Social connections and friendships play an important role in mental health, and a study has found that even just one short chat per day with friends can have a positive impact on mental well-being.
The study, published in Communication Research, included 900 participants from five university campuses before, during, and after the 2020 pandemic lockdowns. The participants were directed to engage in one of seven communication behaviors during a single day and then report back that night about their feelings of stress, connection, anxiety, well-being, loneliness, and the quality of their day.
The seven behaviors included:
- Catching up
- Meaningful talk
- Joking around
- Showing care
- Valuing others and their opinions
- Offering sincere compliments
While these seven behaviors were studied, researchers found that no particular behavior resulted in more positive outcomes than the others. Instead, the act of intentionally reaching out to a friend or loved one, in general, had the biggest impact.
“Increased isolation was one of the biggest stressors for people during lockdown and the pandemic, and people started to realize how lonely it is when there is no human interaction,” says Christina Thomas, a licensed professional counselor on the staff at Texas Health Springwood Behavioral Health. “Human beings are social animals and connection is fundamental to mental well-being.”
This may explain why the study suggests that even just a brief interaction, such as a quick chat with a friend, can provide a sense of social connectedness and support, which can help buffer against stress and improve overall mental health.
“The truth is when we are pulled in so many directions, there is a certain level of mental isolation that we experience,” Thomas adds. “Even though the study doesn’t mention a length of time, it is pretty apparent that offering a sincere compliment or catching up doesn’t really need so much of your time. Small interactions foster a sense of belonging and acceptance. The length of conversation will depend on the comfortability of the people involved. Ideally, it comes down to the quality of the conversation and the effort put into it.”
How to Incorporate These Moments into Your Day
While a busy schedule is often the most common barrier in keeping up with relationships, prioritization is key here.
“We don’t have to check in with our friends every single day and we don’t need to spend hours on end on the phone either. It’s all about prioritizing and setting time apart for a quick text message or a call,” Thomas says. “You can put aside about 5 minutes a day to quickly respond back to messages, whether that be at the start of your day, at the end, or somewhere in the middle. Then maybe we can keep aside 30 minutes every other day or every few days to catch up with our loved ones.”
If you’re scratching your head at even just finding a small window of time throughout your day, Thomas notes that you can also incorporate connection into your day by planning a workout with a friend or inviting someone to an activity that you enjoy.
Steven Moore, a licensed professional counselor at Texas Health Springwood Behavioral Health, seconds that suggestion.
“Take a loved one or friend grocery shopping with you or meet your best friend at the gym,” he adds. “You not only have a companion in these activities, but you get valuable connection time. This can also be a great option for those who are more introverted or who have a smaller circle of friends.”
If you’re worried your busy schedule may come across as if you don’t have time for or care about the people in your life, Thomas notes that it’s important to communicate that with your loved ones.
“In a good relationship, people respect boundaries and work with you to keep the relationship alive,” she adds.
Alternatively, both Thomas and Moore note that if you find yourself feeling obligated to call or connect with someone, you may want to take a step back and examine those feelings and pressures.
“The study really emphasizes intentionality in communication, but by no means does this mean that you should be connecting just for the sake of connecting,” she explains. “You could argue you’re not even connecting at that point. The key to healthy relationships is being able to openly communicate, connect and have a sense of belonging. When we connect out of obligation, it doesn’t allow us to be present and causes a constant feeling of despair.”
“People can sense empathy and emotion on the receiving end,” Moore seconds. “When you are not authentic or engaged, it will appear as an obligation to the other person which can result in a negative response. This is not the kind of connection the study is talking about and may do more damage to the relationship than build it.”
Virtual Connection Can Help Bridge the Gap
If you’re wondering how virtual communication fits into all of this, both Thomas and Moore agree that there’s no one way of communicating and connecting that is better than the other, although, it may vary from person to person.
Chances are, the pandemic has helped illuminate if you prefer in-person connection to virtual connection, or if you’re indifferent, and you may know your close friends’ and family’s preferences as well.
“People prefer to communicate in different ways and ideally it comes down to the comfortability of both parties,” Thomas says. “There are some that struggle with social anxiety or may feel safer doing so at home. Likewise, some people could have a busy schedule and may not have the time to do an in-person visit. However, if you chose virtual as an option, I suggest finding a calming place or somewhere quieter so you can really relax and focus on the conversation.”
It's important to note that the study focused on daily social interactions, and it's likely that having a strong network of friends and social support over the long term can have an even greater impact on mental health.
If you're struggling with mental health, reaching out to friends or loved ones can be a helpful first step. Even a short conversation or message can provide a sense of support and help improve your mood. Additionally, seeking professional help from a mental health provider can also be beneficial in managing and improving mental health.
If you are starting to feel burnout, high levels of stress or see dysfunction in your day-to-day, Texas Health Behavioral Resources are offered at 18 locations throughout North Texas. For additional information or to find resources, call (682) 626-8719.