Many Americans these days (myself included) are feeling lonely and longing for more connection in life. At the same time, building relationships can seem like such a long-term and almost insurmountable task, especially if you’ve lost touch with friends or community lately.
But a new study suggests that you can move the needle on your own feelings of connection and well-being by doing a very simple thing each day: having a chat with a friend.
Many ways to connect
Across three studies, researchers recruited over 900 students for a one-day experiment. During that day, they were asked to connect with a friend in one of seven different ways:
- Catch up about how you’ve been
- Have a meaningful conversation
- Laugh and joke around
- Show care, affection, and support
- Be a good listener
- Show you value them and their opinions
- Give them a compliment
At the end of the day, everyone filled out surveys about their emotions and their day overall, including how lonely, anxious, stressed, and connected they felt.
Ultimately, people who had just one interaction with a friend felt less stressed and more connected at the end of the day than those who didn’t. And it didn’t matter what they did together—whether it was being silly or having a deep discussion.
That’s encouraging, because it means we don’t have to bare our souls or have a heavy conversation every time we want to connect. In fact, we don’t even have to talk very much at all, since one of the tasks was simply listening.
“There are lots of ways that we can behave that allow us to have a boost to our well-being and likely solidify our relationship,” says Jeffrey Hall, lead author of the study and professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas.
There were certain ways of connecting that had even more advantages. The more interactions people had with friends in one day, the more connected they felt, among other well-being benefits. In one of the studies, people who saw a friend face-to-face also felt less lonely and anxious and had a better day overall.
Hall, who wrote a book on digital communication, says people simply talk longer when they are in person, alongside all the nonverbal cues they offer. “They feel present, heard, and aware,” he says.
Cycle of mutual engagement
Why didn’t it matter how people connected, whether they had a catchup or complimented someone on their outfit?
The researchers speculate that what all these interactions have in common is that we’re being responsive—paying attention in a way that could make our friend feel understood, validated, and cared for. That, in turn, may encourage them to be responsive to us. And together, that cycle of mutual engagement and attention helps us feel closer and more bonded.
Although this study looked at friends, the researchers suggest that there may be similar benefits to chatting with family or even strangers—although friends do seem to have something special.
“Friendship conversations are often some of the most pleasurable we have,” says Hall, because they might lack some of the tensions and stresses that come up when talking to relatives or romantic partners.
Alongside other new research suggesting that people appreciate us reaching out to them more than we expect—and that continuing a conversation with a stranger is surprisingly enjoyable—this work is a good reminder to take a little time to connect today. In the end, those conversations are the building blocks of deeper relationships.
“Since the pandemic, there is a need for many, many different voices to say in unison: It’s important for us to work at our relationships,” says Hall. “I hope to be part of a broader conversation that reminds people that if . . . you don’t prioritize the people that matter to you, [you] have a lot to lose.”