Deep friendships have the unmistakable quality of being immutable. At the same time, they demand to be treated as fragile, never to be taken for granted and always to be nurtured with a degree of care commensurate with their value.
In 1938, scientists began tracking the well-being of 268 Harvard sophomores. What is now one of the longest studies of adult health and happiness, the Harvard Study of Adult Development has arrived at a definitive conclusion – the quality of our relationships is a better predictor of long and happy lives than social class, IQ, genes, or even biological markers thought to be predictive of health like cholesterol levels. Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study, says, “Loneliness kills. It’s as powerful as smoking or alcoholism.”
I was reminded of the correlation between relationship and well-being last week after visiting my nephew at the University of Utah, who had just completed his first full week as a college freshman. Part of my mission was to assure his mother, my sister, that Ben was adjusting to his new life and doing well. It didn’t take me long to do so. After meeting his four dorm roommates, we headed out to see the campus and find a place to have dinner. On our walk, I asked him how he was adjusting to life on his own. “I don’t feel alone at all,” he said with a look of relief and a smile. “I’m with my friends all the time.” He had already found his tribe. The presence of four new friends was sufficient to transform what might have otherwise been a lonely, insecure first week at college into an exciting new adventure.
What the Harvard study proves, and experience supports, is that relationships are the key to well-being. More specifically, though, it is friendships that arguably matter most. To be clear, I’m not talking about casual acquaintances. I’m referring to the deep friendships that are formed when companionship is needed most. These deep friendships are unlike any other form of relationship. They serve as a sanctuary of authenticity – a safe place to truly be yourself without the risk of being judged. They are sacred in nature. They possess the bonds of blood relations without the baggage. If we are lucky, we can expect to have a handful of such friendships in the course of a lifetime. And if we are truly blessed, we may be fortunate enough to spend the last days of our lives with such friends.
As I reflect on my own life, I can directly trace my happiness and well-being to a handful of deep friendships. At the highest and lowest points of my life, these friends have been there for me. They have shown up without exception. They are both a safety net and a source of inspiration. These friendships have the unmistakable quality of being immutable. At the same time, they demand to be treated as fragile, never to be taken for granted and always to be nurtured with a degree of care commensurate with their value. In our seemingly never-ending quest to be happy in life, we would be wise to put the nurturing of deep friendships at the very top of our list.
As we finished dinner and I said my goodbyes to Ben, I imagined him returning to his dorm room to be greeted by his friends, safe in knowing that he was among a group of young men who have his back. I hope and trust he has the good sense to realize the long-term value of the friendships he will be creating over the next four years. If his experience is anything like mine, it will be his deep friendships – not what he learns or the degree he receives – that remain the legacy of his college years.
I loved this GQ interview of actor, director, producer, screenwriter, and comedian Jonah Hill.
I speak a lot about the power of language to create new futures. Here’s a take on the same subject by one of my favorite (and relatively obscure) writers Charles Eisenstein: “Prophetic speech is the ability to speak a potentiality into reality. (It also includes the prophetic warning, which speaks a potentiality out of reality.)”
A quote that I’ve been pondering sent from one of my deep friends: “One achieves Ataraxia (the happy life) through philosophical understanding of the true nature of things and living in conformity with that understanding” – AC Grayling summarizing Epicurus