Three Reasons Why Friends Are More Important Than Money (And Why You Have to Make an Effort)
Depression and anxiety are on the rise. People get busier and busier. I hear many successful professionals who somewhat ruefully say that they don’t have much time to see friends and when they do everyone is so tired that they struggle to keep going for an evening together. Most people seem to dread work related social events as some kind of ordeal to be got through, and many of us view at least some of the family contact that we may feel obliged to carry out as something of a chore.
However, we neglect these relationships at our peril to a great extent. Even the more irritating aspects mean that we are engaging with others. But the more interesting and enjoyable parts of friendship (whoever that might be with) are often sacrificed at the end of very full working days and weeks and years. We all know we need money – poverty is undoubtedly bad for you in all respects. But over and over again research shows that beyond a reasonable standard of living, money adds relatively little to your quality of life. And, of course, it’s coming much harder to come by these days! So – beyond making a living, maybe our focus should be on friends in relation to our quality of life rather than cash. Here’s why:
- Physical health – our habits tend to be worse when we are on our own too much (what is too much will vary from person to person). We drink more alcohol, take less exercise and often eat less well. I know lots of people who say they eat a much more balanced meal if they are with others than if they are at home alone. Sleep patterns can also be disrupted by feeling lonely. Our immune systems don’t work as well when we are on our own more than we would like or that is good for us either. These things do relate to generally good relationships with others – there are clearly negative effects of spending time with others in a negative way (if they are bullying you for instance). But it doesn’t have to be a romantic relationship, the benefits apply to friends of all shapes and sizes and ages and abilities and a few or lots of friends (people vary in their preference for the number of friends they have, that is no problem at all).
- Perspective – people on their own a lot can be prone to a lot of rumination. Going over and over things that maybe didn’t go well, or are coming up, or could have been better in some way. Friends dispel that to a large extent. You realise someone else has the same issue, or a different view on it, or just help you to find a funny side. They may (gently or otherwise) challenge your views which can be enormously helpful. They may be sympathetic to your outlook. Great friends are often sympathetic and challenging at times! They may have suggestions which help. They may not. But in any event being with friends usually stops the rumination in its tracks for while at least which is a big factor in reducing anxiety. Money (beyond keeping a roof over your head and food on the table) rarely reduces anxiety. It has a habit of doing the exact opposite.
- Creativity – friends can help you to bounce your ideas around, or can inspire you with new ideas. The spark created between friends who have similar interests and enthusiasms has led to any number of companies being set up, scientific breakthroughs, artistic and creative projects. In fact, I would bet that the story of anyone you admire for their work or achievements can trace elements of those back to conversations or activities with friends that set them off on a particular path or led to a great collaboration. This is so much more exciting, interesting, life enhancing than counting your money – whether it’s sharing a book that you’ve both read, donating cuttings off plants to each other, having a chat over a cup of tea or coming up with an idea that will change the world.
Friendships don’t just happen by themselves
“We treat socialising as if it’s a frivolous diversion from the tasks at hand rather than an activity that is essential to our well-being as individuals and as a community.”
Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz, Harvard Medical School
It is easy in our culture to assume that friendship should be something you don’t have to work at, you should just be likable enough as you are to attract friends as a sort of add on. This is partly why it is so hugely stressful and a big shameful taboo for many of us to feel as if you have no friends. And that feeling nearly always leads to a vicious circle of withdrawing because you feel friendless – which of course makes it self fulfilling. This is what the American psychiatrists quoted above find in many of their patients – rather than being truly depressed, often these people are lonely and have reacted in a way that has made them even lonelier. The television we watch and messages we receive from all angles makes us think that everyone else has great sets of friends and a great social life whereas the reality for many people is far from that glossy image. The shame of that is a tough one to overcome and people will often hide away rather than go out into the world to find friends.
It takes effort. It really does. I know some people appear to envy me because I do have a lot of friends. I need them and love being with them. I am sometimes irritated by them. But the reality is that I initiate more social events than I am invited to. Sometimes that makes me feel a bit down or taken for granted or annoyed. However, when I stand back from this, I know that the reasons other people don’t organise things to invite others too are numerous. The hassle, the potential mess, the fact that they feel too busy or too tired, it’s easy to put off, there’s always something else to do, they don’t like planning ahead, they feel shy that people might not accept their invitations, they feel put upon, they don’t want a late night, and on it goes. I have experienced all of those things and more besides. But I am old enough now to realise that I get a lot out of doing a whole variety of things, some with others (and different people for different events/activities) and some I enjoy on my own. And that other people seem to enjoy the things that I organise too. I do get invited to things but I no longer have a sense of needing to match invitations received and given as if someone was keeping a tally (I don’t feel obliged to return invations either, this was a liberating realisation one day).
I have learned to be creative about the social contact I do invite people to – as a single parent for a while it was difficult to get out of the house and I couldn’t afford to do a lot – but held plenty of girls’ nights in either with one friend or a group, or did things during the day with other parents. A bring your own cocktail evening worked a treat (I put up a blackboard for everyone to write their contribution on to a “menu”, provided crisps and everyone made cocktails for everyone else to order, with the ingredients they had brought). Grumpy old women evenings for a range of female friends (all of whom willingly turn up with a plate of food to share) is always fun. This past weekend a group of us went for afternoon tea and a meeting with the author Barbara Trapido as part of the Lowdham Book Festival locally. I know in my heart of hearts this probably wouldn’t have happened if I didn’t organise it. It induces a slight sense of fear that I am forcing my ideas on others who are reluctant, and a slight sense of irritation that I am making the biggest effort. But these feelings dissipate very quickly and are more than outweighed by the very enjoyable and interesting afternoon that we all had.
Start small. There are hundreds of things out there to do. Many of them free. Invite one person and suggest they bring a friend. Don’t expect it to turn into an episode of Friends (the enduring popularity of this show tells us something I think – it all looks so completely effortless and enjoyable and funny). Reconnect with old friends. Keep trying. It’s worth it.