Reaching Out to Others Has a Greater Impact Than You'd Expect

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Key Takeaways

  • Friends appreciate us reaching out to them more than we expect, according to new research.
  • It's particularly appreciated when they're surprised to hear from us—perhaps if we haven't spoken to them for a while or if we aren't close friends.
  • Socializing with others presents numerous mental health benefits for both parties.

Reaching out to friends and making an effort in this way—particularly with those we haven’t spoken to in a while—can have a larger positive impact than we might think, new research has suggested.

With so much going on in our lives, keeping up with loved ones can be difficult. Particularly over the last couple of years, when we’ve probably been spending more time at home, socializing has fallen by the wayside for many of us. 

However, in a new study, author Peggy J. Liu, PhD, the Ben L. Fryrear Chair in Marketing at the University of Pittsburgh Katz Graduate School of Business, found that we have a tendency to underestimate just how much people appreciate it when friends reach out to them.

People Appreciate Messages and Gifts From Friends

In the first part of the study, with 200 participants in total, people looked back on times when they’d reached out to others or been reached out to by somebody else. They rated how much they either appreciated the contact themselves or how much they thought the other person appreciated the contact. As a general rule, people rated their own appreciation as higher—suggesting that we underestimate how much other people appreciate us reaching out to them.

In the second part of the study, participants on a college campus wrote notes and sent gifts to classmates they’d not spoken to for a while. The senders guessed how much the recipients would appreciate the gifts and notes.

The recipients then took part in the study themselves, revealing how much they appreciated the gestures. Again, the senders underestimated the appreciation of the recipients.

Elena Touroni, PhD

Connection is a basic human need. Besides our basic survival needs like food, shelter, and water, we need to feel a sense of belonging.

— Elena Touroni, PhD

The study also focused on the element of surprise on the recipients’ parts. Senders estimated how pleasantly surprised they thought the recipients might be, but the results showed that the recipients were more focused on their surprise than the senders.

The Benefits of Reaching Out

When we get into often lonely routines of doing the same work, eating the same food, and doing the same activities day after day, a surprise message or gift from a friend you’ve not spoken to recently or not expecting to hear from can be a great boost. 

“We have a fundamental need to have personal, meaningful connection, so when people reach out to others this starts a biochemical reaction of hormones and neurotransmitters such as oxytocin (bonding and resilience), dopamine (reward and motivation), endorphins (feel good and pain relief) and DHEA (anti-aging),” says Rachel Taylor, PhD, neuropsychologist and founder of UNBroken

“Mix all that together with fond memories and nostalgia and you will be building a nice pot of cognitive reserve which enables psychological and physical wellbeing,” says Taylor.

Why do we tend to underestimate how much other people will enjoy hearing from us? “Some people may be anxious about not getting the right response or feeling like a nuisance,” says Elena Touroni, PhD, a consultant psychologist and founder of The Chelsea Psychology Clinic. “But it could also just be because we find it hard to put ourselves in another person’s shoes. Messages can be fleeting and so it’s easy to forget how good we felt when we heard from someone.”

One thing the study doesn’t explore—though it is mentioned as a potential future research area—are occasions when reaching out to somebody might be received negatively or neutrally, rather than positively. 

For example, if somebody was to reach out to an acquaintance with a gift that might have romantic connotations, and the impacts that this might have on their relationship. Hence, simple messages and gifts appear to be received most positively.

How Socializing Helps Us

While this is just one survey of predominantly young adults in a college environment, there is a wealth of evidence to suggest that socializing with friends and even strangers has various mental health benefits—whether you’re the one reaching out or the one being reached out to. 

“Connection is a basic human need,” explains Dr. Touroni, “Besides our basic survival needs like food, shelter, and water, we need to feel a sense of belonging. This served an evolutionary function—being part of a tribe was key to our survival. Connecting with others has been linked to lower anxiety and depression, improved self-esteem, and even immunity. And so the need to connect is an essential component of being human.”

Hana Patel, MBBS, Bsc, MSc

There is evidence linking perceived social isolation with health consequences...Being socially isolated is a highly negative and painful social experience for people.

— Hana Patel, MBBS, Bsc, MSc

One 2021 study indicated that we enjoy conversations with strangers more than we might expect to, while other studies have suggested that maintaining friendships as we age can help stave off cognitive decline, with social isolation having negative effects on both mental and physical health. 

“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. Being socially isolated is a highly negative and painful social experience for people,” explains Hana Patel, MBBS BSc MSc(Med Ed), a general practitioner and mental health coach. 

Finding the time to check in with friends can be tricky, but if you’re able to do so from time to time you might find that you both end up getting a mental boost, as Dr. Touroni explains, “Connection is a two-way street. Whether we’re the person doing the reaching out or we’re on the receiving end, we’re likely to feel the benefits.”

What This Means For You

Keeping up with friends and loved ones isn't always easy as we often lead busy lives, but if you're able to check in every so often you might both benefit from the catch-up. Humans are social by nature, and while we all look for differing levels of social interaction, reaching out to friends could help you boost your mental health.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Liu PJ, Rim S, Min L, Min KE. The surprise of reaching out: Appreciated more than we think. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2022. doi:10.1037/pspi0000402

  2. Kardas M, Kumar A, Epley, N. Overly shallow?: Miscalibrated expectations create a barrier to deeper conversation. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2022;122(3): 367-398. doi:10.1037/pspa0000281

  3. Cook Maher A, Kielb S, Loyer E, et al. Psychological well-being in elderly adults with extraordinary episodic memory. Allen P, ed. PLoS ONE. 2017;12(10):e0186413. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0186413