It might sound obvious, in the midst of a loneliness crisis, that having friends matters. But many of us “underestimate the very real impact our friendships can have on our life,” says Marisa Franco, a psychologist and author of Platonic: How The Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends. “Connection is the most important factor predicting our health, both physical and mental.”
A growing body of research supports that point: Healthy, stable friendships can protect against depression and anxiety, increase life satisfaction, extend longevity, and improve health metrics like blood pressure and body mass index. Friendships between men—or bromances—can provide an effective buffer against stress, and can even be more emotionally satisfying than romantic relationships.
Those who don’t have strong social connections, meanwhile, have an elevated risk of heart disease and stroke, Type 2 diabetes, depression, anxiety, addiction, and dementia. Some research suggests that loneliness is twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity. It’s concerning, then, that over the past few years, adult friendships have been on the decline, with men suffering the most: In one survey, 15% of men said they had no close friends at all, a fivefold increase since 1990.
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While many people assume it’s the number of friends that count, research indicates that quality is more important—and having even a small selection of close friends is a stronger predictor of happiness than having lots of casual connections. Plus, those who think friendships happen organically are lonelier five years later than those who understand that platonic bonds take work.
Yet often people who feel disconnected focus on making new friends instead of nurturing existing connections. “There can be this feeling of, ‘I need to look elsewhere. I need to start a whole new circle of friends,’” says Miriam Kirmayer, a clinical psychologist who studies the science of friendship. “Sometimes there’s truth to that, but for many people, it’s helpful to think about the friendships we already have in our lives. Even if they feel a little stale, there are ways we can revive them.”
We asked experts to share their favorite ways to strengthen friendships and breathe new life into old bonds.
Consistently invest time.
Making time for the people we care about and having shared experiences plays an essential role in deepening friendships. Research suggests that it takes about 50 hours of time together to transform from acquaintances to casual friends, 90 hours to become regular friends, and more than 200 hours to solidify a best friendship.
Laura Tremaine figured out a solution after constantly “dropping the ball” on putting in time and effort with her friends. She would forget to wish them a happy birthday or go three months without returning a call. So she started adding a section for connection at the bottom of her to-do list, underneath her work tasks and family-oriented chores. “I just write down a few things, like ‘check if Bri is feeling better,’” says Tremaine, author of books including The Life Council: 10 Friends Every Woman Needs. “And when I started to be more consistent, my friends noticed.”
Add more positivity.
One way to grow any relationship is to foster positivity, which has to do with the way we leave each other feeling, says Shasta Nelson, the author of books including Friendships Don’t Just Happen. “It’s not always about saying positive things,” she clarifies. “It’s about leaving the other person feeling loved, supported, and accepted, and you walking away feeling loved, supported, and accepted.”
Often, this means using words of affirmation, giving our friends compliments, and making them laugh. If you’re feeling tired or depressed, or are in a bad mood, don’t feel pressure to entertain your friends or force jokes. Be open about how you’re feeling, and give them permission to feel differently while expressing curiosity, Nelson suggests. For example, you might acknowledge that you’ve been glum lately, and then note that you saw Instagram pictures of your friend hiking. Ask them to tell you all about it. Showing interest and asking questions helps promote positivity, even when that runs counter to your mood. “The goal is for our friends to walk away from us feeling better about themselves and their lives for having been in our presence,” she says.
Another key to cultivating stronger friendships is allowing yourself to be vulnerable: opening up and showing your friends your true self, even if you’re worried they won’t like it. Research suggests that can be particularly difficult for men, who often avoid expressing intimate feelings because they fear social rejection. “There’s no way around it,” Tremaine says. “There’s no loophole. You’re going to have to be at least a little vulnerable and share a little about who you are to connect with other humans.” However, she qualifies, that doesn’t mean you have to immediately reveal all your most personal traumas and secrets.
Tremaine suggests starting by sharing small opinions: Raise your hand in whatever room you’re in, whether it’s volunteering what you thought about your book club’s latest choice or how you would grill the steaks. “The more yourself you are, the more attractive you are to others as friends,” she says.
Challenge yourself to dive even deeper by telling your friends what you’re currently struggling with and what scares you, Franco advises. If it feels uncomfortable, remember that it’s better for you—and the other person—than staying silent. “When we’re vulnerable, we feel like we’re burdening people,” she says. “But being vulnerable conveys that we like them and trust them. And fundamentally, that brings people closer together.”
Mix in some novelty.
It might be time to inject a shot of new energy into your most familiar friendships. That goes for both conversations and activities: We tend to talk about the same topics over and over, and meet at the same places at the same times. There’s nothing wrong with that, Kirmayer notes, but novelty can open the door to deeper bonds. “Carve out moments of conversation where you can go off script,” she says. And brainstorm new adventures you can embark on together, whether that’s traveling to a bucket-list destination or working up the nerve to join a pickleball team together.
When’s the last time you told your friends how much you appreciate them? There’s good reason to do so the next time you talk: Research suggests that gratitude plays an important role in helping friendships grow.
Make it a point to show you’re thankful for who they are as a person—their core traits and values—and the big and little things they do. “Notice the moment when a friend says something really supportive, or when they initiate plans,” Kirmayer advises. You might phrase it like this: “Thank you so much for being the one to put together plans for this weekend. It really meant a lot.” If you’re feeling particularly inspired, you could even write what some experts call a “living eulogy,” or a letter that outlines everything you admire and appreciate about your friend.
Show up for the important moments.
Every friendship will inevitably arrive at what Franco describes as diagnostic moments: The highs and lows in life that “disproportionately affect” how we label our relationships. Was your friend there when you got a promotion, were diagnosed with something scary, went through a divorce, or met someone new? The answer plays a large role in determining how much we’ll value that friendship.
Commit to improving your bond together.
If you’re feeling disconnected from a friend, bring it up in conversation. Tell them how much you care about them and let them know you’d like to find ways to stay connected or deepen your connection—and ask if they have any ideas that could help make that happen, Kirmayer suggests. The goal is to have a collaborative, productive conversation, while making it clear how much you value the friendship.
If you’re upset about something specific that happened, address it directly instead of simply withdrawing, Franco advises. “When you don't bring things up, it's like holding someone guilty before giving them a trial,” she says. “Healthy conflict can just look like, ‘Hey, I was hurt when this happened, and I hoped we could talk it out.’”
Some friends even go to therapy together, just like romantic partners might, Franco adds. That can be particularly helpful if you have a tendency to let little issues accumulate without addressing them. “Friendship is very important, and intimacy is intimacy,” she says. “If we need that tune-up for one type of relationship, we’re going to need it for another.”
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