The benefits of reaching out to people in our lives

Connection and community can start with something small—educators know this from experience, and academic research agrees. Today, one of our partners, Dr. Jean Rhodes, highlights important research showing that small connections can have a big impact.

Findings from an important study in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, “The Surprise of Reaching Out,” highlights the psychological benefits of simply checking in with the people in our lives with brief texts and phone calls. Indeed, these small, casual acts of kindness can have profoundly positive effects.

In the study, participants were asked to reach out to people in their lives in simple ways.  They defined reaching out broadly to “a gesture to check-in with someone to show that one is thinking about them—for instance, by sending a short text or call (e.g., to say hi, to say “I’m thinking of you,” to say “I hope you are well”). Then, both the sender and recipient were asked to rate how meaningful it was.

  • In a series of studies, including those involving students and adults, senders underestimated how much the communication meant to the recipient
  • The impact of the message increased with how surprising the check-in was to the recipient. Messages meant even more when the recipients hadn’t heard from the sender in a while or weren’t as close to them.

What can educators learn from this?

When we consider reaching out to a person we haven’t spoken with in awhile, it’s common to worry about rejection—will they want to hear from me?

But, this research shows that people highly appreciate being reached out to and that we in fact systematically underestimate the extent of this appreciation.

Small gestures matter. Whether it’s walking down the hallway to say a personal hello to a student from last year’s class, or sending a text to an out-of-town family member, small gestures can not only maintain relationships in our lives, but also strengthen them. 

Don’t let nerves stop you. Researchers offer the advice that for those “feeling woefully out of practice and unsure, our work provides robust evidence and an encouraging green light to go ahead and surprise someone by reaching out. Such reach-outs are likely to be appreciated more than one thinks.”

Reinforce existing relationships. Research shows it takes many hours to build a trusting mentorship connection. And, quick check ins between mentors and mentees–even those who are no longer meeting regularly–can have unexpectedly positive effects.

To learn more, check out this article from The Chronicle of Evidence-Based Mentoring.

Dr. Rhodes is the Frank L. Boyden Professor of Psychology and the Director of the Center for Evidence-Based Mentoring at the University of Massachusetts Boston. She has devoted her career to understanding and advancing the role of intergenerational relationships in the intellectual, social, educational, and career development of youth.