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Friendships at work can boost happiness. Here's how to nurture them

Kaitlin Brito for NPR

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The pandemic had a huge impact on how we work, and our relationship with our jobs. For many people who worked remotely for months (or still do), the lost boundaries between their work and personal lives may have helped fuel a rise in burnout.

Trends like "quiet quitting" have taken off as many tried to pull back how much of themselves they invested in their careers.

But if putting in extra grueling hours at work has lost its appeal, investing in the other humans that you work with may be worth a second look.

One of the key factors that make for happier, healthier workers is how connected people feel with their colleagues, says Dr. Robert Waldinger, a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development, one of the longest running studies on what makes humans thrive.

Waldinger explores the results of that study – and other studies on the topic – in a new book, The Good Life, which he wrote with his colleague Marc Schulz. In it, the authors share findings of the 85 years of research following people from their teens throughout their lives, assessing factors that lead to health and wellbeing.

The big takeaway? "The people who had the warmest connections with other people weren't just happier, they stayed healthier longer, and they lived longer," Waldinger says. "We get little hits of well-being, if you will, from all kinds of relationships, from friends, family, work colleagues."

While the study found that very close relationships – romantic partners, siblings and friends – are critical, it also found that a whole spectrum of other relationships matter.

"All of that seems to affirm our [need for] belonging," Waldinger says. "That we are seen and recognized by others, even the most casual contact."

And since much of our waking lives are spent at work, workplace bonds make a real difference. Unfortunately, the lack of social connection at work, is starting to be recognized as a growing problem.

A recent Gallup poll found that only about a third – 32% – of workers are engaged in their work, down from 36% in 2020. The survey also found that the number of actively disengaged workers has risen since the pandemic.

Another recent Gallup poll found that only 2 in 10 American workers say they have a "best friend at work" — that's someone you can confide in about the personal side of your life. And for those under 35, that number dropped by three percentage points since 2019.

The 20% with a work bestie "were better performers on the job," Waldinger says. "They were much less likely to leave their job for another one because they had a friend at work."

And the Gallup poll also found that having a close friend at work had become even more important since the pandemic, and the rise in hybrid and remote work.

Exercise your social muscles

So how can we build that sense of warmth and connection with your co-workers? Waldinger compares it to exercising regularly for physical fitness – you need to make a habit of it to reap the rewards.

He suggests starting with small steps. For example, think of a colleague you haven't seen in a while.

"You could send them a text, or an email, or even call them on the phone," he suggests, "and just say, 'Hi! I was thinking of you, and wanted to connect.'"

It's something that takes barely 15 seconds, but those actions often bring us little doses of happiness.

"Much more often than not, you will find that something very positive comes back," he says. "What we know with strengthening your relationships is that very tiny steps can lead to responses that will make you feel good."

And if you want to make new friends at work, Waldinger suggests leaning into your curiosity about your co-workers.

"So you could, for example, decide just to notice something about somebody else at work who you'd like to get to know," he says. "Notice something they're displaying on their desk that might be personal."

And just ask them about it, he says.

"One of the things we know is that when we are curious about someone in a friendly way, it's flattering and it engages people in conversation."

These seemingly insignificant conversations can bring big and ongoing benefits to our wellbeing. In fact, there's research that shows that small talk, even with strangers, gives a hit of happiness.

"We know that small talk has these benefits of enhancing well-being," says Waldinger.

But it needs to be practiced a lot, he adds.

"This is a little like a baseball game where you don't expect to hit the ball every time," he says. "But if you try this several times, you will find that much more often than not, you will get that positive response to small talk, to reaching out in some way."

And those conversations can also pave the way to deeper conversations, and friendships.

Get out of your rut, especially if you're remote

If you've been working remotely, Waldinger advises coming in to work every now and then to interact with coworkers in person. "That experience of coming and seeing your colleagues [will] give you this little upsurge of emotion, because you realize you've been deprived of that in-person connection."

Waldinger acknowledges all of this can be harder than, say, staying at home and watching Netflix.

You might have to push yourself to go for happy hour with colleagues. "It's just much easier to do what's familiar and controllable," he says. Relationships are less predictable.

But if you catch yourself feeling that way, "notice the resistance, and then let yourself step over it and take the action. If you think about doing it, do it and see what happens."

And he notes that it shouldn't be up to individual employees to do all the work in forging bonds and connections at work. Leaders can do a lot to foster a culture of warmth and connection.

For instance, he says, they can intentionally create situations where people feel comfortable being vulnerable, sharing something about their hobbies and life outside of work.

"You need leaders to say being personal with each other is valuable, it matters, and it starts at the top," he says. "When that happens, the culture can shift in a company where people tend to know each other better, and then care about each other and care about the workplace."

And that can go a long way in creating a happier, more engaged workplace.

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Rhitu Chatterjee is a health correspondent with NPR, with a focus on mental health. In addition to writing about the latest developments in psychology and psychiatry, she reports on the prevalence of different mental illnesses and new developments in treatments.