Stuck moment: It’s Valentine’s Day again, and it seems like everyone’s off on a rendezvous for two — except moi. Is there something wrong with me?
When Valentine’s Day comes around, it’s all too easy to shift our focus from what we have to what we don’t. That’s when it helps to remember that a romantic relationship is only one of many important connections in our lives. Our friends, our family — people who’ve been there, understand us, and respect us — are just as vital. Maybe even more so: research shows that social isolation is as bad for your health as obesity, alcoholism or a chain-smoking habit.
Besides cutting in half our mortality risk, our pals are also there to comfort us, inspire us, support us, engage us. They nurture our goals and our sense of self. And when we nurture them in return, when we put the emphasis on being truly giving by sharing the best of ourselves in a steady supply, our lives feel richer and more meaningful.
So when you really think about it, friends are basically a magic elixir with the potential to make everything in life better. Consider these year-round life-enhancing benefits:
• Great relationships supply confidence, moral support, and drive. They help bring dreams into bloom — just ask anyone who’s made an Academy Award acceptance speech.
• Friends also challenge you, which sharpens your mind, sparks creativity, and expands horizons.
• And your dear ones can improve your health. A strong social circle helps you fight cancer, beat depression and anxiety, maintain good habits, and lengthen your life. Neuroscience proves it, and so does psychology.
We don’t need a lot of friends — just a quality few who really get us. Here’s how to keep them even closer and show we care:
Flex your friendship muscles
It all comes down to everyday habits that make the people you care about feel valued. Here are some examples of big and small actions that reinforce bonds.
• Be the friend you’d want someone to be to you. Yes, it’s the golden rule we learned in childhood, but as busy adults, it’s easy to overlook. In short, be someone to count on. Be on time. Keep your promises. Keep secrets. Don’t gossip. Be loyal.
• Great relationships are built on listening. Focus your body language to show that you’re paying attention (make eye contact, nod occasionally, put your phone down, turn toward your friend and lean forward a bit). Listen actively by asking questions, or repeating key phrases or ideas back. And, if someone’s venting, ask, “Do you want advice or do you want support?”
• Be a cheerleader, but not a Pollyanna who simply agrees. Being supportive means keeping your friends grounded as well as offering encouraging words.
• Create special rituals. Could be a monthly poker game, a fantasy football club, a weekly phone call, or a standing date to check out the newest restaurant.
• Introduce people in your life to each other, but be thoughtful about how you mix and match. Just because two people are close to you, doesn’t mean they’ll be crazy about each other.
• Stay in touch just because. We’re all prone to forgetting to reach out except in times of crisis or to arrange plans. But there’s nothing so lovely as an email or phone call just to say hello and ask what’s up.
• Be generous — with your time, bar tabs, a sympathetic ear — but in a way that’s reasonable and sensitive. No one likes to feel like a charity case.
• Say you’re sorry when you really mean it. If you don’t feel sorry about something that happened, talk it out.
• Admit mixed feelings. For example, if your best friend’s engagement is triggering insecurities about the state of your own love life, share that. Someone who truly cares about you will be sympathetic and sensitive, and you’ll prevent invisible barriers you might otherwise build to self-protect.
• Be mindful of triggers, blind spots, and potential minefields. When we know people well, we know what works their nerves — and how to avoid it.
• Sometimes we forget to tell people how much they mean to us. Use a birthday or a trip together as an excuse to put into words the feelings in your heart.
• Remember that people don’t express themselves in the same ways. Your sister may show she cares by loading you with advice. An old friend might do it best by always being available when you get an itch for an adventure. Take the people who matter to you for who they are, and don’t ask them to be someone they’re not.
Sometimes, it’s complicated
We all have relationships that are difficult but still meaningful. You may have grown apart from a person you were once super close to, but still care for dearly. Then, there are friends or family who are wonderful in so many ways, but your totally different takes on religion or politics can be tinder to a fire. Positivity is the trick to keeping these relationships healthy.
• Reserve judgment, even in your head. When you give someone a negative label — “he’s a snob,” “she’s a drama queen” — it colors your conversations, your body language, and your sense of empathy. Focus on the good stuff that made you friends in the first place.
• Steer your interactions to common ground and values you both share.
• Know when not to take it personally. As human beings with minds of our own, we’re bound to come at cross-purposes sometimes. So unless someone’s words and actions were aimed to wound, it helps to shrug off the small stuff.
• On the flip side, know and respect each others’ boundaries. If a boundary gets crossed, step up and have a conversation. Otherwise, your hurt will fester.
• Sometimes a great relationship becomes difficult when someone’s going through a rough patch — but it’s worth it to try to stick it through. Accentuate the good times, and try to recapture them. Rekindle old rituals. Offer mood and confidence boosters like compliments or a funny story. And, if you can, offer resources to help get past it.
The online/offline balancing act
So much of our social interaction these days happens online. Think of it as a way to reinforce, not replace, human interactions and you’ll be golden.
• When as much as 93% of communication is non-verbal (body language, vocal tone, gestures), a lot can be lost in cold hard text. Add an emoticon or exclamation point to make sure your words are taken in the right spirit.
• Tailor your Facebook feed by following the friends whose updates are most important to you. And if you’re sick of political rants or endless vacation photos from someone, you don’t have to unfriend. Just unfollow.
• Don’t assume that someone sees your posts or tweets about events in your life. If it’s important, reach out the old-fashioned way.
• Sending a thoughtful or funny e-card tells friends that they’re a priority in your life. Try these Unstuck Gratitude Cards. Some E-Cards or Koco E-Cards also have wonderful options, or you can make your own at Card Karma.
• Don’t let replies linger. You know those emails that you’ve been meaning to respond to when you have the time to write a proper update. Often enough, that turns out to be, um, never. So send a quick, immediate response, and then your friends won’t be left wondering if you’ve forgotten them.
• Remember that you can respond offline. A good friend you don’t often see posted news she had a baby? Your old college roommate sounds depressed in his tweets? Or a cousin just quit her day job to found a start-up? Pick up the phone to share your excitement, your moral support, or advice. The conversation will keep your connection strong and give both of you a positive buzz.