Be strategic and intentional about your friendships
When my wife and I moved to New York City in 2001, recently graduated from college and newly wed, we were eager to find friends. We knew nearly no one but were sure we’d soon find a fun-loving group like the 20- and 30-something New Yorkers who spontaneously dropped in on one another on TV shows like Seinfeld and Friends.
We hatched a plan. After moving into our Midtown Manhattan apartment, we invited all the neighbors over for drinks by placing Kinko’s-printed quarter-sheets into everyone’s mailboxes. Then, we waited for our versions of Chandler, Kramer, and Elaine to show up. But they didn’t. In fact, no one did. As the ice in the cooler melted and the guacamole browned, not a single person among 100 apartments stopped by. Not. One. Person.
Recalling that episode now, we sound embarrassingly naïve. We didn’t realize friendships in the real world worked nothing like the ones we had forged in our dormitories, let alone those we saw on television. Yet as it turns out, our desire to belong to a tight community was far from foolish.
Recent studies have shown a dearth of social interaction with people you care about and who care about you not only leads to loneliness, but is also linked to a range of harmful physical effects. In other words: A lack of close friendships may be hazardous to your health.
A 2010 meta-analysis reviewed 148 studies involving over 300,000 participants and concluded that having weak social ties was as big a risk factor to health as being an alcoholic and twice as harmful as obesity. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, co-author of the analysis, told Reuters, “A lack of social relationships was equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.”
A more recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found preliminary evidence of what might be a biological response to loneliness that may trigger disease. According to the researchers, social isolation can set off a cellular chain reaction that increases inflammation and suppresses the body’s immune response.
Perhaps the most compelling evidence that friendships affect longevity comes from the ongoing Harvard Study of Adult Development. Since 1938, researchers have been following 724 men, tracking their physical health as well as social habits. Robert Waldinger, the study’s current director, said in his recent TED Talk, “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” Socially disconnected people are, according to Waldinger, “less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”
Lest we think having 500 Facebook friends might offer some protection, Waldinger warns, “It’s not just the number of friends you have … it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”