By Grace Cherian Recent studies have shown a lack of social interaction with people you care about and who care about you not only leads to loneliness...
By Grace Cherian
Recent studies have shown a lack of social interaction with people you care about and who care about you not only leads to loneliness, but can also cause a range of harmful physical effects i.e. A lack of close friendships may be hazardous to your health.
Dying for Friends
A recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found a biological response to loneliness that triggers disease. Social isolation sets 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 “less happy; their health declines earlier in midlife; their brain functioning declines sooner; and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”
Having a huge number of Facebook friends might offer some protection but Waldinger warns, “It’s not just the number of friends you have… it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”
What makes for a quality friendship? William Rawlins, a professor of interpersonal communications at Ohio University who studies the way people interact over the course of their lives, told The Atlantic that satisfying friendships need three things: somebody to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy.
Finding someone to talk to, depend on, and enjoy comes naturally when we’re young. In college, for example, we build strong bonds when nearly everyone around us is also searching for connection. As we grow into adulthood, graduate, go our separate ways and pursue careers, we start living miles apart from our best friends.
Suddenly, work obligations and ambitions take over buddies and beers. It becomes impossible to be spontaneous without planning for weeks, if not months, in advance. Once children enter the picture, exhilarating nights on the town become exhausted nights on the couch.
Friendships Starve to Death
Unfortunately, the less time we invest in people, the easier it is to make do without them, until one day it becomes too awkward to reconnect. Since we haven’t spoken for so long, we think, where would we even begin? If we were still close friends, wouldn’t we have spoken more by now?
This is how friendships die—they starve to death. The research shows that as we allow friendships to starve, we’re also malnourishing our bodies.
The more professional opportunities that came our way, the more time we spend away from our real-life friends, the people we truly care about. Maintaining friendships with people to talk to, depend on, and enjoy takes time.
The term “residual benefactor” is a term used in economics. A residual benefactor is the person who gets whatever is left over when a company is liquidated—typically, not much. When we’re not careful, the people we care about most often become residual benefactors. We leave them for last, giving them whatever bits of time are left over after we’ve attended to everything else.
The Solution: The Kibbutz
If the food of friendship is time together, how do we make the time to ensure we’re all fed? There is a way that fits into our lifestyles despite busy schedules and the presence of children. It’s called the “kibbutz.”
In Hebrew, the word means “gathering,” and for the gathering, four couples meet every two weeks to talk about one question—sort of like an interactive TED Talk over a picnic lunch. The questions might range from a deep inquiry like, “What’s one thing your parents taught you that you want to pass on to your children?” to a lighter, more practical question like, “How do you disconnect from your iPhone on weekends?”
Having a topic helps in two ways. First, it gets us past the small talk of sports and weather and helps us open up about topics that actually matter. Second, it prevents the gender split that happens when couples convene in groups—men in one corner, women in another. The question of the day gets all of you talking together.
Consistency and Stiff-Arming the Kids
Consistency is key. Every other week, rain or shine, schedule the kibbutz on your calendars. Always meet at the same place; have each couple bring their own food so there’s no preparation or clean up. If one couple can’t make it, that’s okay. The others carry on the conversation.
What about the kids? Kids are always welcome to a kibbutz but they don’t run the show. Typically they play on their own, but if they interject, they’re given a stern response that sounds something like, “I’m having a conversation with my friends because my friends are important to me. You’re welcome to listen or join the conversation, but please don’t interrupt unless it’s an emergency.”
We want our children to know that adult friendships matter. We don’t want them to have to rely on TV to figure out how adults interact. By watching us, our children see that being a good friend means listening when others have something to share and not being distracted by anything else. That includes our cell phones, a football game, or even our own children (unless someone is bleeding).
The entire affair lasts about two hours, and you always leave the kibbutz with new ideas and insights. Most importantly, you feel closer to your friends. The group won’t be as funny or spontaneous as the pseudo-New Yorkers you grew up watching on TV. But it turns out that fun isn’t what you’re missing—it’s the authentic, caring friendships. Making time to invest in your most important relationships provides the psychological nourishment you’re missing.
Not only that, it turns out the time you spend with your friends is also an investment in your future health. Forget diets and the latest workout routines. The best medicine may be to gather your favourite people around a table and make a toast: “To friendship, and your health.”