For too long, we’ve been misinformed by the misinformed. If health and happiness are your goals for the new decade, the most important thing you can do is work on your friendships.
Nearly three years ago, in the pages of the Globe Magazine, I had a reckoning of sorts where I realized — amidst dire warnings of a loneliness epidemic and its accompanying health risks — that I had let my friendships slide while I focused on all the other “important” things. But study after study shows that an active social life is key to having a long, healthy, happy life.
That article set me off on a quest to fix my friendships, which was trickier than I could ever have imagined. It was also more rewarding, at least when it wasn’t failing miserably. My comic journey will be published in book form later this year by Simon & Schuster, but herein are some hard-won lessons to help you shore up your own squad for the long haul.
Trying is cool. Somewhere along the way, especially among men, it was decided that trying was not cool. What was cool was making fun of the guy who was trying. But I can safely say that we’ve turned a corner where trying is cool again. Each time I worried I was going to be the guy that came on too strong, who was trying to force it, I was received with genuine gratitude. My friends appreciated the effort. Then they made fun of me.
Understand that a best friend is not a person, it’s a tier. That’s a line I heard Mindy Kaling utter in a TV show, and it changed who I thought of as a best friend. I had limited that term to people I’ve known a long time. But, like many of us, the people I spend the most time actively being friends with are newer acquaintances. So while I worked on fertilizing my oldest roots, I worked doubly hard on deepening my new friendships. And it worked. Kevin, Andrew, Jon: if you’re reading this, we’re BFFs. Deal with it.
Find a consistent activity. This is a big one, especially for men, who bond shoulder to shoulder rather than face-to-face. Two-and-a-half million years as hunters didn’t equip us to share our feelings over a cup of coffee. Our bonding happens during an activity, and in this over-scheduled era, that activity needs to be a standing event on the calendar. But it doesn’t need to be anything major for it to be major. Fantasy leagues. A regular bar trivia game. My greatest accomplishment was assembling a crew of guys who meet every other Wednesday night in a barn and act like teenagers. It’s like the greatest thing ever.
Create traditions. If there’s one time when we’re good at getting together with friends, it’s during holidays. Humans have been doing this for millennia. So create some of your own. The annual weekend away with friends. The monthly dinner club. If you label it a tradition, it is much more likely to survive, and it will have the built-in consistency that elbows out any threats on the calendar.
The thought really does count. The best part of writing that initial article was how many old friends read it and reached out to say “I always knew you were a loser.” And just like that, we had reconnected. The thought that we were still in each other’s lives had real value. It was the warm chewy center of friendship. And it has continued to inspire me to reach out to old friends, even if they’re far away and getting together is a long shot. They meant something to me at some point, and it’s worth letting them know they mean something still.
Be surprised at who matters to you. At one point, I sat down and made a list of everyone I cared about. I wrote their names on Post-it notes and stuck them on the wall of my home office, like a psychopath. What was unexpected was just how many of the names that ended up on my wall felt like surprises. Co-workers I hadn’t talked to in a decade. Long-lost childhood friends. And more than a few people who were, technically, more acquaintances than friends. What they all shared was that I felt some sort of spark with them. I’m sure they’d make fun of me for saying that. It’s how I know we’re friends.
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