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Reconnecting with old friends is as scary as making new ones

Have you ever scrolled through your old contacts or social media and thought, “Should I reach out?” Maybe you shared hilarious inside jokes, supported each other through tough times, or simply had a blast hanging out. Many assume that reconnecting with old friends is less daunting than meeting new people.

However, recent research by Simon Fraser University (SFU) and the University of Sussex challenges this belief. Psychologists found that many hesitate to reconnect with an old friend just as much as they would avoid a conversation with a stranger.

Why old friendships fade

The demands of our daily lives can be overwhelming. Work deadlines loom, families need our attention, and personal goals often require focus and dedication. Sometimes, amidst the whirlwind, even important relationships like friendships can unintentionally take a backseat.

This gradual drifting apart is a natural part of life as priorities shift and circumstances change. While the busyness of life is inevitable, science has repeatedly shown that our social connections are not merely a luxury. They are a vital pillar of our overall happiness and well-being.

While life’s responsibilities are important, it’s essential to remember that the happiness and support we derive from strong friendships are not just “nice to have” – they are deeply intertwined with our overall health and quality of life.

The friends who make us laugh until our sides hurt don’t just provide fleeting amusement. They create positive memories that boost our mood and reduce stress, even long after the shared giggle is over.

Moreover, friends who listen without judgment, offer a shoulder to cry on, and genuinely celebrate our successes form an invaluable support system that helps us navigate both challenges and victories.

Having a circle of friends we can be our true selves around fosters a sense of community and acceptance, crucial components of mental and emotional well-being.

Reconnecting with old friends

Psychologists at Simon Fraser University and the University of Sussex shared our curiosity about the “lost friend” phenomenon. Why do we often let those once-cherished connections fade away without even trying to rekindle them? To answer this, they embarked on a series of experiments, peeling back the layers of our reluctance.

“We found that the majority of participants (90 per cent) in our first study had lost touch with a someone they still care about. Yet, a significant number (70 per cent) were neutral, or even negative, about the idea of getting back in touch in that moment, even when they felt warmly about the friendship,” said Lara Aknin, director of the Helping and Happiness Lab at SFU and co-author of the paper.

People are as hesitant to reach out to an old friend as they are to strike up a conversation with a stranger, even when they had the capacity and desire to do so. This surprising finding reveals a deep-seated fear of rejection or indifference, making that old friend suddenly feel as unknown as someone we pass on the street.

Additional factors

We are our own worst critics, replaying old conversations and cringing at long-ago memories. These mental gymnastics convince us that bridging the gap of time will inevitably be awkward or unwelcome. Our minds paint a picture of the other person having moved on, leaving us a relic of the past.

Moreover, we often assume that our old friend is just as swamped and overwhelmed as we are, making a reconnection seem impractical. However, the study surprisingly revealed that lack of time was one of the least cited reasons for not reaching out.

This exposes a different truth: it’s not about time, but rather about the perceived awkwardness and a fear of our efforts being unreciprocated.

Are we overthinking this?

Our minds build up narratives that our old friend has probably forgotten about us, has a whole new circle, or simply won’t be as excited to hear from us as we would be to hear from them.

In reality, the researchers found that those fears are often wildly inaccurate. There’s a good chance our old friend is also thinking about us, remembering good times, and wishing life hadn’t gotten in the way.

The problem is, we’ve created this imaginary standoff. We’re stuck in our own heads, desperately waiting for the other person to break the ice. It becomes a classic “after you” situation, where both people want to connect but neither wants to take the risk of being the first to reach out.

It’s a testament to how easily our anxieties can overshadow the potential joy of reconnecting with an old friend.

Practice reconnecting with friends

“We live in a time when people are more and more disconnected, and have fewer close friends than they used to in years past. And this is despite the multitude of modern-day communication channels available to us,” said Sandstrom, senior lecturer in the psychology of kindness and director of the Sussex Centre for Research on Kindness.

While it might seem counterintuitive, one of the most effective ways to overcome our hesitation about reconnecting to an old friend is to start by connecting with people we’re currently close to.

It sounds simple, but the researchers found that taking the time to send a quick text, message, or even make a phone call to someone in our existing social circle helps to break the ice.

This practice serves as a warm-up for our social skills, making the idea of reaching back into the past feel less intimidating and more natural.

The study is published in the journal Communications Psychology.


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