” as a term may be limited to this
context. Third, the racial/ethnic background of participants was majority white and with
81
relatively high levels of educational attainment. It is imperative that future studies broaden the
scope of participants’ positionalities to ensure all voices are represented.
Conclusion
This study investigated people’s lived experiences of feeling meaningfully connected
with others in social interactions. Nourishing social experiences rely on the perceptions of those
involved. An experience of social connection is only meaningful if one has made meaning of it
as such. This study offers a window into experiences and perceptions relevant to the
phenomenon of meaningful connection. Given the relevance of meaningful connection
interactions for public health efforts, it is hoped that the textured descriptions and analyses herein
are useful in further efforts to understand and promote experiences of meaningful connection.
82
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Table 1
Participant characteristics
Gender Identity
Age
Race/Ethnicity
Education
1
Woman
28
White
4-year degree
2
Woman
24
Asian American or Pacific Islander
Master's degree
3
Woman
18
Asian American or Pacific Islander;
Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish Origin
High school degree
4
Woman
33
White
Master's degree
5
Woman
18
Asian American or Pacific Islander; White
High school degree
6
Man
37
White
4-year degree
7
Woman
43
White
Master's degree
8
Woman
18
White
High school degree
9
Woman
42
White
4-year degree
10
Man
46
White
High school degree
11
Woman
41
White
4-year degree
12
Man
42
White
Master's degree
13
Man
35
White
Master's degree
14
Man
42
White
4-year degree
15
Man
74
White
PhD
16
Man
33
White
Master's degree
17
Man
41
White
4-year degree
18
Man
33
White
4-year degree
88
19
Woman
27
White
4-year degree
20
Woman
25
Black or African American; White
2-year degree
21
Woman
29
White
2-year degree
22
Transmasculine
28
White
2-year degree
23
Woman
33
White
PhD
24
Man
33
Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish Origin; White
PhD
25
Woman
37
White
Master's degree
26
Woman
69
White
Master's degree
27
Man
70
White
Master's degree
28
Man
37
Hispanic, Latino, or Spanish Origin
Master's degree
29
Woman
37
White
PhD
30
Woman
28
Asian American or Pacific Islander
PhD
89
Figure 1
The central theme of regard and five auxiliary themes
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Appendix A
Interview Protocol
1. First of all, tell me a little bit about yourself.
Interviewer Script: I’m going to ask you some questions about specific meaningful moments of
connection that you have recently experienced in the last month.
2. Tell me about a time recently when you had an interaction with someone [you did not
know at all; you know well; you know somewhat well] that felt like a meaningful
connection.
3. What do you think made this experience feel like a meaningful connection?
4. What kinds of emotions did you feel during this interaction?
5. What impact did this interaction have on you after it occurred?
6. How would this interaction have to be different for it to not have felt like a meaningful
connection?
7. What would have made this interaction even more meaningful?
Repeat the above set of prompts until interactions have been described with a stranger,
someone known well, and someone known somewhat well.
8. You’ve now told me several stories about meaningful connections you’ve experienced,
I’m curious, what do you think, in general, makes an experience with another person
feel like a meaningful connection?
9. If you were to offer someone advice about how to have meaningful connections with
others in their lives, what would you say?
Interviewer Script: Now that we’ve are coming to the end of our time together, there are a few
final questions I have for you:
10. Is there anything we have not covered in this interview that you would like to follow
up on?
11. Is there anything you’d like to offer as feedback regarding the questions I’ve asked you
today?
12. Was there anything surprising to you about these questions?
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Chapter 4:
Varieties of Meaningful Connection Experience:
A Latent Profile Analysis of Nourishing Social Interactions
92
Introduction
Feeling connected to other people is increasingly understood as a key aspect of well-
being across the lifespan (Reis et al., 2000; Pietromonaco & Collins, 2017). Important studies
have informed a public consciousness that lacking social connection may not only negatively
impact psychological well-being, but physical health too, even to the point of shortening one’s
life (Holt-Lunstad, 2021). Feeling nourished in one’s needs for connection is often described as
an experience of being meaningfully connected with others, both in scientific literature (e.g.,
Masi et al., 2011; Hawkley et al., 2003) and general discourse (e.g., Brown, 2012). A sense of
meaningful connection with others can be experienced globally as well as in particular social
interactions, yet a definitive consensus of what kinds of interactions people experience as
meaningful is still being developed (Litt et al., 2020).
The field of relationship science has generated an abundant literature in terms of the
kinds of interpersonal and intrapersonal processes that sustain personal relationships. However,
we still lack consensus on what processes are most salient when people talk about feeling a sense
of meaningful connection when engaging with another person. The present research seeks to
describe quantitatively what kinds of experiences people have when they feel meaningfully
connected in social interactions with others in their lives.
Meaning and Connection
One straightforward way to approach the construct of meaningful connection experiences
is through the two bodies of literature implicated by the term itself: meaning and connection.
Meaning in life is understood by current research and theory as consisting of a sense of purpose
in one’s life, coherence in one’s sense of the world, and a sense of mattering (King & Hicks,
2021). This body of research shows that experiences that promote a sense of meaning in life are
93
often interpersonal, with social experiences being key predictors of a sense that one’s life has
meaning. Social interactions help people make coherent sense of the world (Rossignac-Milon et
al., 2021). When something does not make sense in life, such as stressful life-events, engaging
with others may help us to create meaning (Park, 2010). Importantly, positive social experiences
are also key drivers of mattering. For example, the sociometer theory (Leary & Baumeister,
2000) describes a sense of self-esteem as cultivated through one’s perceptions that they are
valued in their relationships. Meaningful moments of social connection likely affirm the sense
that a person is of value. Indeed, studies show a strong association between fulfilling social
interactions and greater self-esteem (Denissen et al. 2008).
The literature on feeling connected to others in social interactions is robust yet less
clearly organized than that of meaning in life. The experience of being connected to another
person has been described and defined in numerous frameworks (Townsend & Mcwhirter, 2005),
yet these frameworks often outline particular types of social interactions relevant to connection
within particular contexts. For example, high quality connections is a framework articulated in
the field of business management describing workplace interactions high in cognitive and
emotional empathy, positive emotions, and positive regard (Stephens et al., 2011). Another
example is patient-provider connections in medical settings, characterized by interactions that are
empathic, respectful, and caring, and that promote belonging and trust (Phillips-Salimi et al.,
2011). Connectedness in social interactions is consistently conceptualized as a multidimensional
construct, experienced through various personal feelings, motives, social perceptions, and
interpersonal behaviors.
94
Means of Experiencing Meaningful Connections
A review of the literature on social interactions suggests a number of potential means by
which people may experience meaningful connection. One well-researched way that people feel
connected with one another is through emotional intimacy. Emotional intimacy has been
theorized and studied as a dyadic process (Reis & Shaver, 1988) in which one partner self-
discloses personally relevant and emotionally salient information, and their interaction partner
responds in such a way that the discloser perceives their interaction partner as being responsive.
Responsiveness includes the perception of an interaction partner as understanding, validating,
and offering care, which cultivates closeness and trust (Reis & Clark, 2013). Importantly, this
process is mediated by both of the interaction partners’ subjective interpretations of the other’s
communication. Research supports the role of mutual disclosure in facilitating intimacy in
interactions (Laurenceau et al., 1998), as well as in promoting a sense of liking (Collins &
Miller, 1994).
Another likely means of experiencing meaningful connection is through providing and
receiving social support. Social support may be characterized as instrumental support involving
tangible assistance, emotional support involving empathic care, or informational support
involving helpful information or meaning-making (Taylor, 2011). These kinds of social support
communicate that the support recipient is valued and worthy of care. Social support may be
offered in aversive contexts, such as assistance in times of stress, or positive contexts such as aid
and encouragement towards personal growth (Pietromonaco & Collins, 2017). Providing social
support to others should benefit feelings of connectedness, as long as one feels that their support
was effective and that they were not compelled to be supportive but chose to act autonomously
95
(Inagaki & Orehek, 2017). Emotional support is likely driven by a provider’s sense of empathy
and the recipient’s sense of being empathized with (Morelli et al., 2015).
Meaningful connection interactions likely involve a perception of common ground
between self and other in terms of feelings, goals, behaviors, or the content of interactions.
Perceived similarity to another person may be associated with closeness and liking (Sprecher,
2014), and is likely to promote a sense of trust (Reis & Clark, 2013). Sharing an activity that
involves coordinated goals and actions may promote social bonding (Wolf et al., 2016).
Perceiving a sense of shared reality, in terms of feelings, beliefs, or concerns, in an interaction is
also shown to bolster the sense of connection between people of varied levels of familiarity
(Rossignac-Milon et al., 2021).
Meaningful connection may occur through a convivial exchange, such as through
positivity resonance (Fredrickson, 2013), an interpersonal process characterized by shared
positive emotions and biobehavioral synchrony that sustains mutual positive affect. When self-
disclosing positive personal information, a process called capitalization describes the perception
of others’ actively understanding, validating, and showing care around good news (Gable &
Reis, 2010), which helps sustain positive affect and strengthen bonds. Another form of
conviviality is affiliative humor — as opposed to aggressive, self-defeating, or self-enhancing
forms of humor – which may function to uplift affect and promote connection (Martin et al.,
2003).
Several of the interpersonal processes described above involve aspects related to security.
Attaining security in personal relationships is a fundamental motivation throughout the life span
(Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003), and feeling a sense of security should be a key aspect of some
interactions promoting meaningful connection (Pietromonaco & Collins, 2017). Importantly, a
96
sense of emotional vulnerability may be experienced in the process of achieving felt security, as
interactions promoting trust likely include taking an interpersonal risk that provides an
interaction partner the opportunity to respond beneficently as testament to the security of the
relationship (Simpson, 2007). Vulnerability is therefore relevant in disclosing personal
information as a means of cultivating intimacy or deciding to share emotional distress as a means
of eliciting empathetic support.
Psychological Contexts of Meaningful Connection
How we perceive and recall social interactions is affected by our psychological well-
being. Mental health disorders may attenuate important capacities for experiencing moments of
meaningful connection, for example through limited accuracy in perceiving others’ mental or
emotional states, or a bias toward negative attributions in social contexts (Lavoie et al., 2014;
Hoertnagl & Hofer, 2014). Of specific relevance to meaningful connections is the psychological
challenge of loneliness, characterized by experiencing one’s subjective needs for social
connection being unmet (Cacioppo, 2015). Loneliness is constituted by maladaptive social
cognitions, including vigilance for interpersonal threats, and bias towards negative elements of a
social context (Masi et al., 2011). Loneliness may therefore inhibit people’s participation in
social exchanges or impede their construal of interpersonal experiences as meaningful. Biases
toward experiencing and remembering negative aspects of interpersonal experiences can create a
self-reinforcing cycle over time, such that the more lonely one feels, the more one experiences
social interactions negatively, which furthers feelings of isolation (Cacioppo et al., 2015). Lower
psychological well-being or loneliness may therefore be relevant to how individuals both
experience and recall interactions perceived as meaningful connection.
97
The Present Study
The present study seeks to empirically examine various ways in which meaningful
connections may be engaged in and experienced. Given the importance of meaningful
connections for psychological, physiological, and relationship health, this study aims to explore
and organize various interpersonal processes likely related to a sense of meaningful connection
through person-centered analysis. Following from prior research and theory, as well as two
exploratory studies inquiring qualitatively as to how people experience interactions they perceive
as meaningful connections (Smallen, 2021a; Smallen, 2021b), this study identified nine potential
indicators of meaningful connection. These indicators represented interpersonal or intrapersonal
processes which may be experienced to different degrees across different types of social
interactions. Indicators representing interpersonal processes include convivial exchanges, sharing
common ground, providing or receiving social support, and the experience of intimacy.
Indicators also represented psychological processes such as experiencing a sense of security, an
affirmation that one matters, a feeling of personal significance in regards to purpose and
coherence, and a sense of vulnerability. In seeking to identify heterogenous ways that
meaningful connection interactions may be reported across these indicators, this study firsts asks
the question, “What kinds of experiences do people have in interactions perceived as meaningful
connections?” Second, this study will explore whether significant differences exist between
people reporting different kinds of meaningful connection experiences in terms of the extent to
which they felt meaningfully connected with an interaction partner. Finally, this study will
explore whether people reporting different kinds of meaningful connection experiences
significantly differ in their general levels of psychological well-being and loneliness.
98
Method
This study was approved by the Institutional Review Board of University of Wisconsin-
Madison (Protocol number: 2021-0996).
Recruitment
The sample for this study included 341 participants recruited via Prolific, a company
offering an online participant pool for research with the option of choosing a sample that is
representative of the United State in terms of race, age, and gender. Additional responses were
collected to include participants who identified as Hispanic/Latino, as ethnic background was not
included in Prolific’s representational sample recruitment option. The final sample was not a
perfect representational sample, although age, racial/ethnic background, and gender are
reasonably reflective of current United States demographics.
Participant Demographics
All participants reported being United States residents. Participant age ranged from 18 to
76, with mean age being 38 with a standard deviation of 17, and median age being 34.
Participant gender identity was reported as 54% women, 45% men, less than 1% non-binary, and
less than 1% preferring not to say. The racial/ethnic background of participants was as follows
(participants could check multiple categories): 2% American Indian or Native American, 11%
Asian American or Pacific Islander, 13% Black or African American, 21% Hispanic, Latino, or
Spanish Origin, 61% White, and 2% selecting Other. The highest level of education completed
was reported as: 1% less than high school, 36% high school degree, 11% 2-year degree, 31% 4-
year degree (e.g., B.A., B.S.), 18% master’s degree, 3% PhD or professional degree (e.g., J.D,
M.D.). Annual household income was: 5% less than $10,000; 8% $10,000-19,999; 9% $20,000-
29,999; 7% $30,000-39,999; 7% $40,000-49,999; 8% $50,000-59,000; 8% $60,000-69,999; 7%
99
$70,000-79,999; 3% $80,000-89,999; 8% $90,000 -99,999; 15% $100,000-149,999; 10%,
$150,000 or more; and 5% preferred not to say. The median household income was in the range
$60,000-69,000. Region of residence was 56% suburban, 33% urban, and 11% rural.
Procedure
Participants were paid $4.00 each, an amount suggested as fair by Prolific for the length
of time it took to complete the survey. Participants wrote about a recent interaction they
experienced as a meaningful connection that occurred during the previous 30 days with a person
they knew well. Participants completed survey items using Likert scales to assess specific
aspects of their experience. Participants also completed validated scales assessing psychological
well-being and loneliness followed by a survey of demographic information.
Measures
Descriptions of meaningful connections were collected via open ended questions
regarding meaningful connection experiences participants had with a person they knew well.
Participants indicated their relationship to the person they interacted with, a description of the
experience of meaningful connection, a description of why they thought the interaction felt to
them like a meaningful connection, and a description of how they were affected by the
experience. The purpose of these descriptions for this analysis was to prime participants’
memories of meaningful connection experiences so they were better positioned to answer survey
questions, and to triangulate survey data to ensure the trustworthiness of responses.
Observed Indicators of Meaningful Connection
Experiences of meaningful connection were assessed with 30-items on a 7-point Likert
scale (Scale included in Appendix B). This assessment was developed from thematic coding in
two qualitative studies (Smallen, 2021a; Smallen, 2021b). This scale consisted of nine subscales
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derived from item content and exploratory factor analysis of an initial pool of 44 items. The
purpose of constructing a new scale for this study was to generate an inventory of items that
reflect the aspects of meaningful connection experiences that participants often focused on in
qualitative descriptions, as well as the kinds of language participants regularly used. All items
were rated on a Likert scale (1 = not at all, 7= a great deal). Subscales of the experiences of
meaningful connections scale are as follows:
Conviviality. Conviviality was characterized by perceptions of fun, positivity, and humor
in an interaction, and included three items, such as, “I had a lot of fun,α = .86.
Common ground. Common ground was characterized by perceptions of similarity,
mutual goals, and shared feelings between self and other, and included three items, such as, “We
connected about things we have in common,α = .74.
Support provision. Support provision was characterized by the perception of effectively
supporting another person, and included four items, such as, “I was able to support this person,
α = .92.
Support Receipt. Support receipt was characterized by experiencing another person as
effectively supportive, and included four items, such as, “I felt supported by this person,α =
.95.
Security. Security was characterized by the sense of psychological safety in an
interaction, and included three items, such as, “I felt safe with this person,α = .81.
Affirmation. Affirmation was characterized by a positive perception of the value of
one’s self in an interaction, and included three items, such as, “I felt like I mattered,α = .82.
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Personal significance. Personal significance was characterized by experiences relevant
to one’s purpose and coherence of their meaning system, and included three items such as, “I
was able to live out my values and purpose,α = .82.
Vulnerability. Vulnerability was characterized by a sense of psychological risk and
anxiety in an interaction and included three items, such as, “I felt vulnerable at times,α = .83.
Intimacy. Intimacy was characterized by mutual self-disclosure and a sense of depth in
the content of the interaction, and included four items, such as, “I shared something personal that
I wouldn’t share with just anyone,α = .79.
Dependent Variables
In addition to having participants write about their recent experiences of meaningful
connection and complete ratings describing the particularities of those experiences, participants
completed three measures related to their overall sense of meaningful connectedness in the
interaction they reported and global well-being.
Meaningful Connectedness. Meaningful connectedness reflected how close participants
felt to their interaction partners, and included two items, such as, “How meaningfully connected
did you feel to this person?” (1 = not at all, 5 = a great deal), r = .61.
Psychological Well-Being. Psychological Well-Being was assessed using the short form
of the Mental Health Inventory (MHI-5; Berwick et al., 1991), which includes five items.
Prompted with, “How much of the time, during the last month, have you…” participants
completed items such as, “…been a very nervous person?” and “…felt downhearted and blue?
(1 = not at all, 5 = a great deal), α = .89.
Loneliness. Loneliness was assessed using the short form of the UCLA Loneliness Scale
(Neto, 1992; Neto, 2014; Russell et al., 1980), which includes six items. Prompted with “How
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often do you…” participants responded to items such as, “lack companionship” and “feel
isolated from others?(1= never, 4 = always), α =.85.
Plan for Analysis
This study utilized latent profile analysis (LPA) to identify distinct heterogeneous groups,
called profiles, from the different ways participants reported experiencing meaningful connection
in interactions. LPA identified these distinct profiles based on participant response patterns to
each of the nine experiences of meaningful connection subscales – called observed indicator
variables in LPA – such that participants classified into each group were more similar to one
another in regards to their reports of meaningful connection experiences than they were to
participants classified in other groups.
All variables were standardized for analysis, such that mean levels were zero and
standard deviations were 1.00. Meaningful connection indicator variables were truncated at 3.00
standard deviations above or below sample means to eliminate the over-influence of outliers.
Using Mplus version 8.4, 10 separate mixture models were estimated, with 1 to 10 profiles or
groups. Each person has a 0-1.00 likelihood of being in each profile. Each of those 10 models
were examined and compared in order to select the one model that provided the most optimal
empirical fit to the data and also described the data most meaningfully and parsimoniously.
Criteria for selecting a mixture model for interpretation and further analysis was informed
by general best practices for LPA (i.e., Jung & Wickrama, 2008). First, lower values for the
Akaike Information Criterion (AIC; Akaike, 1974) and Bayesian Information Criterion (BIC;
Schwarz, 1978) were used to indicate better fit. A scree plot of the BIC revealed inflection
points, when reductions start to level off. Second, statistically significant values for the Vuong-
Lo-Mendell-Rubin (VLMR) and Bootstrap Likelihood Ratio Test (BLRT) statistics indicated
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whether each model was superior to a model with one fewer profiles. Third, entropy was
examined, with values above .80 considered acceptable and values closer to 1.00 indicating the
model’s enhanced ability to differentiate profiles. Fourth, models in which profiles included over
5% of the sample were preferred to reduce the likelihood that any profile would contain a small
unrepresentative group of participants. Fifth, each profile needed to be meaningful and
interpretable based on theory and prior research.
After selecting the most meaningful and parsimonious model with acceptable fit indices,
relations were examined between the profiles of the selected model and three dependent
variables, called distal outcomes in LPA: meaningful connectedness, psychological well-being,
and loneliness. To do so, this analysis utilized the Bolck-Croon-Hagenaars (BCH; Bolck et al.,
2004) manual three-step approach (Nylund-Gibson et al., 2019). This analysis assessed mean
differences between participants’ reports of meaningful connection experiences belonging to
each profile on each of the dependent measures. Given that each participant’s report of
meaningful connection is classified to a profile based on probability, the BCH three-step
approach uses the probability of profile assignment as an inverse weight to account for
uncertainty in profile classification and enhance precision in estimates.
Results
Open ended descriptions of meaningful connections were reviewed from a total of 393
survey responses and questionable responses were removed for the following reasons. Twenty
responses were removed for incomprehensibility, perhaps due to submissions assisted by an
algorithm or copied from a translation program. Twenty-five responses were removed due to
uncertainty as to whether the participant understood the survey questions or offered trustworthy
responses, including if the response described an interaction that clearly occurred prior to 30
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days ago, if the response described a relationship in general rather than a particular interaction,
or if the response described an interpersonal experience that included many social interactions
(e.g., taking a vacation together). Finally, seven responses were removed due to participants’
selecting nonsensical responses, such as reporting that they knew their interaction partner “not at
all” after having been asked to report an experience with someone they “knew well.” After
reviewing responses, 341 responses remained for analysis.
Table 1 presents descriptive statistics for variables included in the study, consisting of
means, standard deviations, and ranges. In general, participants utilized a wide range of response
options for each variable, however, mean scores on some variables were relatively high.
Skewness was 1.56 standard deviations or less for all variables in analysis, and kurtosis was 1.76
standard deviations or less for all variables, except security, which had a value of 3.36, and
affirmation, which had a value of 2.97.
Correlations are presented in Table 2. The nine observed indicators of the profiles of
meaningful connection were, in general, significantly correlated with one another at small (.10-
.29) to moderate (.30-.49) levels, with a cluster of higher correlations of around .50 between
support receipt, security, and affirmation. Support provision and support receipt were not
significantly correlated, and vulnerability showed non-significant or weak correlations with all
indicator variables aside from intimacy and conviviality, which were negative.
The purported outcome variable, meaningful connectedness was significantly correlated
with all observed indicator variables, except vulnerability. Psychological well-being was
significantly correlated with all observed indicator variables, except support receipt, security, and
intimacy, but the relation with vulnerability was negative. In contrast, loneliness was correlated
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with some observed indicator variables, but not conviviality, common ground, support receipt
security, affirmation, personal significance, or intimacy.
Latent Profile Analysis
Model fit indices for latent profile models from 1 to 10 profiles are presented in Table 3.
When the 1-profile model was compared to the 2-profile model, the 2-profile model had a better
model fit indicated by lower AIC and BIC, significant VLMR and BLRT values, and higher
entropy. The 2-profile model included one profile with moderate scores across all indicators and
one profile with high scores across all indicators. When the 2-profile model was compared to the
3-profile model, the 3-profile model had a better model fit as indicated by lower AIC and BIC, a
significant BLRT value, and higher entropy, but the VLMR indicated that the 2-profile model
was preferable. Compared to the 2-profile model, the 3-profile model added a profile with low
scores across all indicators, except for vulnerability and intimacy, which had scores closer to the
sample average. When the 3-profile model was compared to the 4-profile model, the 4-profile
model had a better model fit indicated by lower AIC and BIC, a significant BLRT value, and
higher entropy, but the VLMR indicated that the 3-profile model was preferable. Compared to
the 3-profile model, the 4-profile model added a profile high in social support receipt, security,
and affirmation. When the 4-profile model was compared to the 5-profile model, the 5-profile
model had a better model fit indicated by lower AIC and BIC, significant VLMR and BLRT
values, and higher entropy. Compared to the 4-profile model, the 5-profile model added a profile
high in support provision. When comparing the models with 6-10 profiles, the AIC continued to
drop without reaching an inversion point, indicating that each time a new profile was added to
the model, model fit increased. The BIC inverted at the 9-profile model, indicating a better fit
with the 9-profile model compared to all other models. However, as depicted in Figure 1, the
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scree plot suggested a striking leveling off of BIC values in the 6- to 10-profile models, with
little advantage accrued from the extra profiles. Additionally, in the 6- to 10-profile models, the
VLMR statistics were always non-significant, indicating that no model with one extra profile
was preferable to a model with one fewer profiles. In contrast, the BLRT showed the opposite
pattern, always favoring more models with additional profiles. In the 6- to 10-profile models,
entropy was high, .92-.93, but never got substantially better. Finally, in the 6- to 10-profile
models, no new profiles emerged that were meaningfully interpretable, based on prior theory and
research, that also represented a substantial portion of the sample. Thus, the 5-profile model was
selected for interpretation and further analysis. Across the five profiles in this model, average
posterior probabilities of participants actually belonging to the profile in which they were
classified were high, ranging from .92 to .99.
Each of the five profiles was labeled to describe the most salient aspects of that profile in
comparison to the others. Profile 1: High Multidimensional Connection included 39% of the
sample and was characterized by above average scores on all indicator variables, except
vulnerability. Profile 2: Moderate Multidimensional Connection included 29% of the sample and
was characterized by average scores on conviviality, common ground, support provision, support
receipt, vulnerability, and intimacy, but below average scores on security, affirmation, and
personal significance. Profile 3: High Support Receipt included 14% of the sample and was
characterized by relatively high scores on support receipt, security, affirmation, and
vulnerability, as well as below average scores on conviviality, common ground, support
provision, and intimacy. Profile 4: High Support Provision included 9% of the sample and was
characterized by above average scores on support provision and intimacy, and below average
scores on conviviality, common ground, and support receipt. Finally, Profile 5: Low
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Psychological Nourishment included 9% of the sample and was characterized by below average
scores on all indicator variables, except vulnerability, with especially low scores on support
receipt, security, and affirmation. Mean scores for each of the nine observed indicators across
each of the five profiles are included in the upper section of Table 4. Prototypical responses from
participants likely to be in each profile are presented in Table 5.
Relations Between Meaningful Connection Profiles and Outcome Variables
Results of the manual 3-step BCH analysis revealed estimates of relations between the
five meaningful connection profiles and the three outcome variables: how meaningfully
connected participants recalled feeling in their social interactions, ratings of psychological well-
being, and ratings of loneliness. For each profile, the standardized mean of the outcome variables
are presented in the lower section of Table 4.
On average, people reporting interactions in the High Multidimensional Connection
profile rated their feelings of meaningful connectedness as 1.42 standard deviations higher than
the comparable ratings of people reporting interactions in the Low Psychological Nourishment
profile (p < .001); .39 standard deviations higher than the ratings of people reporting interactions
in the High Support Receipt profile (p = .014); .77 standard deviations higher than the ratings of
people reporting interactions in the Moderate Multidimensional Connection profile (p < .001);
and .40 standard deviations higher than the ratings of people reporting interactions in the High
Support Provision profile (p = .048). People reporting interactions in the High Support Receipt
profile rated their feelings of meaningful connectedness as 1.03 standard deviations higher than
the ratings of people with interactions in the Low Psychological Nourishment profile (p < .001),
and .38 standard deviations higher than the ratings of people with interactions in the Moderate
Multidimensional Connection profile (p = .04). People reporting interactions in the High Support
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Provision profile did not report significantly greater feelings of meaningful connectedness than
people with interactions in the High Support Receipt or Moderate Multidimensional Connection
profiles, but they did rate their feelings of meaningful connectedness as 1.05 standard deviations
greater than the ratings of people with interactions in the Low Psychological Nourishment profile
(p <.001). Mean levels of meaningful connectedness for people reporting interactions in the Low
Psychological Nourishment profile were therefore significantly lower than scores for people with
interactions classified in all other profiles, and notably over 1.00 standard deviations lower than
the ratings of people reporting interactions in the High Multidimensional Connection, High
Support Receipt, and High Support Provision profiles.
In contrast to the results for ratings of feelings of meaningful connectedness, significant
differences in psychological well-being among people whose reports of meaningful connection
belonged to different profiles were more limited. In this case, people with interactions in the
High Multidimensional Connection profile and people with interactions in the High Support
Provision Profile reported psychological well-being that was .52 and .47 standard deviations
higher, respectively, than the psychological well-being of people whose interactions belonged in
the High Support Receipt profile (p < .01, and p = .03, respectively). There were no other
significant differences in psychological well-being among people whose reported interactions
belonged to any of the other profiles.
More striking still, there were no statistically significant differences in ratings of
loneliness among people reporting interactions in any of the five profiles of meaningful
connection.
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Discussion
This study explored the kinds of social interactions that people experience as meaningful
connections with others in their lives. Five distinct profiles of meaningful connection were
identified across an array of commonly experienced psychological and interpersonal processes.
Subsequent analysis found differences between some profiles in terms of how meaningfully
connected participants reported feeling, as well as participants’ global psychological well-being.
Yet no differences were found in terms of loneliness between participants whose reported
meaningful connections belonged to different profiles. Given the importance of meaningful
connection with others for well-being across the lifespan (Holt-Lunstad, 2021), the present
findings offer a useful, empirically derived description of the various ways in which meaningful
connection may be experienced through social interaction.
Varieties of Meaningful Connection Experience
There are multiple distinct ways that people experience meaningful connection in social
interactions, and this study highlights five of them: High Multidimensional Connection,
Moderate Multidimensional Connection, High Support Receipt, High Support Provision, and
Low Psychological Nourishment. Each of the nine meaningful connection indicator variables
contributed to the heterogeneity of these five latent profiles. Some profiles were characterized by
above or below average ratings on a small number of indicators whereas reports of meaningful
connections in other profiles included similar scores across a majority of the observed indicators.
The High Multidimensional Connection profile included the largest percentage of the
sample. Participants reported above average levels for all indicator variables aside from
vulnerability. This suggests that many experiences of meaningful connection may be
multifaceted engagements involving various interpersonal processes that are well-established in
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the literature on social interactions, such as intimacy (Reis & Shaver, 1988), shared positive
emotion (Fredrickson, 2013), or social support provision and receipt (Taylor, 2011). The
prototypical example of an interaction belonging to the High Multidimensional Connection
profile shows how an episode of connection may be highly representative of multiple indicators
of meaningful connection. The participant describes conviviality in discussing a comedic TV
show, as well as engaging in mutual support and intimate self-disclosure. All of these dimensions
are experienced in the context of a shared loss around which the participant reports personally
significant sense-making indicative of common ground.
The Moderate Multidimensional Connection profile also represented the experiences of
many people. Similar to the High Multidimensional Connection profile, the interactions reported
by people in this profile included a wide variety of experiences relevant to meaningful
connection. In contrast to the people in the High Multidimensional Connection profile, however,
the people in the Moderate Multidimensional Connection profile endorsed those experiences at
more moderate or less intense levels. Together, the kinds of interactions reported by people in
these two profiles account for around two-thirds of the interactions reported by the sample,
suggesting that meaningful connection experiences inclusive of many interpersonal and
intrapersonal experiences may be common.
Two profiles that contained smaller percentages of the sample were characterized by
robustly studied social support processes: High Support Receipt and High Support Provision.
Both receiving and providing support have been shown to promote aspects of personal well-
being (Taylor, 2011). Support receipt clearly provides psychological, physiological, and
relational benefits, and is understood to elicit a sense of social connection (Pietromonaco &
Collins, 2017), both in terms of receiving support in stressful contexts, as well as receiving
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encouragement toward positive endeavors. Attempts at social support provision often miss the
mark (Taylor, 2011), so it is likely that the participants whose reports of meaningful connection
belong to the High Support Receipt profile also perceived interaction partners’ support as highly
responsive to their actual needs. This is consistent with the high scores in security reported by
people with interactions in the High Support Receipt profile, as perceived responsiveness should
promote feelings of trust (Reis & Gable, 2015).
The presence of the High Support Provision profile is consistent with research indicating
that providing social support to others can promote a sense of connection (Inagaki &
Eisenberger, 2012) and contribute to one’s sense of meaning or purpose (Taylor, 2011; King &
Hicks, 2021). Support providers generally experience these positive outcomes when they feel
they acted both autonomously and effectively (Inagaki & Orehek, 2017), which could therefore
be expected of the experiences reported in this profile. One pathway toward feeling socially
connected when providing social support is receiving gratitude for being responsive to others
(Park et al., 2020). Thus, feeling appreciated may account for the mean level of affirmation for
interactions in the High Support Provision profile despite the focus of such interactions on the
recipient of support. High levels of intimacy reported for interactions in the High Support
Provision profile suggest that the support offered in such interactions may trend toward
providing emotional, rather than instrumental or informational support.
The Low Psychological Nourishment profile also included a relatively small percentage
of the sample. People whose reported interactions belonged to this profile endorsed all indicators
of meaningful connection at below average levels – with the exception of vulnerability—and
reported especially low scores on social support, security, and affirmation. Despite the
comparatively minimal endorsements of these important aspects of social connection, this profile
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still exemplifies a kind of interaction that may be perceived as a meaningful connection. The
prototypical response belonging to the Low Psychological Nourishment profile highlights how
even a less secure or affirming meaningful connection experience may be of value: A participant
describes experiencing an amicable, perhaps bittersweet, and mutually self-disclosive interaction
with a spouse with whom she is in the process of a seemingly high-conflict divorce.
Differences in Meaningful Connectedness
This study found several important differences among the people in the different profiles
in terms of how meaningfully connected they reported feeling in their interactions. People with
interactions classified to the High Multidimensional Connection profile reported the highest
levels of feeling meaningfully connected, while also highly endorsing a majority of indicators.
People with interactions in the High Support Receipt and High Support Provision profiles also
reported relatively higher levels of feeling meaningfully connected and highly endorsed at least
one indicator. People with interactions in the Moderate Multidimensional Connection and Low
Psychological Nourishment profiles reported drastically lower levels of feeling meaningfully
connected, and did not endorse any indicators above the sample mean. This pattern suggests that
interactions in which people feel the most meaningfully connected need not include intense
experiences of many indicators. It may be that only one or two indicators need to be strongly
experienced for highly meaningful connection.
People in the Low Psychological Nourishment profile recalled feeling much less
meaningfully connected than people in the other profiles. As stated above, interactions classified
in the Low Psychological Nourishment profile may not represent the pinnacle of meaningful
connectedness, but these experiences still represent a form that meaningful connection
interactions may take. Some such interactions may result in a relatively minor sense of
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meaningful connectedness but have a positive impact on relationships. For example, bids for
connection are often small elicitations for attention or care between romantic partners that, when
consistently responded to over time, provide a strong foundation for relationships (Navarra &
Gottman, 2019). Also, some social interactions that allow relationship partners to maintain their
connection may involve challenges such as personal sacrifice or conflict resolution (Rusbult et
al., 2004) which could perhaps limit the intensity of the meaningful connectedness one
experiences.
This study consisted of a person-centered analysis, focusing on relations between profiles
of people who reported similar meaningful connections based on their scores across multiple
variables, rather than on relations between specific variables. Yet an important pattern did arise
in terms of how two specific indicator variables related to meaningful connectedness. Across the
profiles, meaningful connectedness scores are ordered consistent with scores for both security
and affirmation, such that people with interactions belonging to profiles higher in these two
variables reported higher scores in feeling meaningfully connected. This pattern is perhaps not
surprising, given that experiencing security in interactions is an essential factor in the health of
attachment bonds (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2003), and feeling affirmed that one matters is a key
dimension of meaning in life (King & Hicks, 2021).
Differences in Psychological Well-Being and Loneliness
Some important differences were found among the different profiles in terms of
psychological well-being and loneliness. Mean scores on psychological well-being for people
reporting interactions in the High Multi-Dimensional Connection and High Support Provision
profiles were significantly higher than for people reporting interactions in the High Support
Receipt profile. It may be that interactions high in the perceived receipt of responsive social
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support are an especially salient form of meaningful connection for those who are struggling
with well-being. This would resonate with prior qualitative accounts of how meaningful
connection often meets people’s basic needs (Smallen, 2021a). This pattern points to how an
individual’s needs in a specific psychological context may define what kinds of social
interactions are experienced as meaningful connection.
Levels of psychological well-being were not significantly different between people
reporting interactions in the High Multidimensional Connection and the Low Psychological
Nourishment profiles. This indicates that people both high and low in psychological well-being
reported interactions belonging to each of these profiles despite extremely divergent scores
between these two profiles on most indicator variables. Similarly, the lack of significant
differences across profiles in terms of loneliness suggests that interactions in each of the five
profiles were reported by people both high and low in loneliness. It is perhaps surprising that
greater discrepancies in psychological well-being and loneliness were not found between people
reporting interactions in different profiles. Struggles with mental health (Lavoie et al., 2014;
Hoertnagl & Hofer, 2014) and chronic loneliness (Cacioppo et al., 2015) may negatively impact
how people perceive social interactions. Therefore, one might expect that interactions belonging
to profiles characterized by lower scores across observed indicators would have been reported by
people with a propensity to negatively perceive social interactions. It may be that, despite a
decreased propensity to interpret social interactions positively when struggling with low
psychological well-being or loneliness, people still could point to recent experiences that did
meet their need for meaningful connection. It is possible that those people who are more lonely
are experiencing meaningful connections less frequently, or it may be that such interactions
occur but do not fully satiate one’s subjective needs for connection in general.
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Strengths and Limitations
As an addition to the literature on nourishing social interactions, especially in terms of
promoting a more nuanced empirical understanding of individual experiences, this study has
several strengths. First, the sample was sufficiently large, as well as diverse in terms of
racial/ethnic background, gender identity, age, and socioeconomic status, which should increase
the breadth of applicability of these findings. Second, many studies offer a variable-centered
analysis of social interactions which often limits an understanding of how those variables are
related to one another in the experiences of individual people. A strength of this study is that it
adds nuance to the literature by offering an empirically based person-centered description of how
individuals vary in the ways they report experiencing meaningful connections. Third, the
observed indicators of meaningful connection included in this study were derived from the
results of qualitative studies examining how individuals spontaneously described their
meaningful connection experiences. This should increase confidence that the findings in this
study relate broadly to people’s actual experiences.
There are also important limitations to this study. First, this study relied on people’s
recollections of meaningful connection interactions, and therefore may not fully reflect their
actual in-the-moment experience. Future studies may examine more immediate reports of
meaningful connections, and utilize data collection methods that allow for predictions across
time, such as daily diary studies. Second, this study relied on people’s self-reports for all data.
Some of the relations among observed indicators or among profiles of meaningful connection
and outcomes may be due to common informants. Relatedly, given that the High
Multidimensional Connection profile showed above average scores on eight of the nine indicator
variables and for the meaningful connectedness outcome, it is conceivable that some interactions
116
were classified to this group due to the participant’s bias toward providing more positive
responses in general. Future studies would benefit from collecting multiple types of additional
data, such as independent observer ratings of meaningful connection interactions, to triangulate
responses. Finally, this study focused on people’s meaningful connection experiences with other
people who were well-known to them. Research suggests that interactions with both intimately
known and less well-known others may each play a role in promoting a global sense of
connection (Cacioppo et al., 2015). Interactions with strangers are often more meaningful than
one expects (Kardas, et al., 2021). Therefore, future research should also explore the kinds of
interactions experienced as meaningful connections with acquaintances and strangers. Such
studies may highlight other profiles of meaningful connection not identified in this analysis.
Implications and Conclusions
At its heart, this study suggests there are many forms of meaningful connection that
people may experience, with an array of interpersonal and intrapersonal processes involved to
varying degrees. There is therefore no one right way to achieve a sense of meaningful connection
in an interaction with another person. Instead, many ways of interacting and perceiving
interactions may be effective in promoting meaningful connection experiences. Given that
maladaptive social cognition is key to low levels of perceived social connectedness (Cacioppo et
al., 2015), this study points to various aspects of social experiences that a person may focus
attention on as evidence that they are connecting with another person. For example, it may be
easier for some people to practice noticing when they are enjoying a moment of shared laughter
indicative of conviviality. For another person, noting their feeling of security when someone
offers them support might provide an inroad to feeling connected. In short, there are options for
meaningful connection experiences. All profiles included experiences reported by people both
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high and low in loneliness, so no ways of connection should be minimized or discarded as
potential means of establishing meaningful connection for lonely individuals.
In sum, many of the most significant and nourishing moments of life occur in experiences
of meaningful connection with others. This study leveraged a person-centered analysis to gain
insight into these important moments through empirically derived descriptions of various ways
meaningful connections are experienced. These findings could serve as the starting point of an
organizational framework articulating the diverse kinds of social and psychological experiences
people may have when they feel meaningfully connected in an interaction. Altogether, it is hoped
this study informs research and practice about how people experience meaningful connections so
we can develop more effective interventions to promote these critically important experiences.
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Table 1
Descriptive statistics for indicator and outcome variables
Mean
Standard
Deviation
Range
Skewness
Kurtosis
Observed Indicators
Conviviality
5.27
1.50
1.00 - 7.00
-.73
-.33
Common Ground
6.00
.96
3.00 - 7.00
-.93
.24
Support Provision
5.88
1.11
2.00 - 7.00
-.96
.14
Support Receipt
6.06
1.08
1.00 - 7.00
-1.36
1.76
Security
6.45
.69
2.67 - 7.00
-1.56
3.36
Affirmation
6.26
.83
2.33 - 7.00
-1.44
2.97
Personal Significance
5.61
1.04
2.00 - 7.00
-.45
-.28
Vulnerability
4.44
1.66
1.00 - 7.00
-.44
-.79
Intimacy
5.77
1.17
1.00 - 7.00
-1.28
1.72
Outcome Variables
Meaningfully Connected
4.63
.50
2.50 - 5.00
-1.28
1.36
Psychological Well-
Being
4.10
1.06
1.00 - 6.00
-.47
-.46
Loneliness
2.30
.71
1.00 – 4.00
.04
-.69
Note. n = 341; all variables listed here are unstandardized, all variables were standardized for
analysis.
125
Table 2
Correlations between meaningful connection indicators, meaningful connectedness, and
psychological well-being
1.
2.
3.
4.
5.
6.
7.
8.
9.
10.
11.
Observed Indicators
1. Conviviality
2. Common Ground
.39
3. Support Provision
.26
.34
4. Support Receipt
.36
.39
.08
5. Security
.27
.41
.15
.48
6. Affirmation
.41
.40
.28
.54
.54
7. Personal
Significance
.27
.44
.36
.43
.29
.46
8. Vulnerability
-.25
-.04
-.02
.16
.02
.03
.12
9. Intimacy
.03
.30
.42
.15
.25
.26
.35
.32
Outcome Variables
10. Meaningful
Connectedness
.11
.31
.26
.31
.37
.33
.36
.08
.30
11. Psychological
Well-Being
.15
.11
.17
.01
.03
.15
.12
-.33
.07
.17
12. Loneliness
-.08
-.05
-.12
.06
-.02
-.11
-.07
.25
-.06
-.13
-.60
Note. Correlations in bold are statistically significant, p < .05.
126
Table 3
Comparison of model fit with 1 – 10 profiles
# of
Profiles
VLMR
BLRT
AIC
BIC
Entropy
% of sample
in smallest
profile
1
NA
NA
8535.54
8604.51
1.0
100%
2
-4249.77**
-4249.77***
8021.64
8128.93
.81
33%
3
-3982.82
-3982.82***
7856.67
8002.29
.84
11%
4
-3890.34
-3890.34***
7735.53
7919.46
.88
10%
5
-3819.77*
-3819.77***
7622.93
7845.18
.92
9%
6
-3753.47
-3753.47***
7548.29
7808.86
.92
7%
7
-3706.14
-3706.14***
7480.70
7779.58
.92
5%
8
-3662.35
-3662.35***
7424.46
7761.67
.93
2%
9
-3623.45
-3623.45***
7380.06
7755.59
.93
3%
10
-3591.774
-3591.77***
7348.81
7762.65
.93
2%
Note. *p < .05 **p < .01 ***p < .001. The 5-profile model in bold was ultimately selected for
interpretation and further analysis.
127
Table 4
Means of meaningful connection observed indicator variables and distal outcomes for each
meaningful connection profile
Note. All variables are standardized so that each has a sample mean of .00 and a standard
deviation of 1.00. Significant differences between distal outcomes are reported by subscripts,
profiles that do not share subscripts differ at p < .05.
Observed
Indicators
High Multi-
dimensional
Connection
Moderate
Multi-
dimensional
Connection
High
Support
Receipt
High
Support
Provision
Low
Psychological
Nourishment
Conviviality
0.55
0.01
-0.46
-0.78
-0.88
Common
Ground
0.64
-0.16
-0.46
-0.49
-0.81
Providing
Support
0.65
0.04
-1.60
0.66
-0.84
Receiving
Support
0.67
-0.08
0.59
-1.70
-1.51
Security
0.61
-0.47
0.49
-0.14
-1.53
Mattering
0.67
-0.38
0.29
-0.04
-1.86
Personal
Significance
0.61
-0.28
-0.20
-0.26
-1.09
Vulnerability
0.09
-0.17
0.32
-0.21
-0.05
Emotional
Intimacy
0.45
-0.13
-0.46
0.31
-0.65
Outcome
Variables
Meaningful
Connectedness
0.44a
-0.33b
0.05c
0.07bc
-0.98d
Psychological
Well-Being
0.14a
-0.02ab
-0.38b
0.09a
-0.27ab
Loneliness
-0.09a
0.10a
0.14a
-0.26a
0.14a
128
Table 5
Examples of participant descriptions of meaningful connection interactions for each of the five
profiles
Profile
Example Description of Meaningful Connection
1. High
Multidimensional
Connection
“A dear friend recently died in a very tragic and unexpected
accident. At the shiva, I was speaking with a mutual friend who
mentioned that our friend who passed away had loved the show,
Ted Lasso. I mentioned that I had watched one episode of this
show and had not been inspired. The mutual friend encouraged
me to keep watching the show. I ended up ‘binge watching’ the
show and absolutely was hooked. I loved the show. I followed up
with my friend and we ended up meeting for wine to discuss Ted
Lasso, our departed friend, and reestablished a somewhat dormant
friendship that had languished due to Covid-19…[This was a
meaningful connection] because we were connecting on many
emotional levels - about the loss of a friend, about the mutual
enjoyment of a TV show, and the various connections and
realizations of the power of our own friendship…I felt a mixture
of gratitude for this friendship and sadness at the loss of our
mutual friend. I felt resolved to connect with more friends and to
live life with more engagement and connection.”
2. Moderate
Multidimensional
Connection
“We were discussing ways to make improvements at work and
talking about some ideas and previous experience we both had in
the IT field. I began sharing some very specific coding and
scripting knowledge and it turned out he was also very interested
in the same thing. We started comparing and testing some code,
concepts and ideas. We both shared some code which we would
have otherwise kept in our own ‘tool chest'. We were able to come
up with some good solutions, in very little time, by working
together…[This was a meaningful connection] Because of the
unexpected meeting of the minds which occurred. We both had
something very specific in common, which was quite a
coincidence…It took me from feeling bored at work that day to
being excited and feeling challenged.”
3. High Support
Receipt
“I have an eating disorder and I’ve struggled with weight for a
very long time. I’ve lost nearly 100 lbs now, and my health has
improved vastly. But my confidence has not. I was expressing to
my father my struggles with body image and self-worth. In
response he looked at me point blank and said ‘[Participant’s
Name], you’re easy to love. Focus on that.’ This was followed by
a conversation of my positive non-physical qualities, and it was a
huge confidence boost…He told me exactly what I needed to hear
129
and actually listened to what I was (and wasn’t) saying before
responding…My confidence improved greatly and my mood
lifted.”
4. High Support
Provision
“A co-worker came to me to ask for a day off. She volunteered
that she was visiting a fertility doctor. She told me that she and her
husband had been trying to have a baby for several years. I shared
with her my own experience with infertility. She felt comfortable
to tell me what treatments she had taken. She shared her
heartbreak over miscarriages. I was able to tell her of my own
journey that did result in a healthy pregnancy and baby. She felt
encouraged that I had gone through a similar situation and had a
happy outcome…We both shared about a difficult time in our
lives…It made me reflect on what I had been through. I felt sad
that she was going through something similar.”
5. Low
Psychological
Nourishment
“My spouse and I are going through a divorce after 28 years of
marriage. The last few years have been very volatile. When I
finally moved out I could not take my dog with me because she
was reactive and I was going to be renting so she had to go live
with my spouse. He had bought land and put a tiny house on it so
there was room for her. Typically our fights revolved around his
Friday and Saturday night parties where he would drink and then
turn the music up really loud disturbing everyone else in the house
and would get worse from there. Since moving apart I admit I love
the peace and quiet but miss my dog. Last week…Saturday night
(his fun night) he sent me a video of her and text that she was his
only friend. I was so happy to get the video that I confessed to him
that I also now had no friends. It was interesting connecting with
him on a personal level again without the fussing and fighting. We
are both just humans trying to find our way in the world in the
end…It was communication without conflict…It gave me some
peace and I felt like things would get better going forward.”
130
Figure 1
Plotting the BIC statistic
Note. BIC values are included along the y-axis, with the number of profiles in each model along
the x-axis.
131
Figure 2
Standardized mean scores for meaningful connection indicator variables across five latent
profiles
Note. Percentages indicate the percentage of the sample with the highest probability of belonging
to the profile.
132
Appendix B
Experiences of Meaningful Connection Scale
Subscale
Conviviality
Common Ground
Support Provision
Support Receipt
Security
Affirmation
Personal
Significance
Vulnerability
Intimacy
Scale Item
1. I had a lot of fun
2. There was a lot of humor or laughter
3. There was a really positive vibe
4. We connected about things we had in common
5. We were both working toward the same goal
6. We felt the same way about things
7. I was able to support this person
8. I was able to be there for this person when they needed it
9. I acted with a lot of compassion toward this person
10. I was effective in helping this person
11. I felt supported by this person
12. This person was there for me when I needed it
13. I felt like they had my back
14. This person was effective in helping me
15. I felt accepted for who I am
16. I felt safe with this person
17. There was a lot of trust
18. I felt like I mattered
19. I felt better about myself
20. I felt appreciated
21. I felt like things made more sense in my life
22. I gained new insights
23. I was able to live out my values and purpose
24. I felt vulnerable at times
25. I felt anxious at times
26. I had to take some risks to make a connection
27. They shared something very personal about themselves with me
28. We connected over some deep things in our lives
29. I shared something personal that I wouldn’t share with just anyone
30. We had a conversation that went beyond small talk
133
Chapter 5:
Conclusion
134
Conclusion
This dissertation sought to explore the kinds of social interactions people experience as
meaningful connections. Across three studies, this dissertation generated a descriptive account of
various interpersonal and psychological processes that may be present in meaningful connection
interactions. To conclude, I will offer a brief overview of how these studies each informed the
overall arc of this dissertation, how the findings of the three studies may fit together, and
potential future directions for this program of research.
Study 1 analyzed stories from 88 adults about their experiences of meaningful connection
during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic using thematic analysis. This analysis offered a
window into general aspects of meaningful connection experiences during a time of collective
crisis when the need for social connection was very present in many people’s minds. Study 2
complimented Study 1 by exploring 30 adults’ perceptions of meaningful connection interactions
through interviews analyzed using a phenomenological approach. Compared to the thematic
approach of Study 1, this approach offered a more granular and detailed account of personal
lived-experience in meaningful connection interactions. Together Studies 1 and 2 identified a set
of social and psychological experiences that informed an empirical approach to describing
meaningful connection interactions in Study 3. A scale was developed from the thematic findings
of the first two studies that included nine common interpersonal and intrapersonal indicators of
meaningful connection. Across these indicators, five heterogeneous subgroups of meaningful
connection were identified, illustrating the heterogeneity of people’s experiences of meaningful
connection. People in some of the groups intensely experienced a wide array of potential
indicators of meaningful connection, whereas the experiences of those in other groups mainly
focused on a small number of indicators. This study also found that people reporting interactions
135
in the different meaningful connection profiles were significantly different in terms of how
meaningfully connected they felt, and in terms of their psychological well-being. Importantly,
however, loneliness was not found to differ between people whose interactions belonged to
different profiles, suggesting that even for those struggling with disconnection, a wide array of
social interactions may be available to focus on in cultivating a sense of connection.
Taken together these exploratory findings indicate that there are multiple ways of
experiencing social interactions perceived as meaningful connection. These interactions may
include various combinations of experiences identified in this dissertation. These experiences
involve perceptions at each of the following levels: perceptions of interpersonal behaviors,
perceptions of an interaction partner’s experience, and perceptions of one’s own experience. At
the level of perceived interpersonal behavior, one might perceive the provision and receipt of
social support, intimate self-disclosure and responsiveness, convivial exchanges of humor and
positive emotion, and/or involvement in shared activity. At the level of perceptions of an
interaction partner’s experience, one may perceive another person’s regard for oneself. This
perceived regard may be accompanied by perceptions of another person’s attention, sincerity,
and interest in oneself. One might also perceive mutuality, characterized by the perception that
an interaction partner shares one’s emotional or cognitive reality. At the level of personal
experience, one might experience a sense of openness to the other person. This openness may
involve a sense of sincere interest in the interaction partner. Likely one will perceive themselves
as safe in the interaction, emotionally uplifted, and/or affirmed in their self. Affirmation of the
self may involve a perception that one matters, or it may validate the coherence of one’s personal
worldview.
136
These three studies also suggest that for many people there may be ample opportunities in
daily life to have meaningful connection experiences. Across all three studies, people identified
meaningful connections with people at different levels of familiarity. Participants were also
generally able to describe recent meaningful connections with people at each of the multiple
levels of familiarity. These basic findings suggest the potential for meaningful connection
experiences to be relatively common occurrences in daily life for some people, and indicate that
there are various kinds of people in one’s life with whom a meaningful connection may be
possible.
Future Directions
The above findings can provide the basis for a framework of meaningful connection
experience that could usefully inform future directions for research and practice. Future research
can examine prospective relations between various aspects of meaningful connection experience
identified above and a general sense of connectedness in life. For example, the scale developed
for Study 3 may be implemented in a daily diary study to examine the extent to which each of
the various indicators of meaningful connection in everyday interactions predict people’s sense
of global connectedness over a certain period of time. This approach may help to parse out
whether some of the above indicators are more essential to meaningful connection than others.
Applied efforts to promote meaningful connections may use the findings of this
dissertation to identify targets for intervention. Interventions promoting social connectedness are
sometimes more effective when targeting how one perceives social experiences rather than
promoting social skills or the size of one’s social network (Cacioppo et al., 2015). The above
findings point to different aspects of social experiences to target in promoting more positive
perceptions. For example, mental health professionals may be able to use verbal and written
137
prompts to assist people in recollecting times when they experienced social interactions that
relate to the themes of this dissertation, such as feeling safe with another person or sharing
genuine laughter. This dissertation as a whole suggests that there may be options as to what
pathways one pursues to improve their sense of meaningful connection in social interactions.
Conclusion
This series of studies attempted to add descriptive nuance to the kinds of experiences
people may have when feeling meaningfully connected in social interactions. In a time when
loneliness, social isolation, and related mental health issues are major public health concerns in
the United States (Hold-Lunstad, 2021), it is hoped that these three studies are of utility to both
ongoing research and applied efforts to promote moments of meaningful connection in people’s
lives.
138
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clinical import and interventions. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 10(3), 238–249.
Holt-Lunstad, J. (2021). The major health implications of social connection. Current Directions
in Psychological Science, 30(3), 251–259.
ResearchGate has not been able to resolve any citations for this publication.
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People may want deep and meaningful relationships with others, but may also be reluctant to engage in the deep and meaningful conversations with strangers that could create those relationships. We hypothesized that people systematically underestimate how caring and interested distant strangers are in one's own intimate revelations and that these miscalibrated expectations create a psychological barrier to deeper conversations. As predicted, conversations between strangers felt less awkward, and created more connectedness and happiness, than the participants themselves expected (Experiments 1a-5). Participants were especially prone to overestimate how awkward deep conversations would be compared with shallow conversations (Experiments 2-5). Notably, they also felt more connected to deep conversation partners than shallow conversation partners after having both types of conversations (Experiments 6a-b). Systematic differences between expectations and experiences arose because participants expected others to care less about their disclosures in conversation than others actually did (Experiments 1a, 1b, 4a, 4b, 5, and 6a). As a result, participants more accurately predicted the outcomes of their conversations when speaking with close friends, family, or partners whose care and interest is more clearly known (Experiment 5). Miscalibrated expectations about others matter because they guide decisions about which topics to discuss in conversation, such that more calibrated expectations encourage deeper conversation (Experiments 7a-7b). Misunderstanding others can encourage overly shallow interactions. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2021 APA, all rights reserved).
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This qualitative study explored the question, “What kinds of interactions did people experience as meaningful connections with others during the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Unites States?” Eighty-eight participants completed an online survey, 3 to 7 weeks following the World Health Organization’s declaration of global pandemic. Participants completed open-ended questions about social interactions they experienced as meaningful connections with people of three levels of familiarity. Thematic analysis of participant responses identified four overarching themes: openness to the other, affirmation of the self, emotional uplift, and meeting of basic needs. A secondary research question explored, “In what ways did people perceive the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic as affecting how meaningful connections were motivated, enacted, and experienced?” The context of the pandemic enhanced the meaning of social connection, offered a common struggle to connect over, and motivated prosociality. This study offers a descriptive window into the interactions experienced as meaningful connections in the first weeks of the COVID-19 pandemic and may usefully inform future research and applied work promoting social connections in current and future collective crises.
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Although chemistry is a well-known, sought-after interpersonal phenomenon, it has remained relatively unexplored in the psychological literature. The purpose of this article is to begin articulating a theoretically grounded and precise definition of interpersonal chemistry. To that end, we propose a conceptual model of interpersonal chemistry centered around the notion that when two or more individuals experience chemistry with one another, they experience their interaction as something more than the sum of their separate contributions. Our model stipulates that chemistry encompasses both behavior (i.e., what chemistry "looks like") and its perception (i.e., what it "feels like"). The behavior involves interaction sequences in which synchronicity is high and in which people's goals are expressed and responded to in supportive and encouraging ways. The perception of chemistry includes cognitive (i.e., perception of shared identity), affective (i.e., positive affect and attraction), and behavioral (i.e., perceived goal-relevant coordination) components. We review existing research on chemistry as well as supporting evidence from relevant topics (e.g., attraction, similarity, perceived partner responsiveness, synchrony) that inform and support this model. We hope that this conceptual model stimulates research to identify the circumstances in which chemistry arises and the processes by which it affects individuals, their interactions, and their relationships.
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Despite growing evidence that showing gratitude plays a powerful role in building social connections, little is known about how to best express gratitude to maximize its relational benefits. In this research, we examined how two key ways of expressing gratitude-conveying that the benefactor's kind action met one's needs (responsiveness-highlighting) and acknowledging how costly the action was (cost-highlighting)-impact benefactors' reactions to the gratitude and feelings about their relationship. Using observer ratings of gratitude expressions during couples' live interactions (N = 111 couples), and bene-factors' self-reports across a 14-day experience sampling study (N = 463 daily reports), we found that responsiveness-highlighting was associated with benefactors' positive feelings about the gratitude expression and the relationship. In contrast, cost-highlighting had no such effect. These findings suggest that expressing gratitude in a way that highlights how responsive benefactors were may be critical to reaping the relational benefits of gratitude and have practical implications for improving couples' well-being.
Article
Many everyday conversations, whether between close partners or strangers interacting for the first time, are about the world external to their relationship, such as music, food, or current events. Yet, the focus of most research on interpersonal relationships to date has been on the ways in which partners perceive each other and their relationship. We propose that one critical aspect of interpersonal interactions is developing a sense of dyadic, generalized shared reality-the subjective experience of sharing a set of inner states (e.g., thoughts, feelings, or beliefs) in common with a particular interaction partner about the world in general, including the world external to the relationship. Across 9 studies, we use mixed methods to investigate the unique role of generalized shared reality in interpersonal interactions, both between close partners and strangers. We hypothesize that generalized shared reality predicts how people connect with each other and perceive the world around them. We also investigate the observable, dyadic behavioral signatures of generalized shared reality in interpersonal interactions. Finally, we examine the motivation to uphold an existing sense of generalized shared reality. We hypothesize that couples high on baseline generalized shared reality exhibit motivated, dyadic interaction behaviors to reaffirm their generalized shared reality in the face of experimentally manipulated threat. By identifying a unique dimension of everyday interactions, these studies aim to capture a critical aspect of the lived subjective experience of human relationships that has not been captured before. (PsycInfo Database Record (c) 2020 APA, all rights reserved).