Of all the things that made the pandemic so difficult for so many people, being unable to regularly see our friends was one of the toughest. As humans, we depend on our connections to other people for our emotional wellbeing, as well as our physical health. A growing body of research shows that the quality of our relationships can affect our cardiovascular system, immune system, cognitive health, and sleep patterns. For many people, social isolation has been shown to be just as dangerous for people’s health as smoking or excessive drinking in terms of increased mortality risk.
Suffice it to say, we need friends in our lives, and this summer has come as a welcome relief for many who have finally felt safe enough to see people. But if you’ve been feeling overwhelmed by social interaction in the past few months as we’ve returned to somewhat more normal lives, you’re not alone. The rusty social skills are real!
But the good news is that we can start by focusing with a smaller scope. It’s easier to feel socially satisfied than we think, and although we do need fulfilling relationships in our lives, we don’t actually need lots of friends to achieve this. Research done by anthropologist Robin Dunbar has led to the concept of “Dunbar’s number,” or the limit to people with which the average person can maintain a meaningful relationship. He concludes that most people have around 150 acquaintances, but only 5 close friends-- close friends categorized as the sort of people who will drop anything to be with you in times of need.
So, in the wake of a year of limited social interaction, how can we deepen our relationships with the people closest to us? Read our tips on keeping those friendships strong.
Don’t be afraid to reach out in the first place.
Many of us have friendships from previous stages of our lives. These are people we may have been very close to previously, but for whatever reason (graduating from school, moving to a new city) we aren’t regularly in touch anymore. In the case of this past year, it may be that we had a friendship that got interrupted by the pandemic. That doesn’t mean we don’t still value these older connections. Sometimes we feel afraid to reach out if we haven’t been in touch for a while. But chances are, your friend feels the same way as you! Someone has to be the first one to reach out, and your friend will appreciate that you took the initiative.
Be willing to put in the time.
It may sound obvious, but friendship means time and attention. The more time spent together, the better the friendship. It makes sense, especially when you consider that many friendships start from simply being in the same place as someone frequently. Dunbar says that it takes about 200 hours to take a relationship from acquaintance to good friendship. That’s not to say that this time has to be spent in any particularly meaningful way. Friendships can be strengthened by running errands together, for example. The meaning comes from the shared experiences of life that form the foundation of any relationship.
Be a good listener.
One of the most important ways to show a friend that we care is simply to listen. To quote the movie Lady Bird, “Don't you think maybe they are the same thing — love and attention?” With the busyness of daily life, attention is precious. It becomes one the most powerful and important commodities we have, so to spend our attention on one person is to show that we value them. Being a good listener also is also an indication of having empathy, another crucial facet of friendship. Especially after the difficult year we’ve all experienced, we’re uniquely able to put ourselves in each other’s shoes, and being empathetic can draw us closer to any friend.
Don’t be afraid to be open.
There’s nothing wrong with casual friendships-- the sorts of friends that we run into at parties, but with whom we tend to keep things light. It’s perfectly fine to have those relationships, but when we really want to dig deeper in a friendship it requires a bit more vulnerability. It can be scary to be vulnerable with another person, but it’s what allows us to really get to know someone. It lets friends know that you trust them, and helps them open up to you in turn.
Quality, not quantity, is what gives us the most satisfaction from our relationships. Ultimately, the strength of a friendship lies in the depth of what we share. Shared time, shared experiences, and shared trust.