Building a Life of Close Connections

With the hustle that's required for modern living, strong relationships are too often overlooked. Here's how to recapture the human connections that will boost well-being and be building blocks for a fuller life.

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Recent studies show that loneliness is on the rise among all age groups. Public health experts are concerned, as loneliness and social isolation put us at an increased risk of heart disease, depression, dementia, and other ills.

Strong healthy ties to other people are powerful tools for boosting well-being and building a long and rewarding life. People with solid emotional support usually have more resilience and experience less negative impact from stress. And older adults with a thriving social life are more likely to live longer, happier lives than those with fewer ties, research has found. Significant physical and mental health benefits come with staying close to children and adults you care about—your partner, friends, family, colleagues, neighbors, and mentors like that teacher or coach or supervisor who made you believe in yourself.

Here are tips on creating—and maintaining—close ties:

To have a friendship that rocks, be a rock. 

Sure, social media helps you stay in touch. But it won’t keep you close. Saying “Happy Birthday” on Facebook, “faving” a friend’s tweet—“these are the life support machines of friendship,” says William Rawlins, an interpersonal communications expert at Ohio State University. “They keep it breathing, but mechanically.” To keep your friendships going, work at them offline, too. Over the course of a lifetime, people want three things in a friend, Rawlins has found: someone to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy.

So be open to getting to know new friends, and cultivate your current important relationships. Set up regular times to meet or talk by phone; listen, and give your friend your full attention when you do; and have fun together. Try to remember details others share with you, including important days like birthdays and anniversaries. As trust develops in a relationship, be willing to share some important information about yourself. Create enduring connections over time. You might plan to call every year after a big game or create a “bucket list” of things to do together. Or start a two-person film club by syncing your Netflix queues, watching a movie each month that you both want to see, and then talking about it afterward.

As a couple, after a fight, put it right. 

All couples disagree at times, and relationships change over time. But remember that relationships can survive—“even if you think you are from different planets,” says the couples therapist Dr. Sue Johnson—as long as there is an emotional connection. “So after a fight, put it right,” she says. Repair the damage, and heal the rift between you. Give extra hugs. Reassure your partner of your love. And if you weren’t communicating well, set aside 15 or 20 minutes a day to talk. Missteps are inevitable, and forgiveness is important in any relationship you value. The most important thing to do is to stay emotionally available and open to keeping your bond strong.

“… after a fight, put it right,” says Dr. Sue Johnson, author of Love Sense. Repair the damage, and heal the rift between you. Give extra hugs. Reassure your partner of your love.

Cherish and strengthen your ties with family. 

Connect with co-workers. For most workers “friendship is more important than pay or benefits, and strongly correlates to productivity, safety, customer loyalty, and profitability,” says the employee engagement specialist Kevin Kruse. Why not take the initiative in connecting with co-workers? Schedule periodic or regular time together. Pick up the phone to see how someone is doing. Join in social events like going out for coffee or a beer after work. Plan a social event on the weekend with co-workers you’d like to get to know. Keep good boundaries and avoid gossip.

These are often our longest-lasting relationships—especially with siblings. Focus on what holds you together, and respect differences of opinion and worldview. Shared rituals are the glue that helps to hold families together, even a tradition as small as making pancakes on the weekend or going to a ballgame once a year. Try to have daily rituals (like saying “I love you”) with close family, and have weekly, monthly, or annual ones with those who live far away. Call or send cards on more than birthdays and holidays. Have a set time for quick check-in talks. Short, regular talks do more to keep you close than longer ones at unpredictable intervals, research has found.
Over the course of a lifetime, people want three things in a friend: someone to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy.

Make close ties a priority throughout life. 

The time and effort you give to important relationships and friendships when you’re young will pay big dividends now and in the future. One study that tracked college students for almost 20 years found that the time friends had invested in each other predicted whether they would be close decades after graduation. The keys to durability were a commitment to the relationship and good communication. Invest in your friends as you’d invest in a retirement fund—by making regular “deposits” in your emotional account. Be there for them when they’re going through hard times, such as when they are sick or feeling “down” as well for happy events like birthdays and weddings.

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