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by Locke Hughes for SHAPE.com
You have hundreds of connections on LinkedIn and even more friends on Facebook. You like their photos on Instagram and send frequent Snapchat selfies. But when was the last time you talked to any of them face-to-face? Thought so. And that lack of genuine bonding could be doing more harm than you think.
"While electronic communication is a great blessing of our age, it has also jeopardized the power of human connection by taking away personal touch and intimate involvement," says Edward Hallowell, M.D., founder of the Hallowell Centers and author of Connect: 12 Vital Ties That Open Your Heart, Lengthen Your Life, and Deepen Your Soul.
This disconnectedness has taken a serious toll on our health and wellbeing. Having weak social relationships is equivalent to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, more harmful than being inactive, and twice as dangerous as obesity, according to a Brigham Young University review. People with poor connections also had a 50 percent greater risk of death after seven and a half years. Beyond these major maladies, those with limited social interaction report a general feeling of lassitude that permeates their lives. "You still get through the day, but you're thinking, 'Is this all there is?'" Hallowell says.
Despite your busy schedule, you do have time to strengthen your relationships and enrich your life all-around-and what better time than the New Year? "Recommit to fostering emotional connections and face-to-face communication," Hallowell says. With these simple steps, you'll not only reap a stronger social network, you just might have a little more fun too.
1. Write it down: There's an overwhelming number of possible people to reconnect with, so start with three, Hallowell recommends, such as your college roommate, far-flung cousin, and a coworker. List their names and mark reminders on your calendar to call or email them every month or so.
2. Follow through: Most of us are quick to say, "Let's do lunch" or "We should grab a drink" when we see an old friend or acquaintance, yet we never actually commit to those dates. This year, set a time and place for your catch-up, and follow through with it.
3. Politely say no: Of course, you can't "do lunch" with every person you've ever known or everyone you run into. "It's important to prioritize your relationships," says licensed therapist Julie de Azevedo Hanks, director of Wasatch Family Therapy and author of The Burnout Cure: An Emotional Survival Guide for Overwhelmed Women. Think of your connections as concentric circles, with you in the middle, then your intimate relationships, family members, friends, close colleagues, and so on. Spend the most time and energy starting at the center, and attenuate it outward. So when you see someone in an outer circle, don't promise to get together. "This is where social media and electronic communication come in handy," Hanks says. Tell them it's nice to see them, and use Facebook or Twitter to keep in touch.
4. Let go of grudges: We all have at least one person we feel wronged us in the past-make 2014 the year you forgive one of them. "Forgiveness is a gift you give yourself, as it frees you from the toxins of chronic anger and resentment," says Hallowell, who wrote the book Dare to Forgive. It doesn't mean you necessarily forget-or even condone-what was done, he adds, you're simply letting go of negative energy for your own good. If you need to maintain an ongoing relationship with this person, it's best to forgive in person, but for sticky situations, the other person doesn't need to know-pardon him or her in your mind, and move on.
5. Air things out: As most of us know firsthand, it's common to have disagreements between close friends and family members. "With close connection comes conflict, but conflict is normal-how you deal with it is what matters," Hallowell says. Serious issues like abuse, addiction, or other dysfunction aside, he advises bringing your issue out in the open in order to ultimately strengthen your relationships.
If you've felt tense with your cousin who made an uncouth remark at the Thanksgiving table or a close friend who talked behind your back, reach out and say you've missed them and would love to talk about it. Meeting face-to-face is best so you can access nonverbal cues, Hanks says, but if that's not possible, try a phone call or Skype, then email, then text.
Approach a touchy subject like a tennis match, Hanks advises: "Keep the ball on your side of the court. Say, 'I felt hurt that when you didn't reach out when my mother died last year. I know you had a lot going on in your own life, but I'm still sad I didn't hear from you.'" While you can't always prevent another person from feeling like you're attacking them, broaching difficult topics is often better if you first share your vulnerable feelings-hurt, sad, scared, lonely, Hanks explains. If they don't want to talk, leave the door open by saying you'll be there if they ever feel ready to reconnect, or ask if you can check back in with them in a few months.
6. Surprise someone: If a relationship is in need of a little TLC but not a full-blown heart-to-heart, demonstrate your desire to reconnect by showing you care. Reach out in a little, informal ways, Hallowell recommends. Send something unexpected-a basket of fruit, an interesting book, or a provocative card to make him or her laugh-to help break the ice.
"Keep in mind that no matter how others may behave, you can decide to be the kind of daughter, sister, friend, or employee that you want to be," Hanks says. So if your boss never wishes you a happy birthday, still drop a card on his desk. If you don't hear from your Aunt Sally very often, plan a surprise visit. Or just send a simple text to your far-flung friends and associates to say, "Thinking of you. Hope you're having a good week!"
7. Treat a coworker to lunch: Most workplaces are disconnected these days, and stressful work environments can lead to physical and mental health problems. One thing that can help is having a friend in the office-if you have a coworker you like a lot, you'll likely enjoy your job more, Hallowell explains. Offer to buy a cubemate coffee or lunch, and get to know him better, or follow Hanks' example and start staff meetings with some small talk about everyone's lives. "It's really important to recognize and value your coworkers and employees as human beings, not just producers in the office," Hanks says. "People do better work and are happier when they feel seen, heard, and valued."
8. Become a member: Studies suggest that belonging to a group or organization enhances feelings of wellbeing and meaning in life, Hallowell says. Join anything-it could be a church, running group, charity, or civic board-that meets at least once a month. Bonus points if you get involved in something that you're really passionate about. "You'll be more likely to bond with other people and talk and get to know them better if it's something you're all interested in," Hanks says.
9. Share a smile: Even the most trivial interactions can increase your social connectivity, Hallowell says. Smile at the dad you pass in the dairy aisle of the grocery store, and leave your phone in your purse and say hello to the stranger in the elevator. "These little moments give you a boost of wellbeing that can make you glad to be alive-and even feel more alive," Hallowell says. Another daily interaction that can make a difference: Stop in the same local coffee shop or deli, and get to know the owners by name. Those three minutes of friendly conversation can have a major effect on your mood for the rest of the day. "When we connect with others in our daily lives, we feel more present and engaged than when we live on automatic pilot," Hallowell says.
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10. Use technology to your advantage: Social media can be a great tool to stay connected to all those people you've met over the years or don't see very often-and it takes minimal time and effort. "I love technology because it gives you the ability to send an email or comment on a photo instantly, just to let someone know you're thinking of them," Hanks says. Tell a friend she looks great in her new Instagram post, send a funny ecard, or email a link to an article that reminded you of a former intern.
11. Revive the romance: If you've felt distant from your husband or boyfriend lately, simply notice him, Hallowell says. Then let him know with a "Nice tie;" "I love the way you kiss me;" or "You seem a little down. Anything on your mind?" Communication is key, so don't be afraid to ask for what you need that you're not getting, as well as what he needs from you. Spending time as a couple is also crucial to reinvigorate a relationship. "It can be three minutes over coffee, three hours over dinner and a movie, or three days on a weekend trip, but there is no substitute for time together," Hallowell says.