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Dr. Darrell White's Personal Blog

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Friendship Revisited: Sunday musings…1/22/2023

What a nice weekend Beth and I have had! Some of the niceness is that we’ve been relatively free from big tasks and thus have been able to say yes to all kinds of fun things. At the moment we are free of illness in and (mostly) around our lives, another rather liberating characteristic of the weekend. With time on our hands Beth had a couple of epic rides on Hero, and I was able to get in all of the workouts prescribed by my fellow CrossFit OG and, you know, all-around Old Guy Bill Russell. We were free to tag along with Randy and Tess on their “wedding venue tour”; the energy of a bride-to-be is a force of nature.

And the pups and I got out to walk 4 days in a row!

What was really special about the weekend was our success in connecting with friends and family. Really connecting. Like handshake and hugs, right there together connecting. Now, if you’ve been reading my treacle over the years you know that the creation and cultivation of friendship is one of my favorite topics, one to which I return with some frequency. Friday night was spent in the company of 2 1/2 couples we’ve known for almost 30 years (one member was home sick, the “almost” part of my “illness-free” comment above). On Saturday we checked out a new restaurant downtown (look at us…driving into the Big City for dinner!) with our equestrian friends. No, we did not get there on horseback! Both nights were characterized by the comfort of being in the company of real friends.

Every couple or three years comes a slew of articles on friendship, specifically friendships in adults. Thus it is that I find myself returning to the topic for the first deep dive in awhile, having been once again bombarded with articles, books, and movies on the subject. My last deep dive was prompted when “Of Mice and Men” was revived on Broadway. Innumerable stories from college reminded me of my brother’s rather humorous story of having bumped into a fellow Eph with whom I was friendly in college (more on that in a bit). Much has been written on the subject, almost all of it a re-hash. But I came upon a significant update on one of the more important lines of inquiry into friendship, a new release of data from the latest directors of the Harvard study of happiness: “The Good Life” by Drs. Robert Wallinger and Marc Schultz.

My last update, oh 7 or so years ago, was equal parts obvious and depressing. The secret to a long and happy life was the creation and maintenance of a minimum of 3 close local friendships. This was especially important for men, a frustrating and daunting finding, what with my oft-told and hard-earned experiences with how difficult it is for men to create new friendships after the age of 30. The magic number is 3. 3 close friends predicts a longer life for men. Sadly in the telling 7 years ago this usually didn’t include your spouse (more in a bit below); the overwhelming percentage of spousal units drifted AWAY from the men in favor of younger women, usually daughters, as they moved through adulthood. 3 close friends and you live longer. Very few folks had more than 4 or 5, an incredibly tight range when you think about it.

It’s become a kind of psychological dogma that men and women make friends in very different ways. Women, it is said, make friends through the sharing of feelings. In person two women who are friends are said to be most often facing one another, talking. Maintaining this kind of friendship is structurally rather easy in our modern age of communication. Feelings can be shared in any number of ways that do not require the friends to actually be in the same room together. Phone, text, Facebook and Twitter are but a few of the tactical and mechanical advantages to a friendship built on an exchange of feelings, and the currency required for the ongoing investment is simply time.

Men on the other hand make friendship a much more arduous affair. Many women would opine that this could actually describe many, if not most things that men do, but that’s a topic for a different Sunday. The picture most often used to illustrate men in the company of friends has them standing shoulder to shoulder, in the act of sharing an experience but not necessarily sharing any internal reaction to that experience. It makes me chuckle to think that a video of the same scene would probably also look like a portrait, nothing moving, certainly not their lips. For men the basis of friendship is the experience and the fact that both were physically present for it. Whether sitting at a Bulls game in Row J seats 11 and 12, or working up a sweat at the Loyola Prep gym playing pick-up hoops, the friendship blooms only from the seed of the experience which is fertilized by proximity. At some point the memories of those experiences, stories re-told dozens, hundreds of times, fail to prompt growth in the friendship without the Miracle-Gro of presence. Eventually even shared “experiences by proxy”, raising similar aged children for example, fails to prevent slack from growing in those friendship ties if you aren’t physically there to tighten them.

A quick review of how I regard Friendship with a capital F: In my mind the universe is divided into a very few groups of varying sizes. Think of your life as kind of like a bulls-eye floating through a vast space. The center of that bulls-eye comprises that small group of true friends, men and women who would drop everything should you have need, and for whom you would do the same. Friends are people you miss if you haven’t had contact for a matter of days, people whose company you actively seek. These are people you go out of your way to see and never try to avoid. Man or woman, they know how you feel. Again, an aside, happy is the couple who have overlap in this innermost circle of the bulls-eye.

The next circle is filled with friendly acquaintances, people who make you smile. When you have an opportunity to be with them in person or in spirit it makes you happy. As I write this today I am also texting with a couple of buddies in Florida in the hope that our upcoming trip to their “neighborhood” will find them available to come out to play. There’s no limit on these, and a reasonably friendly character could have dozens of friendly acquaintances scattered throughout a life. This is the group from which most friends are created, and if you are fortunate someone who is no longer really in that bulls-eye drifts no further out from center than this inner ring.

Just outside the circle of friendly acquaintances is the ring containing acquaintances, people you’ve met and remember but either don’t ever really spend time with or never have the chance to explore a move toward the center. While visiting Williams for a game in which their boys were playing my brother met a someone of mine who has always been here, the humor in wistful remembrance notwithstanding. Your circles of friends and acquaintances drifts through a vast space filled with folks yet unmet, a (hopefully) few enemies orbiting in there somewhere as well.

Returning to “The Good Life” as it recounts the lessons learned thus far in what is undoubtedly the longest scientific study of happiness yet conducted, there is actually a bit of better news when it comes to the friendship stuff. Whereas the 3 friends thing is still mentioned, a greater emphasis has been found on happiness in a marriage. When trying to predict happiness, as opposed to longevity at least, those couples who expressed a high degree of happiness and satisfaction in their marriage while in their 50’s were much more likely to be happy, to be healthy and thriving in their 80’s. And in later life the emphasis on friends alone has evolved into the benefits of enjoying close interpersonal relationships with not only those friends but also spouses, children, and other family members.

The authors return to this again and again in the interviews I’ve watched and read.

As I become an elder in many of my circles it becomes more clear how important it is that we cherish these relationships. That we cradle and nourish them, careful to avoid shaking them lest they disappear. Shattered through acts of either omission or commission, it matters not. We float through the universe in our circles, people drifting in toward the center. In CrossFit we know both a definition of fitness and a way to measure it. Indeed, CrossFit’s founder opined that not only is fitness the most important part of health, but in his opinion it is a precise measurement of the same. He and I disagreed around the margins of that position, at least in part because of friendship and what it does for us. We may not be able to define friendship in quite as absolute terms as those we used for fitness in Crossfit, but I’m reasonably sure we all know what it means to be and to have a real friend.

Read or watch “Of Mice and Men” if you are unsure. I’ve neither seen nor read a more gut-wrenching or powerful depiction of friendship. I’ve often told the story of my Dad’s dismissive position toward the friendships of youth. I was so angry at him when he tried to talk me out of a rather ill-conceived trip to spend a week on the beach with some buddies from college before we began whatever our summers would bring that year. “In 10 years you won’t have the number of a single person in that beach house in your phone book.” He was mostly right, of course, although I still chat with one of the guys I drove down with (we were in each other’s weddings).

And I did rather famously share a drink with another this past spring.

It’s likely that friendship itself, unlike fitness, does not have a precise metric, a measurement of volume or degree. No “friendship across broad time and modal domains” like fitness, if you will. Though I continue to hold this truth, that you can never have enough friends, there is apparently a number that does have some significance. Three. Three friends, real friends, lead to a longer life. Side by side or face to face, the tipping point is 3. No amount of time spent or distance traveled is too much for them.

But in The Good Life we learn that a happier life comes from nurturing ALL of our close interpersonal relationships. Friends, spouses, and other family members. It turns out that the better we are at doing this in mid life, our 50’s and 60’s, the happier we are in our much later years. And just like the importance of including well-being in any definition of health, including happiness in our discussion of lifespan is a part of what becomes our “Healthspan”.

While not specifically in the book, I’d bet that the authors would say it’s never too early, or too late, to start nurturing all of those relationships.

I’ll see you next week…

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