Lift Your Spirits Through Social Connectedness – The Power of “Weak Ties”

On a typical day, we interact with a wide range of casual acquaintances and strangers (more than a dozen per day), such as neighbors, the barista we run into each morning, the mail carrier, the person checking us out at the grocery store, a fellow dog walker, and other people we may encounter. Spending a few minutes in casual conversations with people we meet every day has been shown to increase our happiness and satisfaction with life – to a similar degree as a conversation with a close friend.

The Covid-19 pandemic has deprived us of these impromptu contacts, and we no longer have the opportunity to run into people, both strangers and low-stakes personal and professional acquaintances. Social distancing and working from home have compelled most of us to avoid in-person encounters and opt instead for email, texting, self-checkout or online shopping. When we do venture out to buy necessities or take a walk, we bump into masked faces that rob us of non-verbal cues, making it difficult to establish rapport.

Sociologists call these informal connections "weak ties": people we don't know well, if at all, but who play a vital role in boosting our emotional well-being by allowing us to feel more connected. These casual interactions are low-key, usually brief, and take up little time in our busy lives, but they allow us a way to be seen, heard and appreciated, as well as to express our gratitude. And – yes –, they give us an opportunity to vent, confide and brainstorm.

Cultivating informal friendships in a variety of settings offers different kinds of support and adds meaning to our lives in their own way. For example, we may have a work acquaintance with whom we discuss career prospects and a dog-walking friend with whom we enjoy spending time outdoors.

A growing body of research confirms the surprisingly powerful benefits of weak ties. Gillian Sandstrom, a professor of psychology at the University of Essex in the United Kingdom, began studying weak ties after realizing how good it felt to be greeted by a smiling waiter who remembered her routine. Her research indicates that on days when people engage in more authentic social interactions, they feel happier and experience a greater sense of community. In one of her studies, Sandstrom observed that participants who were asked to "personalize" a transaction at a coffee shop by smiling, making eye contact and having a genuine social interaction with their server felt about 17% happier and more socially connected than those who were asked to simply interact in an "efficient" manner.

Right now, it's clear that we are missing out on weak tie interactions, but we have the power to create them by reaching out to people. Generally, people are uncomfortable around loneliness and worry that it reflects a deficiency or inadequacy on their part – but Covid-19 offers obvious reasons for loneliness: involuntary isolation. This imposed confinement has the benefit of reducing the stigma associated with admitting to loneliness, making it easier to reach out.

Just send a quick text to a colleague or friend to say hello.

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