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Throughout the pandemic, friendships have been tested through isolation, technology, and social change. But no matter how irritated you are by constantly having to connect with others on Zoom for the time being, science says the health benefits are reason enough to persevere.
Strong friendships make us healthier both mentally and physically. An improved immune system, lower blood pressure, and a reduced risk of Alzheimer's disease can all be attributed to having good social ties.
One study found that women with more established social connections are more likely to beat breast cancer and have a lower death rate, while women who are considered socially isolated (with few social ties) are 43% more likely to have recurrent breast cancer, 64% more likely to die from breast cancer, and 69% more likely to die from any cause.
“It’s a pretty powerful thing to have good friends,” says Dr. Eudene Harry, medical director of Oasis Wellness and Rejuvenation Center and three-time author.
Along with providing a sense of purpose, reducing stress, and improving self-confidence, Dr. Harry says women connecting with other women is a natural instinct. Rather than taking a fight-or-flight response in times of stress, a UCLA study found women have a hormonal surge that compels us to befriend other women for support and comfort. “A friend empowers you to deal with whatever situation arises,” says Dr. Harry.
So how many friends should you have? The health benefits of a good support system truly comes down to the quality of each relationship, not the quantity of friendships. “What really matters is the amount of relationships that make you feel good about yourself,” says Dr. Harry. “You can have 20 friends and still feel alone.”
Rather than holding on to all of your friendships from childhood, college, and work, Dr. Harry advises to monitor how you feel after interacting with each friend. “For the majority of people, as we change and grow, our friendships change and grow,” says Dr. Harry. “Not all friends will change and grow with you.”
By looking for signs of unhealthy competition and unbalanced relationships, we can start to identify which friendships need to be re-evaluated. However, Dr. Harry reminds us that there is an ebb and flow to every friendship. “It is like any other relationship, it takes work and effort,” says Dr. Harry. “Sometimes you are going to feel like you are giving more, but sometimes you are going to need more.”
Dr. Harry says friendships take commitment to maintain—now more than ever. “If I could say one thing about friendships,” says Dr. Harry. “Most of the time it feels effortless, but the truth is, it takes work.” Here are some ways you can strengthen your relationships while staying apart, plus some bonus tips to widen your social circle.
TIPS TO STAY CONNECTED
1. Social media doesn’t count.
We’ve all done it before: Checked in on friends via Instagram, left a comment, or responded with an emoji to one of their stories. While it may seem like a great way to stay connected, these interactions cannot replace meaningful connection.
According to a study published by American Journal of Health Promotion, high social media use is tied to loneliness as it infringes on quality in-person connection. Those who spend two hours or more on social media a day are twice as likely to have perceived social isolation than those who spend 30 minutes or less. Plus, social media is unlikely to provide an accurate update on our friends.
“Social media is so well cultivated, so what you are seeing might not be what is happening,” says Dr. Harry. “There is a social media life and then there’s a real life. People who are struggling can look the happiest on social media.”
2. Visuals are vital.
Between FaceTime, Skype, Zoom—and about a hundred other platforms—the possibilities for virtual face-to-face connection are endless. Rather than texting or phone calls, Dr. Harry suggests jumping on a video call to truly connect with friends.
Throughout phone calls or texting conversations, distractions can impact your attention span and listening skills. When we can see our friends (and they can see us), distractions become more obvious and force us to pay attention or ask for clarification. “Repeat back to them what you heard so they know you really understand what they are saying,” suggests Dr. Harry, who believes most of what is said among friends is through body language.
“I look at visual cues when I’m talking to them because sometimes you have to listen for what’s not being said,” says Dr. Harry.
3. Use the right questions.
If you’ve ever wondered if it’s even possible to keep your friendships thriving while you’re relegated to Zoom dates, Dr. Harry has a suggestion for you—and you might even look forward to it. “Instead of making it a usual brain-numbing Zoom call, make it a special occasion,” she says.
A special occasion can be anything from cooking dinner together, doing the same virtual workout, or asking a few, meaningful questions. To ensure friendships don’t stay stagnant in between in-person visits, conversation cards like Cool to Connect help you ask questions far beyond the usual, “What’s new?” and “How are you?”“We had conversations we’ve never had before,” says Dr. Harry of her online experience with family and friends. “It doesn’t keep [friendships] in the same place, and helps you get to know a person perhaps on a level that you didn’t know before—even though you thought you knew everything about that person.”
HOW TO MAKE NEW FRIENDS ONLINE
It’s no secret that it’s more difficult to make friends as an adult, but technology just made it a whole lot easier. Here are three steps for cultivating friendships online.
1. Find a specific group online based on your location and favorite hobbies. Look for more intimate opportunities to connect via weekly video chats. “There is a virtual group for almost everything,” says Dr. Harry. “I think even for introverts this might even be a nice way to be introduced.” There is a unique opportunity to meet new people in the comfort of our own homes and use a particular interest as the base of the friendship.
2. Stay persistent and personable. In virtual settings, observing the conversation is fine at first, but staying interactive is the only way to build those real connections. Chat with group members individually before or after the group setting to really get to know them.
3. Take your friendships off social media. After a few instances of interacting within a group setting or via social media, move on to texting, phone calls, and (hopefully soon) in-person visits.
If you are feeling lonely or depressed, or experiencing heightened anxiety, you are not alone. Visit mhanational.org for a full list of resources near you.