Redefining What it Means to be Social

A while back, I shared a piece titled, How Much is a “Like” Worth? Whether you blog, vlog, or share someone else’s, checking all those looks, likes, and shares is part of the game. The pull of social media addiction isn’t all in our heads. It’s quite real, thanks to dopamine and oxytocin: two neurotransmitters that make us feel good.

So, riddle me this: If a single click of the mouse by a complete stranger can have such an impact on the brain, what happens when you experience a real connection? (Hint: It’s a lot like a high.)

Every positive interaction on social media activates the reward center in the brain and gives us a little boost of dopamine. It feels good and so we keep coming back for more. When we connect with others, the brain produces a hormone called oxytocin.  It’s often called the cuddle drug or the love hormone because the strongest surges are produced during breastfeeding and sex.  But, we generate it when we feel a sense of belonging or connection. And, the brain has a hard time differentiating between a face-to-face connection and an online connection.

When we share content that people like and share and comment on, we get a healthy dose of those good chemicals. But, we also gain social currency.

Overwhelmingly, people feel better about themselves when others react positively to what they post on social media. Conversely, when people don’t acknowledge us online, our social currency goes down along with our self-image.

When people see and hear me, I know I’m important.

When people don’t see and hear me, I know I’m insignificant.

While technology and social media enable us to interact with people, enhance communication and personal connections, it also provides just as many opportunities for rejection and ostracism as it does for connection. Blocking, unfriending, muting, unfollowing, and ghosting all make disconnecting and terminating relationships quick and easy. Unfortunately, not painless. While it may seem hypersensitive and dramatic to classify these behaviors as hurtful, it’s the way we are wired to experience social rejection.

The same areas in our brains are activated when we experience social rejection as when we experience physical pain. That’s why we feel hurt when only 5 people like that selfie or our closest colleagues don’t retweet that LinkedIn article.  It’s why ghosting is considered a form of emotional cruelty.

The irony of social media lies in the illusion of connection. We look to technology to engage with others and that same technology makes it easier to disengage and protect ourselves from human to human interaction.  Never before have we had more opportunities for social interaction.  Perhaps it’s time to redefine what engagement really means.


Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Melissa Hughes, Ph.D.
Dr. Melissa Hughes is a neuroscience geek, keynote speaker, and author. Her latest book, Happier Hour with Einstein: Another Round explores fascinating research about how the brain works and how to make it work better for greater happiness, well-being, and success. Having worked with learners from the classroom to the boardroom, she incorporates brain-based research, humor, and practical strategies to illuminate the powerful forces that influence how we think, learn, communicate and collaborate. Through a practical application of neuroscience in our everyday lives, Melissa shares productive ways to harness the skills, innovation and creativity within each of us in order to contribute the intellectual capital that empowers organizations to succeed with social, financial and cultural health.

SOLD OUT! JOIN OUR WAITING LIST! It's not a virtual event. It's not a conference. It's not a seminar, a meeting, or a symposium. It's not about attracting a big crowd. It's not about making a profit, but rather about making a real difference. LEARN MORE HERE



  1. Ghosting is one of those current terms that just didn’t compute for me. Very grateful for your clear definition, Melissa, and for the term “illusion of connection.” I think more recent generations fall prey to this more than those of us with a longer history BEFORE social media, but it’s great to be aware of the emotional risks of misplacing one’s trust. What has been gratifying to me during pandemic times is that video visits do NOT feel intrusive or impersonal. My husband Lee and I are LOVING meeting new people and meeting up with friends and family virtually. In this connection-hungry time, isolation is not a given after all!

    • Thanks for taking the time to read and reflect, Susan. I’ll be honest… I didn’t even know “ghosting” was a thing until a few years ago. Now, it’s pretty common. I’m so glad you and Lee are finding virtual opportunities that fill your connections bucket!

  2. Hi Melissa! I left a comment on LinkedIn but also wanted to leave a comment here, because commenting on the site has more lasting value. The empty comment box at the bottom of the article invites us to fill it. 🙂

    “The irony of social media lies in the illusion of connection.” It is the most important thing everyone should be aware of, the illusion of connections on social media.
    For me, nothing can replace a face-to-face connection and having a cup of coffee chatting with my friends. No social media can compete with that. 🙂
    Thank you for sharing your thought-provoking video about ghosting. I consider myself lucky enough not to have experienced that someone I care about disappeared without a trace.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this one, Lada. I hear you about face-to-face interaction. I think this year has been difficult for those of us who really respond to that much more than virtual interaction.

      Regarding ghosting, my hope for you is that you never experience it. It’s truly awful.

  3. Hello Melissa,

    I have just viewed and listened to your video/podcast. The article was sufficiently thought provoking on its own, but the video really lit up some lights of reality. It is strange that more often than not we do not analyze our own behavior. As for ghosting, we will tend to believe that it happens to us, but not the other way round. At least not consciously. You are quite right regarding social media. Exchanging messages, emails or posts is not the same as a face to face exchange. I think we all expect to receive replies within a reasonable time (which in social media terms means rather quickly) otherwise we feel we have been ignored; deep concern and negativity. No dopamine! Social media has landed us all in a parallel universe. I for one feel so privileged in enjoying a high degree of mutuality with a fair number of connections. I have also enjoyed WhatsApp ‘face-time’ which is truly amazing. Seeing and engaging with someone you already admire as a trustworthy and genuine ‘connection’ means the world.

    It is challenging to break out of the quasi-zombie arena of social media. Personally, should I receive a ‘post’, I do endeavor to reply the same day or even sooner. I am aware that enjoying regular contacts and exchanges of views and ideas and not receiving a reply within a day, can unrealistically create a touch of negativity. Receiving a reply and there is a high on the dopamine!

    Redefining engagement is a powerful statement. Social media has enveloped us in a world that never existed not so many decades ago. Personally I cherish the ability to engage via face to face videos, WhatsApp videos and simple emails. The idea is not to expect, as that puts pressure on the person, but be honest about the level of interaction. More often than not I would like to think I have achieved a happy medium with many ‘connections’. And there it is again! The word ‘connections’. I truly believe that genuine friendships can be achieved, where both parties are open, honest and there is real empathy.

    Melissa, your really did light a torch! Ghosting sounds scary. On a couple of occasions an individual has gone ‘radio silent’ for no obvious reason where communication was positive and friendly. Best not worry about it. Thank you so much.

    • Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts on this one, Simon! I think that the pandemic has taught us many things – including the value of BOTH social media and digital communication as well as face-to-face interaction.

      “Seeing and engaging with someone you already admire as a trustworthy and genuine ‘connection’ means the world.”

      I couldn’t agree more! I love it when I get to meet a “digital connection” face-to-face. The experience is far richer after meeting in person.