How to Build Strong Friendships: Skills for Life

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Happiness Project" by Gretchen Rubin. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.

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What makes a strong friendship? How can we maintain strong friendships with people we care about?

Strong friendships are the one thing that everyone—scientists, philosophers, and happiness experts—can agree is a major contributor to overall happiness and life satisfaction. But maintaining friendships takes effort, especially as we get older and take on more responsibilities.

In this article, we’ll discuss some ways you can cultivate and maintain strong friendships throughout life.

The Crucial Role Friendship Play in Your Well-Being

There are a number of studies that back up the importance of strong, meaningful friendships—they make activities more enjoyable, lower your risk of depression, and can even boost your immune system. We’ll discuss three resolutions that can reinforce your existing friendships and help you make new connections: making the effort, cultivating a friendlier spirit, and pursuing new connections.

Make the Effort

Maintaining friendship takes a lot of work, and this work can easily get lost in your busy everyday life. Take the initiative in your friendships to be the one who makes an effort to stay in touch and follow through with plans. 

Stay in Touch

Reaching out to old friends to let them know you’re thinking of them is a small gesture that goes a long way toward strengthening bonds. The resolution to keep in touch might look like making a list of friends you’ve been meaning to reach out to, and contacting one of them each Saturday afternoon. Or, you might set a date—like the first day of summer or Valentine’s Day—as your “check-in” day. 

While a quick check-in won’t guarantee the level of closeness you had before you lost touch—as it’s likely you’re both busy or live far apart—the reminder of companionship will give both of you a moment of rejuvenation in your day. 

Follow Through With Plans 

If you don’t show up for plans with your friends, your friendships will have a much harder time surviving. 

  • Showing up looks like saying, “Let’s get coffee” and then actually making plans, going to housewarming parties, visiting your friend after they have a baby, or going to events put on by friends.

When you show up for events in others’ lives, no matter how small or large, you strengthen your bond with them—while this can deepen an already close relationship, it can also push a new friendship toward “close” friendship due to the mere exposure effect. The more people are exposed to something—such as sounds, colors, or people—the more they naturally start to like it. Therefore, the more people see you, the more they’ll like you, and vice versa.  

Cultivate a Friendlier Spirit

Strong friendships don’t depend solely on the motions of companionship—you have to cultivate a positive, supportive mindset that lends itself to building and strengthening relationships. 

Stop Gossiping

Gossip is tempting because it does have social benefits. It makes you feel closer to other people and it helps you understand the values of the group you’re in. But, benefits aside, gossip is mean-spirited and detrimental to your happiness and the happiness of others. 

  • It’s hurtful, and after you take part in it, you’re likely to feel the unhappy emotion of guilt. 
  • Gossip is a quick way to put your opinions in the minds of others. This is unfair because they don’t get the opportunity to make their own positive opinion of someone. 
  • When you attribute certain characteristics to another person, the person listening to you subconsciously attributes those characteristics to you. For example, if you say, “I think Joe is stupid and horrible with the club’s finances,” your listener subconsciously thinks, “I think you’re stupid and bad with finances.”

Putting a stop to gossiping has two parts. 

  1. Stop instigating. This part is relatively easy—you’ll have to bite your tongue on occasion, but a little self-discipline will stop your habit. 
  2. Stop listening to gossip. This part is much harder—you can’t control what other people say, but you can control how you respond to it. Try to respond dismissively in a way that shows you don’t want to engage. For example, if someone says, “I heard the boss is thinking about firing Jaime,” don’t spur her on by saying, “Really? What did you hear?” Instead, try, “Oh, that’s probably not true.”

Practice Generosity of Spirit

When you’re generous toward your friends and offer them support, it often gives you just as much happiness as it gives them—when you do good, you feel good. The most simple and accessible way to be more generous toward your friends is to practice your generosity of spirit. There are four significant ways to do this.

1) Encourage People

Offering words of encouragement to a friend is a simple, but highly effective way to be generous toward them. Your words might feel small to you, but they might give your friend the confidence they need to take on their ambitions. 

If you can, try taking your encouragement a step further by following it up with resources or advice. For example, if you encourage a friend to pursue their idea for an app, you might follow up a few days later with, “I think your idea is great. I talked to Sara who recently went through the same process and she recommended these sources,” or, “I’ll put you in touch with my friend who launched an app last year.”

2) Help Make Connections

Helping people make connections with others is a natural source of happiness for them, and new connections often offer new sources of support. 

You’ll have to be generous with your time to take on the work of arranging meetings, exchanging contact info, or searching for resources. Keep this a happy—not draining—activity by finding the connection methods that work best for you. If you’re an extrovert, you might invite the friends you want to connect out for a coffee. If you’re more introverted or busy, a simple introduction email might work best for you. 

3) Find Your Generosity Type

Finding your own, enjoyable way to help others is a great way to ensure maximum satisfaction for both parties—not only do you do your friend a meaningful favor, but you also enjoy the task and get to spend time with them. For example, Rubin found that she enjoyed decluttering, so she practiced generosity by helping her friends clean their own homes. 

  • Think about helpful and enjoyable skills that you might be able to lend to others—such as photography, helping edit résumés, gardening, and so on. 
4) Assume Positive Intent 

Many of us fall victim to the “fundamental attribution error”—we perceive others’ actions as a reflection of their character, instead of taking into account how their circumstances might dictate their actions. On the other hand, we perceive our own actions through the lens of circumstance. For example, if a coworker snapped at you, you’d likely think they were an impatient crank. However, if you were to snap at someone, you might say, “I can’t help being so irritable today. I have a horrible headache.”

Be generous in your perceptions of people and work on assuming that they have positive intent, just as you do. If they’re acting in a negative way, ask yourself: What might be causing them to act like this? 

Pursue New Connections

Making new friends throughout your life is important for several reasons—they provide you with greater feelings of connection, they offer new sources of support, and they can introduce you to new perspectives and interests and help build strong friendships.

It’s easy to get comfortable with the friends you have and become a bit resistant to widening your circle. To combat this tendency, establish a friend-making goal—in each new social situation you encounter, set a goal to make new friends. 

This method seems a bit too calculated for a social endeavor, but it will make you more open to socializing in several key ways. 

  • Instead of deciding if you like people when you meet them, your goal reframes your thought to, “Could we be friends?” This helps you become more interested in really getting to know the people you meet, instead of just exchanging pleasantries. 
  • You might act more friendly than you would otherwise—it’s difficult to make friends if you’re acting withdrawn. Furthermore, studies find that acting in an outgoing and friendly way makes people feel happier—extroverts and introverts alike.  
How to Build Strong Friendships: Skills for Life

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Darya Sinusoid

Darya’s love for reading started with fantasy novels (The LOTR trilogy is still her all-time-favorite). Growing up, however, she found herself transitioning to non-fiction, psychological, and self-help books. She has a degree in Psychology and a deep passion for the subject. She likes reading research-informed books that distill the workings of the human brain/mind/consciousness and thinking of ways to apply the insights to her own life. Some of her favorites include Thinking, Fast and Slow, How We Decide, and The Wisdom of the Enneagram.

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