The Stuff of Motivation Part III – Relatedness

Editor’s note: This is the third installment in a 5-part series on human motivation. Visit Part I for an introduction to this motivating series. 

Words cannot convey what we exchanged between us in that instant.  It was a look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land.  After they were gone, I found that I was shaking, and in tears.  To this day I do not understand what happened in that half second.  But it was one of the most profound moments of my life.

-Alan Lightman




In this beautiful passage from his essay “The Spiritual Universe,” physicist and writer, Alan Lightman was describing the flight of two young ospreys with whom he developed a relationship one summer. The ospreys were darting straight toward him with great speed. Once within 20 feet of him, they swiftly veered up and away. Before their upward turn, Lightman recounts, he and the ospreys established meaningful eye contact for about half a second.

What Lightman describes as a “look of connectedness, of mutual respect, of recognition that we shared the same land” lies at the heart of our psychological need for relatedness; a deep-seated affiliation and connection with our human and non-human brethren.  To feel a sense of relatedness is to understand each other and care for one another’s well-being.

In a broader sense, relatedness encompasses a feeling of belonging, of occupying a special niche within a community. In this coveted space that is free of judgement and control, we are permitted to be who and what we are.  Indeed, when we sense our relatedness to each other, we are granted the freedom, the autonomy, to be.

It goes without saying, that a consistent, enduring sense of relatedness is central to our healthy, vibrant, effective functioning as people.

When in the comforting embrace of relatedness, we are less troubled by adversity and set-back. Relatedness often acts as an antibody to mental and physical illness and disease. It protects against many of our culture’s competition- and technology-driven societal ailments, including the malignant social isolation and disorders of mood and personality that have plagued social life in recent years.

Relatedness is manifest in our strong impulse to share experiences with others.  How else to explain the overwhelming popularity of Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter? Let’s face it, when alone and with idevice, the moment we see something cool, we just have to snap a picture and post it to the ethereal “cloud”, all the while hoping our “friends” take notice of our filtered reality and respond with some deprived “like” or half-considered comment. Despite social media fervor, we all know the most meaningful and direct way to share experiences with others is to co-discover ; to happen upon something magical, surprising, or intriguing in the physical presence of someone we care about.

Natural environments are most conducive to relatedness. Though connection is certainly possible in stimulating urban environments, careful attention in the natural world attunes us to each other’s rhythms, moods, and preoccupations. Such attunement creates the foundation upon which relatedness is constructed. Mindful meanderings in our natural home are also necessary for developing affiliation with the more-than-human world, to borrow a term from philosopher, David Abram. It seems worth noting that the chance encounters with neighbors, friends and acquaintances often made possible through thoughtful urban design, are necessary yet insufficient means of fully developing relatedness.

When others support our need for autonomy and relatedness together, both needs benefit.  Relatedness without support for our autonomy is impossible.  It’s the same as saying something like, “I’ll only love you if you lie for me”, which amounts to pitting our needs for relatedness (love) and autonomy (our self-determined value of being honest) against each other. In caring, reciprocal relationships, our relatedness matures and deepens when we nurture each other’s autonomy.

Indeed, our feelings of “connectedness”, “mutual respect”, and “recognition” take us one step closer to realizing our human potential.

And in the spirit of relatedness, join me next week to explore and discuss our psychological need for competence.

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