The Benefits of Reaching Out to Old Friends, According to Research
New research shows most of us underestimate the impact of a casual check-in with friends.
There’s a sentiment that has become popular by way of a tweet over the years. Adult friendships be like ‘I miss you bro, let’s link in November.” The brevity sparks amusement; we share and reshare this nifty one-liner with friends lost to time and places. The said friends double tap or react with an emoticon, indulging nostalgia for a hot minutebefore proceeding to carry on with their days. Some may even respond with a proposal for tentative plans that, generally, don’t tend to ever materialize.
But within this exchange is a sweeter and gentler truth that becomes evident only in passing: the humor of adult friends missing each other and casually articulating the desire to reconnect. Catching up with friends from lives past requires an act of initiation; then it’s smooth sailing usually, where people glide over metaphorical tides and delve into adventures left behind — anything and everything that exists as a reminder of themselves and their friendship.
But it’s the undertaking of typing an uncomplicated “hey, how’s it going?” that remains belabored in our minds. Reconnecting is easy in theory, but it’s the enterprise of reaching out that is hard to execute. What if the person finds it intrusive? Worse, what if they don’t respond? The desire to reconnect is also fraught with anxiety about making ourselves vulnerable. As it turns out, this hesitation is overstated; there is wisdom in catching up with old friends and even sending that text we’ve been sitting on for a while.
This is precisely what new research showed recently: a “hey” matters more than we think it does. Researchers at the University of Pittsburgh recently conducted 13 real and fictional experiments with more than 5,900 participants to gauge the impact of social interaction. They asked college students to write a note to someone they had lost touch with and then mailed this note to the recipient. Both the writer and recipient were asked to rate on a seven-point scale the level of appreciation they felt on sending and receiving the note.
While the sender’s average rating bordered on 5.57, the receiver’s went as high as 6.17 — indicating that people receive these “out of the blue” messages with more love and kindness than we expect them to. What’s more is that the higher the degree of surprise in the correspondence, the higher the appreciation. Irrespective, the pattern was that those who reached out — by way of mails, messages, or gifts — underestimated the impact of their casual check-in, while the receiver was significantly ecstatic about the gesture.
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The study, published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, thus unearthed the mismatch that lives in our mind. “…[People’s] hesitations may be misplaced, as others are likely to appreciate being reached out to more than people think,” according to Peggy Liu, the lead author of the research.
In other words, chances are the other person doesn’t find the good-old catch-up weird, and may actually be pleasantly surprised. Aoife Hanna writes in Bustle how they reached out to a friend from another lifetime: “…I reached out. And it felt weirdly scary. There was a vulnerability about it. Like asking someone on a date or sending an ex a song that made you think of them. Luckily, despite us both being busy gals in our 30s with deadlines and washing that needed doing, she was up for it.” Aoife and their friend Phoebe were both exalted by the end. “The chat had taken me back to being 22, insecure, chubby, and weird, but that canceled out all of those thoughts. Although it’s easy to hate on your past struggles and your crappy times — they make you solid. Like going over a line in pencil multiple times. It gets thicker, stronger, more permanent.”
This desire to reconnect was more evident during the early days of the lockdown in 2020. As it happens with moments of crises and tragedies, the instinct is to look backward and embrace nostalgia, and with it, also think fondly of short bursts of friendships that withered over time. Arguably, memory, in its imperfect glory, is a slippery slope; it is neither healthy nor prudent to revisit every relationship from the past. Yet, the idea remains a spontaneous message from people who were important in some other era that makes us — and them — feel good.
The premise is that we are social creatures by nature. We need emotional connection — especially authentic connection — to feel a sense of belongingness and find an anchor to place our lives incontext. It thus acts as a counter to loneliness.
Old friendships, in particular, carry the sheen of nostalgia, which is linked to mental health benefits for the people in the said dynamic. Nostalgia sparked through a casual conversation or over catch-up drinks can potentially remind people of who they were, put their present selves into perspective, and perhaps, nudge them to pursue a version of their “authentic,” older self.
Reaching out to old friends is akin to exploring one’s roots; giving people an opportunity to run their hands over the texture of memories and experiences, and make sense of who they were. These are the people who can rewind time with you, who can remember how far you’ve come. It is no wonder even people who receive the catch-up messages feel a sense of joy. Sometime around 1931, Anaïs Nin poignantly wrote in her diary: “Each friend represents a world in us, a world possibly not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born.”
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Research has also shown that nostalgia is a potent antidote to loneliness, in that when people wistfully speak of the past, they become more ambitious and optimistic about the future. “Nostalgia makes us a bit more human,” said clinical psychologist Constantine Sedikides.
In general, literature centered specifically around the physical and mental benefits of friendships has grown popular over the last two years. A study from 2021 also found that social interaction by way of the internet and social media did wonders in lowering the rates of loneliness and depression. “Feeling connected to others has consistently been shown to be good for our physical and mental health,” said Stephen Reicher, a professor of social psychology at the University of St. Andrews. “Indeed there is a whole new literature on what is called ‘the social cure’ which shows that such connections can be remarkably effective in everything to protecting against depression and maintaining cognitive abilities in the old to recovery from heart attacks.”
A corollary to this is also scientists ringing the bell on the risks of prolonged social isolation. There is evidence linking perceived social isolation with health consequences including depression, poor sleep quality, quicker cognitive decline, poor cardiovascular function, and impaired immunity at every stage of life, according to the American Psychological Association.
According to Reicher, the pandemic of isolation and anxiety also means “finding ways of connecting people must be a priority.”
Reconnecting with old friends is not like reusing a ragged cloth that is dull and weary. We pick the cloth because we know it too well — not only its fabric and texture, but its limits too.
Saumya Kalia is an Associate Editor at The Swaddle. Her journalism and writing explore issues of social justice, digital sub-cultures, media ecosystem, literature, and memory as they cut across socio-cultural periods. You can reach her at @Saumya_Kalia.