“Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?” Your answer to this one question predicts not your happiness, but your lifespan. As Martin E.P. Seligman writes in Flourish, “If your answer is yes, you will likely live longer than someone whose answer is no.”
The reference to a 4am phone call underscores the fact that it’s not just friendship, but close friendship that equips you to better deal with the challenges of life. As Dr. Todd B. Kashdan writes, “We do not need friends. We need the right friends.”
Who are the right friends? Dr. Kashdan identified 4 tiers of friendship in his blog The Art of Friendship
- Emerging Characters – safe and devoid of intimacy
- Casual Characters – we reveal little to them, only low stakes opinions are offered
- Close Friends – deep personal disclosure; trust, intimacy and a sense of commitment settles in
- Inner Circle – you can be effortlessly yourself
When Dr. Kashdan spoke at the Leading to Wellbeing conference at George Mason this March, he encouraged us as members of the audience to consider making an effort to move two friends upward towards ‘inner circle.’ One person asked something along the lines of, ‘why would I necessarily want to have more friends?’
Taken alone, this might seem like a shocking question, but from a certain perspective, it’s understandable. When we are busy, tired and stressed, cultivating friendship can seem like a luxury. When we operate from the stress of never being able to get to the bottom of our to do list, adding a close friend could seem like a bad idea. From that perspective, one new close friend could add up to 2 – 4 to do items weekly. As with so many things, ‘cultivate inner circle’ gets put in that growing category of “I would love to but I don’t have time.” Excuse me, I have to get back to my to do list now.
This is exactly the type of logic I watch out for when working with clients to prevent chronic stress and burnout.When our stress response is chronically activated, we often get stuck in a perspective that hurts us rather than helps us. I call this the tunnel vision of stress, and there are two ways it can work against you:
- Exclusive focus on tasks – Tunnel vision is a natural part of the stress response. The function that nature intended was to help us shut everything out so we could focus on the wild animal about to eat us. In today’s world, that same survival intinct tells you that if you don’t complete those tasks on your list, you won’t live to see tomorrow. As a result, it blinds you to every other aspect of life, like friendship. From the tunnel vision stress perspective, turning off your laptop to play some tennis or go fishing with a friend seems absolutely ridiculous.
- Emotional shutdown – Another byproduct of the stress response can be to shut down emotionally or withdraw socially. From this perspective, the idea of opening up to someone and sharing our vulnerabilities might feel like the very last thing we want to do.
Although it’s meant to help you in dire situations, the truth is that in the context of daily overwhelm these two aspects of the stress response are likely hurting you rather than helping you for one main reason: your to do list never ends. If it was a one-time crisis point like being attacked by an animal, then the tunnel vision would make sense. But the to do list is there day in and day out, so if you postpone cultivating friendships, breathing fresh air or eating proper meals until you finish your tasks, then it’s likely that you won’t ever get to these vital activities.
This is a vicious cycle because the very things you ‘don’t have time for’ are the things that make up the foundation of your wellbeing so that you can handle the stress and the intense workload, and this is the very cycle that commonly leads to burnout.
What’s needed is a shift of perspective so you can see that going fishing with a friend is more important that the next task on your list. I think this is the perspective that Dr.Kashdan writes from when he says of his inner circle friends: “My success in life is directly proportional to their presence.” Instead of seeing friendship as a luxury we get to when the work is done, we must see it as an essential prerequisite for being able to get any work done at all.
Next time you catch yourself saying things like ‘I don’t have time to see sunlight’ or ‘Eating meals is a waste of time’ or ‘I don’t have time for friendship,’ try to call yourself out and say ‘hey, I’m in tunnel vision.’ Pull out to a wider perspective to include the things that make life meaningful and manageable.
The added benefit is that once you have cultivated your inner circle, you won’t have to worry as much about catching yourself, because your trusted friends will be there to do that for you. That’s just one more way your inner circle will lengthen your lifespan, and make it more fun too.