The Harvard Medical School Study of Adult Development is a fascinating look into the lives of 724 men that began in 1938 and continues to this day. Using medical exams, questionnaires, and interviews researchers tracked participants’ work, home lives, and overall health. In his 2015 TED Talk, current study director Robert Waldinger said the clearest finding from their 75 years of research is this: “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Their work indicates that men who reported better mid-life relationships were healthier into their eighties, regardless of all other factors including family history, income, and education levels. Strong, regular connections are what sustain us.
This is where online social networks present a paradox when it comes to nurturing friendships. On the one hand, they allow us to keep in touch with people no matter where in the world our lives take us. On the other hand, the ease with which we accumulate (and retain) followers can sometimes leave us feeling alone in a sea of acquaintances.
Kitestring is an Australian project that is attempting to analyze strong friendships and use its observations to design practical social enterprises to cultivate more of the same. They describe technology’s conflicted role when it comes to personal relationships: “Our expanded world has opened up new opportunities for ways to live and work, and it’s easier than ever to form many weak connections with people far away. This same expansion, however, means the time and structure necessary for forming strong, close ties are often missing. ….As a society, we need to reflect. How can we structure our lives so that progress and connection aren’t in conflict?”
It doesn’t help that social media is where we tend to share only the best parts of our lives. The good news and winning photos get published, while the hard knocks and daily humdrum are quietly edited out of the feed. But connection is precisely what we need to see us through life’s big and little stresses.
So how can we use online social networking’s strengths and avoid its pitfalls when it comes to developing or maintaining meaningful friendships? The key lies in being an active user rather than a passive consumer.
Use technology to incorporate people into big shifts
It’s easy to lose track of friends in the chaos of a big life event. A new baby, move, divorce, serious illness or death can wreak havoc on existing relationships. After a move, try swapping a series of “day-in-the-life” photos on your news feed with old friends. When times are tough, create an online group to coordinate information or to schedule meal deliveries, errands, or transportation. Go2s is a social networking tool where you can create a private group that is invisible on the network while still allowing members to invite new people into the group. This mimics group dynamics more naturally, where news spreads as friends turn to a few individual “hubs” for information and are linked into the group through them, while preventing strangers from seeing details.
Make a friendship schedule
Think of your most important relationships and jot down one or two names per day on your online calendar. Set up a recurring “appointment” to make contact. This may seem a little “Type A,” but sometimes we need that small reminder to reach out. “Ash,” a Kitestring study participant, does this and admits, “I know it’s dorky… I just find it helpful. Otherwise… it’s not that I don’t love people or think of them, it’s just that doesn’t translate into being in touch….If it’s been a month since you spoke to someone, so much has happened, and you don’t say that sort of stuff in conversation with people, because they’re little things sometimes, or you’ve forgotten about them by then. And all those little things are kind of what make up your life.”
Just reaching out with a photo or a quick update once a week can nurture a relationship across great distances in time and space.
Have a standing date
In person, this might be a monthly dinner or happy hour. While not all rituals translate to an online forum, many do. Using Go2s, for example, you can create a private Book Club group and use the Discussion feature to debate your reading list and Video Calls to conduct your discussions. Another idea is a regularly-scheduled online game night.
Share the work
Once upon a time, in close-knit communities, there was always someone nearby to help with day-to-day labor. Where once we relied on word-of-mouth to raise a barn or bring in a harvest, now we can use technology to turn individual work into a shared endeavor. Use a tagging feature like Go2s Relationship tags to identify your neighbors or create a private group for your block or street. Then work together to hold a spring yard sale or designate a fall yard clean-up day. Many hands not only make light work, they bring joy to otherwise mundane tasks and increase our overall sense of well-being.
Plan a trip
Pick a place you and a friend have always wanted to go and start planning. Open a Go2s Discussion and start searching guidebooks and reviews. Divvy up research: one finds the lowest airfare or the best driving route and the other the best place to stay. Start a Resource list of must-see attractions, local-favorite restaurants, or adorable boutiques. Whether it’s a once-in-a-lifetime, bucket-list kind of activity or something that takes you out of town for a weekend, the anticipation can be as invigorating to your relationship as the actual reunion.
For a quick guide to starting a Go2s group, click here.