Connect to Thrive

Miss Lauren Phillips, School Psychologist

Connectedness refers to the feelings of belonging and social connection; it is one of our fundamental human needs. We are biologically, physically, cognitively, and spiritually wired to love, to be loved, and to belong. We are profoundly social creatures, and underlying most of our materialistic desires are the needs to belong, to be accepted, and to connect with others.

A history of research

Child development researchers in the early 1940s were interested in a ‘disease’ that was prevalent in orphanages, known as ‘hospitalism’ or ‘anaclitic depression’, and referred to findings that some orphan babies became ill and often died. The cause was traced to a lack of affection, and children not being sufficiently cuddled or played with (McCartney, 2014). Other researchers supported this need for contact — which contrasted with child-rearing texts of the 1920s and 1930s, suggesting that responsiveness to a crying child would lead to the child being ‘spoiled’ (Milano, 2014).

What we now know is that these early bonding experiences are only a small part of the richness of the dynamic. When a child is young, he or she needs to feel included by his or her family; this is ‘passive’ belonging. By age four to six, children have begun to expand the scope of their worlds to include larger circles of friends and more abstract entities. They begin to partake in ethnic identities, to feel patriotism, or to follow in a parent’s footsteps by supporting a particular football team. A child becomes more aware of giving, helping and being useful to others. With this awareness, a child will feel that their family belongs to them as much as they belong to their family. ‘Passive’ belonging has now progressed to ‘active’ belonging.

It is important for families and schools to promote and validate this active component of belonging, because it gives a deeper sense of connectedness. Some families and schools do not operate in a way that children can experience their usefulness. Children may not be given enough chores or responsibilities, and indeed, it is often easier to do things for children; but they may then fail to learn the enjoyment of feeling useful, that comes with the assumption of responsibility.

As humans, we need to belong to our friends and to our families, to our culture, and to our country. Belonging is both primal and vital to one’s sense of wellbeing. Our interests, our motivation, our health and our happiness are inextricably linked to the feeling that we are connected to a greater community that may share common interests, concerns or hopes. The term ‘connectedness’ then refers to a more complex, life-long need for feeling a sense of belonging. 

‘Stroke’ as a unit of connectedness

Some researchers have addressed the interpersonal sphere of connectedness. Dr Eric Berne, a psychiatrist who developed the theory and method of Transactional Analysis in the 1960s, coined the term ‘stroke’ as being the ‘fundamental unit of social action’(Berne, 1964). A stroke is a unit of recognition, when one person acknowledges another; either verbally or non-verbally. Berne developed earlier infant findings, and presented a theory about the need for belongingness in adults. He claimed that adults need physical contact as much as infants do, but adults learn to replace this with other types of recognition, such as a smile, a wink or a handshake, instead of the higher levels of physical stimulation necessary for positive infant connectedness (Stewart & Joines, 1987).

Dan Goleman expressed a heightened appreciation of this pervasive dynamic in his book, Social Intelligence:

During these neural linkups [when one person shows recognition of another], our brains engage in an emotional tango, a dance of feelings … The resulting feelings have far-reaching consequences, in turn rippling throughout our body, sending out cascades of hormones that regulate biological systems from our heart to immune cells. Perhaps most astonishing, science now tracks connections between the most stressful relationships and the very operation of specific genes that regulate the immune system. To a surprising extent, then, our relationships mould not just our experience, but also our biology (Goleman, 2006).

A brain imaging study by Ethan Kross (University of Michigan) suggested that the parts of the brain activated during social rejection are the same as those activated during physical pain (Conley, 2013). Another recent study led by Shelley Taylor (University of California) suggested that stress relating to relationship conflict, led to increased inflammation levels in the body (Loszach Report, 2012) — so both physically and psychologically, social connection is experienced positively, while isolation and a lack of belonging is experienced negatively.

‘A sense of belonging appears to be a basic human need — as basic as food and shelter. In fact, social support may be one of the critical elements distinguishing those who remain healthy from those who become ill’ (Pelletier, 1994). 

An unconscious dynamic

Most people may have experienced loneliness, alienation, isolation, and existential ‘angst’ at times in their lives, but often feel shame and guilt in relation to these feelings. This may be attributable to the fact that much of psychology relates to the individual, implying that society as a whole is not to be challenged. There is an implicit societal assumption (for many) that healthy people can adjust and, therefore, that is what we should try to do.
However, the feminist movement is a demonstrable challenge to this; the plight of the housewife living in a suburban ‘nuclear family’ situation was a pressing issue in the 1950s and 1960s. This was an isolated existence for many housewives, most of whom had no extended family in the household (as historically, households in many societies had often consisted of groups of extended family members). Many women complained of symptoms associated with anxiety and depression; they were given tranquilisers, but the real diagnosis was that they were trying to adjust to an unhealthy living situation (Napikoski, 2014).

The point to note here is that the hunger for belongingness, for human interaction, for feeling appreciated, and for ‘stroke’ exchange was for the most part overlooked, not only by professionals, but also by the women themselves. The symptoms were not uncommon, but a good diagnosis (in the sense of assessing the state of basic connectedness) was rare.

People can learn to increase their capacity to make contacts and create a better sense of belonging, and learning these techniques and skills should be encouraged. However, equally as important is the need for society and its sub-groups (such as businesses, communities and schools) to take responsibility for welcoming and fostering connections amongst newcomers and those who do not easily fit in.

Increasing connectedness at school

Rapid changes in Western culture over the past several decades have made life qualitatively different compared to fifty years ago. Consequent isolation means that many people do not feel sufficiently connected, and this condition is an important, yet often overlooked, cause of a variety of personal and social problems.

At Brisbane Girls Grammar School, we provide many opportunities to promote connectedness. At times, girls may need to be encouraged to take advantage of some of the social opportunities available to them, but there is an abundance of School clubs, lunchtime and after-school activities, and chances to increase the girls’ sense of belonging.

Marrapatta is a wonderful opportunity for many girls to experience connectedness with teachers and peers. When girls are able to give as well as receive — as they do when they are helping and accepting help from others whilst participating in activities at Marrapatta — then connections with others are deepened.

For many students in many schools, emphasis is placed on individual academic achievement, and whilst this should not be discounted, we need to also be mindful of those students that have a marginal or gross deficit of ‘strokes’. Giving more thought to avocational guidance, as well as vocational guidance, may be beneficial for broadening friendship circles and social connections, and this can be encouraged both in and out of school.

‘Strangeness’, ‘oddness’ and ‘weirdness’ — it seems that most people are different in different ways. Celebrating this, and seeing diversity as a virtue, and a part of individuality, is crucial! We experience more connectedness when we feel that our differences are enjoyed, or at least tolerated. At Brisbane Girls Grammar School, we have girls of differing religious backgrounds, different cultural upbringings and different sexual orientations.

As a leading school in the 21st century, we want to celebrate our differences and, in turn, promote connectedness in our students. We are striving to do this, and our Pastoral Care team can provide support and helpful suggestions for students who might be feeling a lack of connection at school.

At Brisbane Girls Grammar School we want to promote an overall sense of connectedness amongst students, school staff, parents and the community, and whilst large-scale societal changes will likely need to take place for all to experience connectedness, we, as individuals, can remember that by saying ‘hello’ or giving a wave of acknowledgment can make all the difference to someone else. 


Berne, E. (1964). Games People Play. New York: Ballantine Books.

Conley, M. (2013). When love hurts. Los Angeles Times.

Enayati, A. (2014). The importance of belonging. Cable News Network.

Goleman, D. (2006). Social intelligence. New York: Bantam Books.

Goleman, D. (2014). The Most fundamental discovery of this new science: We are wired to connect. Emotional intelligence, social intelligence, ecological intelligence.

Loszach Report. (2012). Stress Makes You Sick: Exploring the Immune System Connection. The Loszach Blog.

McCartney, M. (2014). What is Anaclitic Depression? eHow.

Milano, A. (2014). Can you spoil a baby? Fit Pregnancy.

Napikoski, L. (2014). Feminism and the Nuclear Family. Women’s history.

Pelletier, K. (1994). Sound mind, sound body: A new model for lifelong.New York: Simon and Shuster.

Stewart, I. & Joines, V. (1987). TA Today: A New Introduction to Transactional Analysis. Chapel Hill, North Carolina: Lifespace Publishing.