How to Improve Friendships—And Why It’s So Important

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Good Life" by Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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Do you prioritize time with your friends? How might each of your friendships be stronger?

Children value the friendships they make in school or other activities, but adults too often brush them off. This is because most adults are in different stages of life, so friends come and go more easily. It doesn’t have to be this way—and it shouldn’t.

Discover how to improve friendships so you can value them the way you did as a child.

Your Relationship With Your Friends

In The Good Life, Robert Waldinger and Marc Schulz say that many of us don’t take the time to learn how to improve friendships. They point out that, while children value their friends, adults often neglect their friends in favor of more immediate concerns such as their family or their work. This is especially true if the relationship developed when both people were in the same phase of life but one has since moved on; for example, if one college friend is still struggling in her career while the other is financially successful.

(Shortform note: Sometimes, people neglect friends in different life stages not because they’re prioritizing other concerns but because they struggle to connect due to their now-different experiences. If so, experts suggest that you focus on the things you still share—like your love of politics—and remember that every life stage is temporary; no matter how different things seem now, they may not always be that way.) 

However, Waldinger and Schulz argue that neglecting our friendships is a mistake, as they’re more important than most of us think. The authors point to several studies indicating that close friendships have a significant impact on both our physical and mental health. Notably, your friends improve how well you handle stressful events: Friends make difficult situations seem better than they are, and they reduce both how long and how strongly we feel these events’ effects.

(Shortform note: Friends may be particularly helpful in stressful situations if they’re going through the same event that you are. One study found that if one stressed-out friend conversed with another friend who was equally stressed out, both felt better.)

Waldinger and Schulz add that it’s not just our close friendships, or “strong ties,” that positively affect our lives. A growing body of research indicates that “weak ties”—infrequent and low-intensity relationships—also provide unexpected benefits. When you cultivate connections with people you don’t know well, such as the friend of your friend or the cashier at the corner store you frequent, you gain access to broader networks that you might not have access to otherwise. For example, studies show that the more weak ties you have, the better your chances of finding a good job. 

(Shortform note: In Give and Take, Adam Grant suggests that different people reap different workplace benefits from their weak ties. Grant introduces a type of weak tie called a “dormant tie”—someone you used to see often but have lost touch with. If you’re a giver (who likes to give more than you get), you have a major advantage when reconnecting with this dormant tie: They’ll be happy to hear from you because you have a history of helping people. In contrast, if you’re a taker (who takes more than they give), this dormant tie may want to punish you. And if you’re a matcher (who gives on a quid pro quo basis), you may only have a transactional relationship with this person and so not be remembered fondly.) 

Waldinger and Schulz suggest several strategies to help you improve your relationships. If you’d like to increase your weak ties, look at your existing social group. Who do you regularly interact with that you don’t know well? If you’d like to improve your close friendships, reconsider your patterns. Many of us fall into a rut in our friendships. Think about what you normally do or talk about with your current friends, and mix things up if need be. For example, if you always go to trivia night with your friends, maybe you want to go hiking instead.

Additionally, pay attention to whether you’re the one usually providing or receiving emotional support in the relationship. If there’s an imbalance, think of whether you can provide more (by listening more) or receive more (by asking for more support).

More Tips for Implementing Waldinger and Schulz’s Strategies

Other experts suggest more specific ways to improve your relationships. First, if you’re uncomfortable reaching out to a weak tie you don’t know well, Meg Jay recommends in The Defining Decade that you ask the weak tie for a small, interesting, specific, and easy-to-accomplish favor—for example, ask to borrow a book she loves. Most people like to help others, so she’ll likely oblige. Plus, once she does, her brain will tell her she likes you (because you made her feel helpful) and she’ll be more inclined to help you again. Second, if you’re in a rut with a friend but don’t know how to mix things up, create a bucket list—a list of experiences that you’d like to have—together. 

Third, if you’re unsure whether your friendship is imbalanced, spend a moment reflecting after your next conversation. If you feel exhausted and drained, you may be providing too much emotional support; consider gently suggesting therapy to your friend if this is a regular occurrence. In contrast, if you realize that you’re talking too much, focus on asking more questions during your next conversation to give your friend a chance to speak. 
How to Improve Friendships—And Why It’s So Important

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Here's what you'll find in our full The Good Life summary:

  • That the key to a good life has nothing to do with your career or success
  • How to evaluate the current quality of your relationships
  • How to improve relationships with your friends, partner, family, and coworkers

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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