To combat the loneliness or anxiety you have felt in 2020, you may be spending a lot of time pursuing a romantic relationship or focusing on family, but your friends are actually better for your well-being. Our friendships have a stronger impact on our health and well-being in adulthood because of their selective, spontaneous, and positive nature. Simply put, friends are the family we chose and because we chose them, they often boost our physical, mental, and emotional well-being.   

Knowing this, Kristin was aware of the gravity of her son asking her this year, “Mom, how do you make friends?” This was not a passing question but a heartfelt plea to find happiness. But she didn’t have the answers. She was stumped. She had thriving friendships, but not the language to explain how to make them.

As well-being experts and friends, we went to find the answers. We conducted a research study at The University of Pennsylvania with friendship exemplars (those really good at making and keeping friends) to find the strategies that enable friendships to endure and thrive. As we listened to everyday stories of friendship, surprising themes surfaced. We discovered the strategies for maintaining friendship (keeping them alive) and strengthening friendship (helping them grow), while related, were unique.

Pulling from Positive Psychology, relationship science, and our own friendship research and experiences, we share the top four strategies for making the most of time with your friends, helping you maintain and strengthen flourishing friendships every day.

Top Strategies for Maintaining Friendship:

Seek Out Shared Experiences

To build a strong connection, you can’t just talk. You need new shared experiences, new memories (Study Participant #3).”

The foundation of friendship is shared experiences. Whether bonding over phases of life, work experiences, proximity or passions, sharing experiences with your friends provide reasons to reach out, topics to discuss, and memories to cherish together. Research shows the most defining turning point in a friendship is when two people elect to spend time together. The more your experiences with friends are infused with positivity, the more power they will have to sustain your friendship long-term.

Pro Tip: To foster positivity in your friendship experiences, find ways to sprinkle in humor (watch a comedy), awe (explore the outdoors), or gratitude (volunteer together).

Communicate Consistently

“You don’t stay close because you’re good friends, you’re good friends because you stay close (Study Participant #6).”

The bond of friendship is a consistent pattern of communication. Research shows best friends talk more often and in greater depth and affection than casual friends. Yet, our busy schedules and demanding workloads often prevent us from keeping up with our friends regularly. Build friendship into your daily, weekly, or monthly plans by establishing regular times to talk together (birthdays, holidays, Sundays at 5PM etc.). By creating consistent communication habits, friendships stay alive through different phases of life, diverse experiences, and distant locations.

Pro Tip: Before you hang up the phone, close the FaceTime, or leave the restaurant, discuss a potential date for your next catch up!

Top Strategies for Strengthening Friendship:

Show Up with Support

Show up. When it’s good, bad, when they need it, and when they don’t. Show up as yourself (Study Participant #11).”

The growth in friendship happens when you support each other during the good times and the bad. Celebrating a friend after a job promotion is just as vital as consoling a friend through a breakup. Many of us use the big moments in our life to tell us who are friends are based on who shows up for us. Interestingly, a 2012 study on high-quality connections shows that it is not just one friend showing up for the other that strengthens a friendship. Reciprocal support is required to create strong friendships.

Pro Tip: Support can manifest in small moments by the way you respond to your friend. Try matching their energy when they tell you big news; ask specific questions about the experience to show that you care and gather their consent before offering advice.

Cultivate Vulnerability

“The depth of connection, the love, the soaring joy. This is the most remarkable experience we can have as humans (Study Participant #5).”

The depth of friendship is vulnerability. In our research, we learned offering support and being vulnerable are often two sides of the same coin. For support to strengthen a friendship, you or your friend must be willing to accept the support offered with grace and gratitude – a form of vulnerability. Researcher Barbara Fredrickson shows being vulnerable increases your naturally circulating levels of oxytocin, which in turn raises your confidence that you can trust your friend.

Pro Tip: Cultivate vulnerability in your friendship by self-disclosing first, showing your friend you trust him/her. When we disclose often, we are more likely to be the recipients of vulnerability from our friends.

With many people longing for deeper, more meaningful connection this year, we must focus on friendship. Armed with research and strategies, Kristin can now answer her son’s earnest question and support him in not only making friends but keeping them alive and helping them grow. We hope you will take these tips to foster flourishing friendships in your own life and share with others to help them do the same. We hope 2021 will be a year of friendship!