Ancient philosophers and scientists agree: strong social ties are a KEY to happiness. You need close, long-term relationships; you need to be able to confide in others; you need to belong; you need to get and give support. Studies show that if you have five or more friends with whom to discuss an important matter you’re far more likely to describe yourself as “very happy.” Not only does having strong relationships make it far more likely that you take joy in life, but studies show that it also lengthens life (incredibly, even more than stopping smoking), boosts immunity, and cuts the risk of depression.
It can be challenging to make the first overtures of friendship. But once you’ve got the beginnings of a friendship, how do you proceed? How do you keep a friendship going? Here are some strategies that I use:
1. Use Facebook, Twitter, or other social media. One of the biggest obstacles to keeping friendships going is time. It takes time to email, to call, to make plans, to send holiday cards, to remember birthdays. For that reason, I love social media. Some people argue that technology hurts friendships, because it encourages people to stay tapping behind a computer screen rather than see people face-to-face. At the extreme, this is a bad thing, but for me, at least, technology lets me keep in touch with more friends in a wildly more efficient way. I feel more up-to-date, I feel a stronger sense of connection. At the same time…
2. Show up. Nothing can replace seeing someone in person. Go to a party, go to a wedding, go to a funeral, visit a newborn baby, make a date for lunch, stop by someone’s desk. Make the effort. But because it can be tough to make time for friends, one strategy can be to…
3. Join or start a group. I’ve joined or started eleven groups since I began my happiness project, and almost all of them (particularly my children’s literature reading groups) have been huge engines of happiness – in large measure, because they’ve allowed me to make and maintain new friendships. It turns out that seeing a person once every six weeks is plenty to keep a friendship alive. Meeting in a group is efficient, because you see a lot of people at once; it also means you’re creating a social network, not just a one-off friendship. It’s a lot easier to maintain friendships with people if you have several friends in common.
4. Think about what’s fun for you. People like to socialize in different ways. Maybe your friends like to go out drinking on Friday nights, or to go to the movies, but if that’s not fun for you, suggest different plans. Take charge of shaping your social environment. Some social people become exhausted by their desire to keep up with all their friends; some less-social people find it hard to get motivated to make plans at all. Think about what level and type of social activity brings you happiness, then make the effort to make it happen.
5. Be wary of false choices. Sometimes people say, “I want to have a few close, real friends, not a bunch of superficial friends.” But that’s a false choice. There are all kinds of friends. I have intimate friends and casual friends. I have work friends whom I never see outside a professional context. I have childhood friends whom I see only once every ten years. I have several friends whose spouses I’ve never met. I have online friends whom I’ve never met face-to-face. These friendships aren’t all of equal importance to me, but they all add warmth and color to my life.
6. Make the effort to say “This made me think of you.” We’re all busy, and keeping in touch can feel like a lot of work. One strategy that works for me is to write “this made me think of you” emails whenever I see something of interest to a friend. “Congrats, I saw the piece about your book deal!” “I was in New Haven — had a Greek salad at Yorkside and thought of senior year.”
7. Cut people slack. Except in the face of overwhelming evidence of bad intentions, try not to take it personally if a friend is late, cancels plans at the last minute, forgets about something important that’s important to you, don’t answer an email, says something thoughtless, etc. The fundamental attribution error describes the fact that we tend to view other people’s actions as reflections of their characters, and to overlook the power of the situation to influence their action. Don’t assume your friend is thoughtless and uncaring; maybe he’s just overwhelmed by the demands of a new boss. This is particularly true if you’re feeling lonely. Perhaps surprisingly, lonely people tend to be more defensive and judgmental than non-lonely people.
8. Don’t expect friendship to happen spontaneously. As with many aspects of happiness, people often assume that friendship should flow easily and naturally, and that trying to “work” on it is forced and inauthentic. Sometimes friendships naturally arise, but sometimes they don’t.
What other strategies help you maintain your friendships? What have I missed?
From 2006 through 2014, as she wrote The Happiness Project and Happier at Home, Gretchen chronicled her thoughts, observations, and discoveries on The Happiness Project Blog.