I've spent years writing about the health benefits of friendship, but when I work with people in my clinical practice, the reality is this: It often feels impossible to fit in the time to truly prioritize relationships. Many people have a group of people in their lives that they consider friends and whom they value deeply, and would likely love for those friendships to be even stronger. But it may seem like spending the time to cultivate a deeper relationship is a bridge too far, that it would take immense effort, time, or planning. In reality, though, friendships are often boosted by the littlest of things—simple efforts that may seem trivial and not take much of a commitment, and yet can have enormous benefits. Are you looking to bolster the friendships you have? Read on.
1. Ask a question you’ve been putting off, because you thought you didn’t have time to talk about it.
Often, two friends grow apart not because of a specific conflict, but because they gradually stop confiding in each other due to feeling too busy in everyday life. It’s hard to prioritize conversation when there are so many demands on our time in modern life. But it’s the gradual erosion in emotional intimacy that can weaken even the strongest of friendships. Of course, you may always have people in your life who are like family—immense amounts of time can go by without meaningful contact, and then you can pick up right where you left off—but these are the exception, rather than the rule. To keep a typical close friendship going, letting them in on what’s going on in your life—especially stuff that feels too “big” for superficial check-in chit-chat—is key.
2. Think of a memory that makes you laugh, and text or email it to your friend.
There are few things that get as much bang for their mental health buck as an unexpected laugh that brings nostalgia and connection. When two friends have a significant history, but have grown disconnected, it feels particularly pleasurable to think about the good ol’ days, and the amount of time it takes to send such a message is pretty minimal. It also lets your friend know that you are thinking of them, even when you haven’t been in touch in a while. Who couldn’t use the mental break in the middle of an otherwise dull workday to remember college hijinks, a laugh-about-it-afterward vacation mishap, or a “we’re in this together” embarrassing faux pas with a friend who was there to share it all?
3. Reveal something about yourself that you need to talk through, but feel vulnerable about.
Another thing we often put off in our all-too-busy times is having conversations that feel uncomfortable or difficult. But, usually, opening ourselves up to this vulnerability with a trusted friend is the very best way to work through a problem and to further our insight into ourselves and our actions. Opening this particular line of communication also helps you get to know your friend better, gives you the opportunity to hear a different perspective that might teach you something, and strengthens the bond of trust between you both.
4. Figure out a date that’s important to your friend—their birthday, their anniversary, or even a difficult milestone in their lives, like a parent’s death—and write it in your calendar so that you will know to do something personal when the time comes.
In the age of social media, “Happy Birthday” seems to come cheap—sometimes even shortened to an acronym—and it’s frequently relayed in a mass, nearly automated fashion. In fact, birthdays have become an opportunity to differentiate close friends from barely known “friends”—the former of whom can choose to recognize a milestone in a more personal way beyond the acronym. And if you look even more closely, you’ll see that there are sometimes days that matter just as much, if not more, in a friend’s life than a birthday. If they’ve lost someone important to them, many dates may be particularly significant, from their loved one’s birthday to the anniversary of their death. Still other dates—wedding anniversaries or job or entrepreneurial milestones, for example—can have meaning. It’s a great way to get closer, by letting your friend know you are thinking of them—and taking that moment to connect with them on a day that’s important.
5. Plan the next time you can see each other in person—and if that’s not possible, plan a time to catch up, for real.
One of the reasons why spending money on experiences seems to bring a bigger mental health boost than spending money on consumer goods is that the anticipation of the experience is a gift in and of itself—as the memory of it can be replayed indefinitely afterward. Why not get specific with a plan for a visit, a gathering, or a mini-vacation? Though the logistical nature of planning might feel a little taxing, the payoff occurs in the looking-forward-to-it factor. If an in-person meeting isn't in the cards, even a plan to catch up by phone or video-conferencing—in real time, after all—can give your relationship a little spark and boost positive feelings for each other.
6. Write a thank-you note to your friend about something they’ve done that means a lot to you.
I’ve written before about the mental health power of gratitude, and it helps both the giver and the receiver. Yes, dozens of thank-you notes for wedding gifts can come to feel like something of a chore, but writing a thank-you note about something more unexpected can bring quite a boost. Did your friend help you out of a jam? Did they lift your spirits when you were down? Did they inspire you to be better in some way? Did they give you the benefit of the doubt when others did not? Any of those things is more than worthy of a thank-you note, and don’t be surprised if it not only creates a special moment for you and your friend, but also gives you a significant mood boost as well.
7. Take 15 minutes to send a funny postcard or a small package of your friend’s favorite candy in the actual mail.
These days, the only mail we’re guaranteed to receive from an actual postal carrier seems to be junk that goes straight into the recycling bin. What a special surprise to get even a handwritten postcard. With the latest news that many younger people don’t even know where to get stamps, it’s pretty clear that you’ll stand out with some serious friendship mojo if you take the time to send something in the mail. And if it’s something truly personalized to them (or perhaps has a little bit of sugar?), even better.
8. Let your friend in on a personal goal that you’ve been working on—and see if you can be accountability partners for each other.
You may be too busy to even have coffee with each other, but that doesn’t mean your friend can’t cheer you on from afar when you spend two hours tackling your closet, and have the before-and-after photos to prove it. Decluttering, starting a new workout, cooking more meals from home—whatever your goal, it can sometimes be extra motivating for a friend to be in on it. And when you share your triumphs, you’re strengthening your bond—talk about a win-win!
9. Tell your friend about something new in your life that they may not know about
News is almost always more interesting to talk about than the same-old, same-old routine. Is there something unexpected going on for you—for better or for worse—that has impacted you lately? Does it seem too taxing or even too trivial to talk about? If it's important to you, then it can be important that your friend knows it—so that they can empathize, advise, or just commiserate. It's yet another opportunity to connect and let them see your perspective, getting to know you more deeply in the process.
10. Try to recall your last conversation, and vow to follow up on something specific from it the next time you communicate.
More and more research is showing that asking questions—and following up on them—is crucial for increasing likeability, and we can extend this quite reasonably to assume that the more two people like each other in an interaction, the stronger their relationship potential is. Of course, it's not helpful just to pepper your friend or conversation partner with questions. The follow-up is even more important, letting people know not only that you thought to ask, but that you listened to and remembered their answer. Best of all, it gives your conversations depth and continuity, which differentiates the "Tough weather we're having, huh?" small-talk of acquaintances from the deeper bonds of true friends.
What have you found to be a boost to your own friendship? Let me know in the comments, or in my weekly anonymous chat.