Written by Moya Crockett
Moya is a freelance journalist and writer from London, and a former editor at Stylist.
A ‘happiness challenge’ suggests that eight minutes is all we need to have a good phone call with a friend. Moya Crockett put it to the test for a week
I’ve always been a talker. A chatter. A gabber. Yet somewhere along the line, I just… stopped calling my friends. There are plenty of theories about why millennials and Gen Z dislike phone calls, from full-blown telephobia to a preference for the convenience of texting. But I’m not against phone calls: as a paid-up member of the “sorry, just saw this!” WhatsApp club, I actually much prefer them to texts.
The boring truth is that I just don’t feel the need to ring my closest friends very often. Most of them live in London, like me, and we’re all still child-free (for now). Social media and WhatsApp provide me with daily snapshots of their lives, and when we want to catch up in person, we do. Why would I need to call them?
At 31, though, I’ve noticed the gaps getting wider between face-to-face catch-ups with certain friends. Some are moving to far-flung boroughs to get on the property ladder; others are disappearing into romantic relationship bubbles or dedicating all the hours of the day to exponentially more demanding jobs (sadly but unsurprisingly, one major analysis of US data in 2017 found people generally spend less time with friends as they move through their 30s). Many of us are also cutting down on socialising to save money amid the cost of living crisis. I’ve never taken my platonic relationships for granted, but I’m starting to see how they require more active effort as you get older.
So when I got an email from my editor at Stylist asking if I’d be willing to trial a friendship challenge recently proposed by The New York Times, I agreed. The paper asked its readers to call one friend for eight minutes, based on an idea outlined by US academic Dr Robert Waldinger in his new book The Good Life: Lessons From The World’s Longest Scientific Study Of Happiness (co-authored with Marc Schulz). Drawing on findings from the Harvard Study Of Adult Development, which tracked a group of Americans’ happiness over 85 years, Waldinger argues that many of us don’t reach out to friends because we don’t think we have time – but maintaining close friendships is vital to our emotional wellbeing. And, he posits, it takes less than 10 minutes to feel like we’ve strengthened our connection with a friend over the phone.
Stylist wanted me to go one step further and attempt to call a different friend for eight minutes every day for a week. Here’s what I learned.
It’s normal to feel nervous
I made my first call on Monday evening, feeling surprisingly apprehensive as I ran through my mental rolodex of close friends. This isn’t uncommon: one 2018 survey of 1,200 US adults aged 22-37 revealed that 81% felt anxious about voice calls. A 2021 study by researchers at the University of Texas at Austin and University of Chicago, meanwhile, found that people in their 20s and 30s often significantly overestimated how awkward they’d find phone calls, even with old friends.
Dr Claire Plumbly is the director of Good Therapy Ltd and a clinical psychologist accredited with the British Psychological Society who specialises in anxiety and self-esteem. She says phone calls “are not a social norm anymore”, which can help explain these feelings of unease. “You’re doing something different, and different is often uncomfortable,” she observes. “But anything that’s getting people connecting is good.”
Personally, as someone who treasures their plan-free Monday nights, I’m most worried about interrupting people’s downtime. I drop my old school friend Sophie a message over WhatsApp, asking if she has eight minutes to chat – and once we start talking, I remember that your friends will generally not consider it a chore to catch up with you.
People will be surprised… then pleased
I should say here, however, that Plumbly’s point about phone calls no longer being a social norm is absolutely correct. Over the course of the week, I tried to call many friends. Several didn’t pick up but immediately texted back, sounding unnerved. “Is everything OK?” “Was that a pocket dial?” “Have you finally been sucked into a pyramid scheme?” (The latter came from my old housemate Oscar, after I WhatsApped him asking to speak for eight minutes on Tuesday. When I explained that it was for an article, he replied: “I’m at the pub.”)
This confusion can be partially explained by the fact that phone calls have long been going out of fashion. One in four UK smartphone owners made less than one call a week in 2015, while the number of mobile voice call minutes fell by 1.5 billion in the first three months of 2022, according to Ofcom data. Some people also genuinely dislike unscheduled calls, finding them more “intrusive” than texts, says Plumbly. But they don’t have to answer if they don’t want to – and once my friends understood that I genuinely just wanted to chat, they all (except Oscar) seemed quite touched.
You will sometimes be too busy to chat, but try calling during downtime
As a freelancer with no caregiving responsibilities, I have more free time and flexibility than many working adults – and I still struggled to fit in an eight-minute call to a friend every day of the week. I managed it six days out of seven, but dropped the ball on Thursday, when I had to dash across London as soon as I finished work to go to the theatre (would you be late to see Paul Mescal in A Streetcar Named Desire?). Some days, you literally won’t have 10 minutes to spare.
But data analysis by the Office for National Statistics (ONS) suggests that women in the UK spend around 1.5 hours of leisure time alone every day, on average. Sometimes, you’ll desperately need that time to recharge, but reaching out to a friend for a quick chat can be an invigorating way to spend free time. I’d never usually call someone over lunch, but catching up with my friend Kiran between 1-1.08pm on Friday made me feel cheerful all afternoon.
You won’t be able to cover everything, but something is better than nothing
Things I discussed with friends this week, in no particular order: our dating lives. The nursing strikes. Someone’s life-altering breakup. The parties we went to on Saturday night. The novel Fleishman Is In Trouble and its forthcoming TV adaptation. Whether someone was likely to get a job they’d interviewed for. A house move. How to support a mutual friend going through a bereavement. The sunny weather. The impending birth of someone else’s first baby.
The brevity of the calls wasn’t an impediment to important conversations. In fact, it made us more likely to skip the small talk (I maintain that sunny weather isn’t small talk in the UK in February) and get straight to the big stuff. In future, I won’t feel the need to carve out half an hour to talk to a friend – I’ll know that I can feel connected to them after a quick chat while walking to the Tube.
Even short phone calls will make you feel good
All the conversations I had this week lifted my spirits and made me feel closer to my friends. This tracks with what research tells us about the benefits of phone calls. That previously mentioned 2021 study found that voice-based interactions, including phone calls, created stronger social bonds than text-first communication such as instant messaging. In a separate study published the same year, people who had brief phone calls a few times a week experienced “rapidly reduced” levels of depression, loneliness and anxiety compared with people who didn’t receive a call.
Plumbly says connecting with good friends is “really protective” for our mental wellbeing, even if we can only spare a few minutes over the phone. “When someone’s depressed, [many therapists] would look at ways [that person] can reconnect with their friendship groups and social circle,” she says. “Connecting with our social group is a really good way of closing the stress cycle.”
In The Good Life: Lessons From The World’s Longest Scientific Study Of Happiness, Waldinger and Schulz observe that “a few adjustments to our most treasured relationships can have real effects on how we feel, and on how we feel about our lives. We might be sitting on a goldmine of vitality that we are not paying attention to.” My brief phone calls this week gave me a genuine boost. It was as though my pilot light was being ignited, warming me from within and creating a glow to power me through my week. I won’t be ringing my friends every day, but I will call them more often. Who knows – one day, I might even convince Oscar to pick up.
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