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5 Strategies for Stronger Relationships

3. Don't neglect your "weak ties."

Key points

  • Close relationships are the single best predictor of happiness.
  • Foster "weak ties" in your casual interactions, with neighbors, colleagues, and even strangers.
  • Make social plans and strengthen existing relationships. Check in with old friends and form new relationships.
Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash
Source: Priscilla Du Preez/Unsplash

As many of us focus on setting goals for the new year, it’s tempting to focus on those with clear and measurable outcomes: lose 10 pounds, stop drinking, run a 5K. But as someone who talks and writes about the science of happiness, let me share what empirical research reveals: the most important goal we can all set for ourselves is to build and maintain good relationships.

As described by George Valliant, the lead researcher on a famous longitudinal study examining factors predicting men’s well-being from adolescence through the end of their lives, there are two pillars of happiness: “One is love. The other is finding a way of coping with life that doesn’t push love away.”

So, how can you prioritize relationships? Here are five relatively easy strategies.

1. Check in With Old Friends

One of the simplest ways of fostering good relationships is to make a point of reaching out and staying connected, even in small ways. A recent study found that we consistently underestimate how much people appreciate these small gestures. This type of small reach-out takes very little time or energy—yet means a lot.

For the last few months, I’ve had a consistent morning routine of sending a brief text to a friend who is undergoing cancer treatment, just to say that I’m thinking about her. Occasionally she responds, but typically she doesn’t—yet she’s told me repeatedly how much my daily check-ins have meant.

Another friend of mine has a lovely habit, which I am planning to adopt. He randomly buys small gifts for his friends for no particular occasion. Once he sent me a coffee mug with a photo of my dogs (and as anyone who knows me at all knows, this was a big hit)! The mug surely wasn’t expensive, but now I’m reminded of his thoughtful gesture each time I use it.

2. Build New Relationships

Find ways to expand your social network. Volunteer, take a class, join a book club or pickleball team. Meeting new people—particularly in contexts where you’re likely to already have something in common—is a great way to find potential friends as well as romantic partners. And when thinking about forming new social groups, it’s the more the merrier: people who belong to several different groups are happier.

Another simple strategy is to develop a friendship with someone who’s already in your life. Invite a casual friend to meet for lunch, ask a colleague to join you on a coffee break, suggest taking a walk with a neighbor. These steps can help you get to know someone on a more personal level, and perhaps develop—or strengthen—a new friendship.

3. Foster “Weak Ties”

We often think about relationships as the people we are closest to in our lives. But even brief personal interactions with strangers (what psychologists describe as “weak ties”) can increase positive feelings. People who report having more casual interactions—chatting with the barista at your favorite coffee shop, making small talk with a neighbor, talking about your weekend with a colleague—on a given day report feeling happier.

In one study, researchers offered people a five-dollar gift card to Starbucks to initiate a conversation with a stranger on public transportation. These bus and train riders were initially pretty hesitant to participate, in part because they assumed that strangers would not be receptive to such an outreach. But they were decidedly wrong: most people who were approached were pleased to have a casual conversation with a stranger. Moreover, people who had such a conversation then reported higher levels of happiness than those who simply sat alone in silence.

4. Make Some Plans

For many of us, the weekends are a great chance to catch up on household tasks and run errands, which can make the idea of putting on sweatpants and ordering takeout on Saturday night really appealing. But making a plan for some type of social interaction is a much better route to happiness. In other words, go to that party, host a small dinner party, or meet some friends for drinks. Most of us tend to underestimate how good these types of social interactions make us feel (yet another example of errors in affective forecasting).

This advice applies equally to people in romantic relationships. Researchers in one clever study asked dating couples to discuss some questions with another dating couple. Some couples were given pretty mundane questions about everyday life activities. Others were given questions about more intimate topics and were intended to prompt intense discussion. As you can probably predict, couples who discussed more intimate topics later felt closer to their own romantic partners.

5. Strengthen Existing Relationships

Close relationships are the single best predictor of our happiness. Yet a recent survey by the Bureau of Labor Statistics found that the average American spends on average only 34 minutes a day socializing with other people—compared to about 2.9 hours watching TV.

How can we strengthen our existing relationships, with family members, friends, and romantic partners? Create some type of regular ritual so that spending time with the people you care about the most becomes part of your ongoing routine. This could be lunch once a month with a friend, a Friday family movie night, or a weekly call with a sibling. Setting regular plans to see—or hear—people and catch up is an easy way to maintain, and even strengthen, our connections.

And when you have these catch up conversations, don’t just share the good—the so-called “highlight reel.” Instead, focus on having substantive, meaningful conversations about things that matter. These conversations feel especially good because they allow us to be our real selves, to be authentic. And, not surprisingly, these are precisely the type of interactions that build strong relationships.

If your goal is to be happier, prioritize your relationships. As Harvard psychologist Daniel Gilbert puts it, “We are happy when we have family, we are happy when we have friends, and almost all the other things we think make us happy are actually just ways of getting more family and friends.”

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