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About 15 minutes into your daily walk you begin to think about your old high school and university friends. The more you think about them, it becomes clear to you that it’s been a long time since you connected with this group of friends.
You wonder why you’ve lost touch and conclude that it’s just because life happens. You moved away from your home community and then to another location after university for your first job.
During this walk down memory lane you begin to laugh at some of the memories and realize that some of your best times happened during high school and university. Your friends were important social connections that provided you support and confidence that you realize played a role in shaping who you are today.
Once back from your walk, you decide to list all your old and current friends. To organize your thoughts, you categorize them as current close friends, old friends, work friends, gym friends and community friends. You assign a value of one to 10 beside each name, indicating how much you value each friendship.
This simple exercise provides you with some profound insights, one being that you no longer are in touch with several names on your list. You conclude that there’s nothing stopping you from reaching out. All it requires is an effort to reconnect. You don’t need a reason other than to say, “Hello, I was thinking about you and wondering how you’re doing.”
This micro skill reinforces the benefits of positive social connections by connecting and building meaningful friendships. Healthy friendships have many benefits, but they require a willingness to make those connections a priority.
We humans are social creatures. Social connections can lead to relationships with other people that paradoxically can bring us joy and pain. While there may be nothing more difficult than getting along with some people, there’s really no greater joy than the lift we get through certain social connections.
Our brain’s computing capacity plays a role in influencing the number of active social connections we’re able to maintain. British anthropologist Robin Dunbar’s research found that the average person’s brain has the capacity to engage and maintain around 150 healthy relationships. Not all of these are at the same level of closeness. Research suggests that most of us have the capacity to maintain about five best friends. Many have two whom they would consider trusted confidantes.
The first step for enhancing social connections is to complete a social connections inventory, like in the above example.
Maintaining, building and supporting healthy social connections fuels our ability to have relationships that have been found to promote positive mental health and lower our risk for mortality.
One proactive defence for mental health is actively engaging in developing new relationships, reconnecting with old friends, and maintaining current relationships.
Improving social connections requires daily micro decisions and actions around social connections that determine the kind of support and friends we have.
Knowing that positive social connections are good for our mental health, there are several micro decisions we can make to charge our social connections:
Call an old friend – Crazy as it sounds, just pick up a phone and randomly call an old friend to reconnect. Make a list of old friends you’d like to catch up with. No e-mail. No text. No social media. Just an actual phone call.
Make a date night with you partner – Typically our partners are one of our five closest friends. Carve out time for you to connect on a personal level; make this time important.
Write a letter – Technology is wonderful, but it’s too easy and doesn’t demonstrate commitment. Writing a letter by hand to someone you’re thinking about demonstrates your thoughtfulness.
Don’t take your social connections for granted – If people aren’t calling you, it’s likely because you’re not calling them. Be active, persistent and spontaneous, and demonstrate that you care.
Charge you batteries – Make time for your closest friends when you have no agenda but to be with them.
Join a social connections engine – Volunteer, coach, join a club, play a sport, go to church, take a course, do a play. These are all examples of activities that schedule people to come together for a common purpose.
Bill Howatt is the chief of research for work force productivity at the Conference Board of Canada, and a co-creator of the Employee Recommended Workplace Award.
You can find other stories like these at tgam.ca/workplaceaward.