Friends make the world go round
One lonely evening ten years ago Mark Zuckerberg was laying around his university dorm room wondering how he might help his fellow classmates connect online.
Each fall freshman were handed binders containing sheets of paper that profiled students, professors, and other important figures on campus. How, Mark wondered, might I digitize this so that not only is the information available online, but so that students could more easily connect with their friends?
The solution, as we all know, became Facebook. Today Facebook connects not just students, but families, colleagues, acquaintances, and long-lost lovers.
In ten short years social media has exploded from a small campus dorm room to become a multi-billion dollar industry composed of scores of sites, including Twitter, Myspace, LinkedIn, Pinterest, Google+, and Instagram, to name just a few.
What these sites do is combine the incredible power of a digital network with our very real and visceral yearning for social engagement. We want, indeed we need, to have friends.
Beginning in 1992, the Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging investigated approximately 1,500 seniors in a multi-dimensional population based study of human aging. Among the study’s findings was that having good friends, even more than close relationships with family members, leads to a longer life and improved health.
Sheldon Cohen, a psychology professor at Carnegie Mellon University, is quoted in an article in WebMD about the many health benefits of friendships.
“Friends help you face adverse events,” he says. “They provide material aid, emotional support, and information that helps you deal with stressors. There may be broader effects as well. Friends encourage you to take better care of yourself. And people with wider social networks are higher in self-esteem, and they feel they have more control over their lives.”
But these health benefits and positive effects on aging are most profoundly experienced within a close, personal network of friends. As powerful as social media has become, it is through our daily interactions with people, and not pixels, that true and lasting friendships are formed and maintained.
My go-to guru on things slow is Ferenc Máté. In a series of books that describe his life in Tuscany, he catalogues the virtues of small towns, good food, and good friends. In his latest book, A Real Life: Rediscovering the Roots of our Happiness, he describes “the importance of small and daily friendships, the sense of sanctuary you feel in a small community, where you are known and appreciated, where you feel sheltered, where you belong.”
This doesn’t come from a computer screen, no matter how many “friends” you have in there.
True friendship is formed face-to-face. It comes in moments big and small. In a hearty laugh, a sideways glance, a knowing smile.
Taking time to relax with friends is one of those small, yet terribly, important, things you can do to slow down, connect, and form the bonds that can last a lifetime.
With the advent of computers and sites such as Facebook, we are increasingly substituting faux face time for the real thing.
I get that. How better to connect with far-off friends and family? But making time for the real thing is equally, if not more, important.
And that takes work.
Years ago personal interaction came naturally. We had to walk or jump in the car and go see someone in order to communicate with friends and acquaintances.
It’s so easy today to just pick up the phone or turn on the computer to connect. In a multi-tasking world built on speed, saving time in the friends department is a good way to do more elsewhere. And yet.
True friends sustain us. They lift us up when we are down, and occasionally we get to return the favor. Friends motivate us, listen to us, and are just there for us.
The question becomes, how can we reach out to our current friends, let alone make new ones, when so much conspires to keep us glued to our computer screens?
Here are some practical, small steps we all can take to engage with and expand our circle of friends:
Attend community events. Fairs, art shows, lectures, and other community functions are a great way to simply get out the door and meet new and interesting people. They can also be wonderful ways to rendezvous with those you already know.
Volunteer. From years of work with non-profits, I can tell you the easiest job to find is a volunteer job with a local not-for-profit organization. They always need help with something. And while you won’t get paid in salary, you will earn valuable time making friends and caring for people.
Extend and accept invitations. If you don’t live in a small town in the Tuscan countryside, sometimes you just need to create your own village. Have friends over for dinner, or a movie, or a party. And when they invite you over, just go. You may miss your show, or not get that important something done. But you will gain so much more.
Take up a new hobby. New hobbies are a great way to find new friends. Your shared interests are the only entree you will need to break the ice and say hello.
Join a group or club. Pam and I are members of a sailing club where the bonds of friendship have lasted a lifetime. Faith communities often have similar benefits.
Take a walk. With your dog. Everyone wants to stop and say hello to your dog. If you’re lucky, they may even notice you during the exchange.
These are just a few things you can do to make new friends and connect with those you already have. Because it is through our relationships that a slow life is fully realized. We need to make time to nurture those bonds, and to express the love and joy we gain from one another’s company.