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How To Build Relationships And Enhance Happiness: 4 Insights From Neuroscience


One of the most critical skills for the future of work and life will be the ability to build relationships and rapport—and to do this quickly and over distances. Our relationships with others are the lifeblood of our happiness and fulfillment.

In fact, a sweeping global study by Columbia University examining 226,638 people across North America, Europe and Asia found the prevalence of mental health issues—specifically depression and anxiety—is ubiquitous and it is linked to the deterioration of relationships and the distancing we’ve had to endure.

Case in point: One global company has been doing brief, weekly surveys with their employees since the start of the pandemic. They have been asking about the quality and quantity of relationships, and have found the vast majority of people report they’ve seen a reduction in both the quality and the quantity of relationships over time. It is sad but true that relationship deterioration is real for many people.

We need connections with others in order to have a level of health and wellbeing as well as fulfillment and happiness.

The Neuroscience of Relationships

There’s plenty of evidence that we crave relationships in multiple ways and meaningful connections are fundamental to our humanity.

  • We are hardwired for relationships: A recent MIT study found we crave interactions in the same region of our brains where we crave food, and another study showed we experience social exclusion in the same region of our brain where we experience physical pain. In a study by the University of New South Wales, social interaction after periods of social isolation reduced cravings for food and cigarettes. You may have thought it was all about the chocolate, but really it was your brain’s need for your people.
  • We also need the right number of meaningful relationships. A classic sociologist, Robin Dunbar, found the size of our brains is correlated with the number of relationships we can have. Our ability to develop close bonds is based on how much we know and can remember about others. It makes sense: In order to have a tight connection with someone, you have to know what’s going on with their work and their family—both the challenges they’re facing and the achievements they’re enjoying. The size of our brains limits our capacity to know too much about too many people, and this necessarily limits the size of our networks to about 150 close connections.
  • The time we have available also matters. Jeffery Hall has done fascinating research on how many hours it takes to build a relationship and finds it takes about 60 hours of sharing time, conversation and connections. We don’t have time for meaningful relationships with too many people—just based on the amount of time we have in a given day, week or month.

Building Relationships

So what does it take to build relationships—especially during a global pandemic—and how can we rebuild our relationships as things start to return to pre-pandemic conditions? There are some specific ways and especially effective ways to nurture connections:

#1 Invest

In order to have great relationships, you’ll need to invest time and depth.

  • Based on the research by Hall, it will take you 60 hours to cement a friendship, so you’ll need to be intentional about spending time together. Chemistry matters too, and not every person will have the makings of the right match for you. Research by Hayes also shows that if friendships are to become deeper—rather than pure acquaintances—that tends to happen rather quickly, within the first 3-9 weeks of the relationship. Bottom line: You may know fairly quickly if the relationship is right, and from there you’ll need to make plenty of time to develop it.
  • It’s also beneficial to take your relationships one friend at a time. While you may get together in groups, you’ll need to develop connections with each person in turn. Getting to know people more intimately takes focus and while sharing funny stories in a big group over beers is fun, depth in relationships is generally built in smaller, more intimate settings.
  • You’ll also need to have plenty of regular contact. Sure, there are examples of friendships where you see each other once a year and can pick up exactly where you left off, but these are the exceptions, not the rule. Typically, you’ll build relationships more effectively when you see people regularly and check in on an ongoing basis—whether it’s a text, a phone call or lunch. More is better when it comes to building relationships.

#2 Divulge And Risk

The relationships that thrive are typically multi-faceted—they include plenty of depth, but also plenty of different activities and time together that help us get to know the other person.

  • Great relationships demand a level of intimacy. You can have plenty of acquaintances and an expansive network with people you don’t know well, but true connections arise from really knowing someone—their struggles, their failures and their strengths. In order to nurture this type of intimacy, share your own secrets. Open up to others and divulge details about yourself, and this will usually cause them to open up as well—deepening the relationship.
  • The best relationships also grow out of shared experiences, so do things together. Interestingly, you can take your relationships to the next level by getting out of the context where you met the person in the first place. If you got to know your colleague at work, going to dinner together is a mutual commitment to take your relationship to the next level because you’re agreeing to go beyond your current boundary. If you got to know someone in your college class, getting together for lunch can be the next step forward. In terms of the activities you choose to do, you can keep it tame and meet at the dog park with your pooches or get together with a colleague for dinner and to brainstorm about a problem you want to solve in your company. But you can also enhance friendships by taking risks together. Go skydiving, try axe-throwing or learn to sail—anything that will stretch you out of your comfort zone—together.  
  • Another way to risk is to take the chance to do nothing together. Sometimes deepening a relationship can happen best when you’re just sitting around together on a Sunday afternoon or sipping a glass of wine during an evening on the balcony watching the sun set. The absence of activity can provide space to enjoy each other’s company in a quiet, more intense way.

#3 Make It Meaningful

You can also build relationships by being intentional about what you talk about.

  • Research suggests asking questions can be especially powerful. Questions help children learn more deeply, and they can expand the impact of marketing. But most of all, questions can help build relationships between strangers more quickly, and deepen relationships between friends.
  • Research also suggests what you talk about matters. Rather than talking about the weather or gas prices, ensure you’re sharing meaningful details about yourself and catching up about how you’ve been spending your time. Joking around can also help people bond, as well as talking about how much you mean to each other. Obviously, you don’t want to go overboard on mutual fandom, but explicitly expressing your appreciation for the other person certainly adds to a relationship.

#4 Be There

Friendships are also characterized by commitment over time, and the extent to which people are there for each other at the most important times.

  • Being there for a friend when things are tough is a clearly a mark of a good relationship. Providing support and resources is fundamental. But also consider the importance of being there for friends when they are on top of their games. When you’re able to be authentically happy for a friend’s happiness without jealousy or resentment, it is the mark of a truly constructive relationship.
  • Commit for the long term. The best relationships are also those which are characterized by development of the connection over time. When we know people for years, they can provide continuity, safety and acceptance. In addition, we can weather the ups and downs of a relationship and know the friendship will last despite the circumstances around us that may change.
  • Gratitude is also related here. No friend is perfect, and no friendship is perfect. We will get different needs met by different people—your activist friend may not be the friend who offers you safe harbor when you’re struggling. And the friend with whom you share tons of common interests may not be the friend you call when you’re really trying to solve a tough problem at work. But all these are important to a mosaic of relationships which provide richness in our lives.

In Sum

Creating and maintaining relationships may seem like a monumental task in the midst of difficulties and distancing, but it’s critical for health and wellbeing. Consider how you can be there for others. Making an investment in your relationships today will pay off immediately, but also in the long term. We’ll all make it through, and we’ll be better on the other side based on our connections with others.



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