Nature, as much as nurture ("Don't forget to call your mother!"), powers our urge to stay in touch.
"Embedded in our biology is the drive to maintain lasting bonds with a close community," says relationship expert and family therapist Vanessa Cain. "Research shows that the quality of our mental and physical health is directly related to our ability to maintain these relationships."
Cain explains that laughing and engaging in intimate conversations with family and friends promotes feel-good neurotransmitters such as oxytocin and dopamine. Additionally, she says, "Prioritizing connecting with the people who mean the most to you, both in times of happiness and distress, is hugely effective in warding off mental illness, such as depression and anxiety."
Here are a slew of ideas to help connect with long-distance loved ones. Try one or all of them and mix them in with your old standbys (calls and texts) to make it even easier to stay in touch with family and friends.
Can't catch your favorite band with a pal? Meet online for a live stream, like Trish Pfeiffer of Carbondale, IL, often does with friends who live miles and time zones away. "Music has a way of bringing people together and conveying emotions that can't necessarily be spoken in words," she says. Pfeiffer often uses the site Mixlr, where you can stream live shows, meditation and broadcasts as well as create playlists with a chat function so everyone tuning in can bond over the selections. Another resource for music lovers is Nugs.net, which streams live shows as they happen, as well as previously recorded events.
Even across various time zones, grandparents, aunts, uncles and cousins can tuck little ones in with a recorded bedtime story. And, because you're never too old for an evening tale, adults can do this for each other, too. Perhaps a dramatic reading from a childhood diary is just the thing to make a sibling smile before a snooze.
Wi-Fi-enabled digital picture frames, like the ones from PhotoSpring, allow relatives to send digital images remotely to display on these devices' screen. All you need is an app and the code for the frame and you can send snapshots straight to your loved one's mantle. The frame cycles through photos and videos, so the owner is in for a steady stream of memories.
The family portrait has always been an art form, but creative stakes are being raised in clever ways. Katie Bridge of Oak Park, IL, along with her husband and three kids, have been recreating famous works of art. The group snaps a photo of themselves posed like the painting's subjects and shares the image with friends and family. Bridge says it's especially nice to share these shots with the kids' classmates when school isn't in session. "We get to share our sense of humor and creativity in a way that doesn't come through in a normal family photo," says Bridge. Friends could even pick the portrait a family recreates, and vice versa, for an ongoing artsy challenge.
For anyone who feels anxious about on-the-spot, live video calls, Cain recommends Marco Polo. The app for mobile devices lets you record and send videos (plus add fun filters) that your recipient can watch and respond to when they have a moment. This way, you can plan what you'd like to say and you don't have to coordinate a call around busy schedules or different time zones. Voxer is another app that will let you send videos and audio recordings, as well as photos and gifs, on your own time. Use both apps with one other person or a group.
Caitlin Smith lives in California and her boyfriend is in Idaho, but the two still meet up, online at least, for pizza and a movie once a week. "We love our dinner dates," Smith says. "Even if you don't make the same meal, set a time and be ready with whatever video platform you use and have dinner. We talk about our day and just have a normal conversation." After the meal, the two often watch the same movie or listen to a podcast together to cap off the evening.
Sixteen-year-old Audrey Wiser also shares virtual meals (often on the menu: instant ramen) when she can't physically meet up with friends. Wiser says, "Sharing a meal through video online, especially at my age, is so nice because you're able to keep up with normal social interactions while bonding over something fun."
Give your video calls direction by sharing mini-lessons. Among a group, take turns being the expert and devote each call to learning a skill. When it's your "lecture," zero in on what you're known for. Host a martini-mixing clinic, a guide to making grandma's famous fudge or "Fishing Lures 101 with Uncle John."
Order and even gift books to read as a group, then schedule a time to talk about the ins and outs of the title. Host your discussion through an email chain, video chat or group call. Arlene Lynes, owner of the independent bookstore Read Between the Lynes in Woodstock, IL, suggests keeping the subject matter light and fun and the length below 350 pages. "If you're reading as a family," she says, "pick a book that takes place near your cabin or favorite vacation spot. Or, read about a region you hope to visit together one day." Pressed for time and/or attention? Suggest the group read and discuss a topical magazine feature, essay by a writer you admire or a collection of poetry.
Like the Holy Grail of snail mail, "Open When" letters are a collection of short notes for specific circumstances, sent all at once. Write 10 or so messages and place them in corresponding envelopes labeled, for example, "Open When You Need a Laugh" or "Open When You're Feeling Stressed." Your loved one gets a thoughtful package as well as a hand-written note each time it's needed most.
As classic as the cassette itself, crafting a selection of songs to send to someone special is a practice that has been celebrated in books, movies and TV shows. This decades-old form of creative bonding still endures today. In the 21st century, make your mix as a digital playlist or add music to a USB drive (they even make some that look like cassette tapes). And similar to the "Open When" letters, create mixes with specific themes, such as "Tunes for a New Oppor-TUNE-ity" (music to celebrate a new job).
On a final note, Cain says that people often look for social cues from others to set the tone of relationships. "Don't be afraid to let people know that they are meaningful to you, you want to stay connected, and you are committed to putting in effort to do so."
Birthdays, new babies and other life milestones may call for extra attention.
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