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We get it, we’re all busy (understatement of the year). Constant demands for our time and attention create stress that can be tough to manage. Want to feel better and less stressed? Fill your social calendar. If you haven’t been prioritizing friendship or girls’ night, it’s time to start. Close friendships are crucial to our overall health and well-being. We’ve got great advice from top experts to help you maximize your friendships’ potential.

HUMAN CONNECTION KEEPS US HEALTHY

It’s fair to assume the key aspects of optimal health are diet and exercise, plus whether or not we smoke or abuse alcohol. Those are important, but did you know the quality of our relationships plays an even more important role in our health? “How loved and supported we feel is a greater predictor of our future health than how much we exercise or how healthy we eat. Being isolated is extremely detrimental to our health,” says Shasta Nelson, friendship expert and author of Frientimacy.

“Being lonely is more damaging to our body than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. It does the equivalent damage as being a lifelong alcoholic, and it is twice as harmful as being obese.” Have you ever felt alone even though you’re surrounded by people? Depth matters most in our friendships; maintaining casual acquaintances alone won’t cut it. “Social interactions affect our mental health. They are a source of social and emotional support,” says Eileen Kennedy-Moore, PhD, a Princeton psychologist and author of Growing Friendships. “People can feel lonely even when they know and interact with a lot of people. We want to feel like we are known and valued. If you find yourself feeling lonely, it’s a signal to fix something.”

CONSISTENCY IS THE GLUE THAT HOLDS FRIENDSHIPS TOGETHER

If loneliness is so hazardous to our heath, how can we cultivate supportive relationships with people we can really lean on? Think about the saying Rome wasn’t built in a day— building anything meaningful takes time, including real friendships. “Intimacy takes time to build, either one-on-one, or in very small group get-togethers. Friends are what help us get through. They make the good times more enjoyable and the hard times more bearable,” says Kennedy-Moore. There’s no shortcut to intimacy; it requires sustenance. “We need consistency. We have to put in the time to build a history together; the more predictable our relationship is and the more time we spend together, the safer we feel,” Nelson says.

POSITIVITY AND VULNERABILITY FOR THE WIN

We all know a Debbie Downer, and chances are we avoid her at all costs. If we want our friends to stick around, it’s important to pump up our interactions with positivity. “For every negative interaction with a person, there should be five positive ones. If we leave our social interactions feeling good, our relationships become so much more meaningful,” Nelson says.

Openness is another important pathway to deep friendships. Vulnerability can also be achieved in a group setting, says Nelson. “I like to ask an open-ended question that everyone in the group has [an] answer [to], like ‘Tell me about something that’s going on in your life that really matters to you right now.’ So, each person is choosing what they want to talk about and everyone has a chance to share, making a point to share something that’s causing them the most stress and one thing they can celebrate.”

There’s no right way to navigate the social world, says Kennedy-Moore, so be flexible and do what works for you. “Don’t be afraid to speak up and ask for what you need in a way that is respectful of the other person. Just like kids, adults need to reach out to make friends, or step back if they’ve come on too strong.”

DON’T BE A FLAKE

Allocating the time and energy to cultivate and nourish friendships can be difficult as we juggle work and familial obligations (not to mention self-care). Finding time for girls’ night is easier when we remember our why. “I try to be thoughtful and consistent with reaching out to my friends because it is such an important part of my life, and if something is important, you have to make time for it,” says Maplewood real estate agent and author Jill Sockwell. By tapping into our creativity, it’s possible to fit in time with the people we care about. Sockwell recommends making dates to do activities both parties enjoy. “I have standing phone dates with my long-distance friends. I had a Tuesday night yoga date with one of my other busy mom friends, and I have other friends I will meet for a hike on Saturday mornings when I can squeeze it in.”

Keep it fun. “Figure out ways to connect that fit with your life, like being exercise buddies or running errands together, chatting when you’re picking up the kids—go a few minutes early and grab a coffee first,” says Kennedy-Moore. The next time you’re tempted to flake on a girls’ night, think about the lasting benefits of true connection. If we’re willing to put in the time, our friendships will blossom into solid support networks that benefit our health. Girls night, anyone?

—Heidi Borst is a mother, writer and nutrition coach based in Maplewood.

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