Living closer to your friends would make you happier. Why don’t you?

Three ideas why.

We change. Life changes us. When I moved to America many years ago, I was thinking expansively—it would be great to immerse myself in a new culture. And that it was. I thought I could make new lifelong friends.

What I didn’t understand is that beyond growing up together, lifelong friends in America meet in high school and college. After that window of time, your friends vary based upon where you work (occasionally), or live (sometimes), or the professional associations where you’re a member (maybe), or the causes you support (perhaps).

The qualifiers are not accidental. Many cultures in Europe favor relationships, the social aspects of life. While American culture is more oriented on individual options, with a predilection for many activities. Which often means very busy to talk to you (never mind get together).

Friends “make your life better. So why not turn them into your neighbors?” asks Adrienne Matei in The Atlantic. I’ve been thinking a lot about this, especially since I live so far from family.

Matei’s fantasy developed during the pandemic:

Sometime during the pandemic lockdowns, I began to nurture a fantasy: What if I were neighbors with all of my friends? Every day, as I took long walks through North Vancouver that were still nowhere near long enough to land me at a single pal’s doorstep, I would reflect on the potential joys of a physically closer network. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone who could join me on a stroll at a moment’s notice? Or to be able to drop by to cook dinner for a friend and her baby? How good would it be to have more spontaneous hangs instead of ones that had to be planned, scheduled, and most likely rescheduled weeks in advance?

Mine started after my father’s death two days after Christmas 2015. As I headed into the new year, I went through a ‘getting rid of everything non essential’ phase. My emotional ship was sinking from the realization I didn’t really have any friends within hugging range. Throwing the ballast felt the right response.

Like Matei, I started fantasizing about building a neighborhood with friends within a walking distance. American colleges have dorms, which is why people who meet in college likely become lifelong friends. In addition to rooming together, campuses tend to be walkable communities.

Bologna is a supremely walkable city. This is in front of the basilica of Santo Stefano, which encompasses a complex of seven religious edifices. Churches and religious centers used to be places where to make friends. [Photo mine]

“Nearly every US city would like to be more walkable—for reasons of health, wealth, and the environment—yet few are taking the proper steps to get there. The goals are often clear, but the path is seldom easy.”

Jeff Speck has 101 ideas.

“Living across the hall from one’s friends is even enshrined in one of America’s most enduringly popular TV shows.” The solution to lower levels of depression, distant or loss of family, and serious loneliness (36 percent of Americans) points to being closer to friends.

Matei highlights research that found happiness spreads “like an emotional contagion.” It’s the collective phenomenon I’ve experienced and known growing up in Italy where people tend to live closer and be more gregarious.

Perhaps the closeness with friends and social ties is what makes la dolce vita a good life.

What makes a good life

How do we decide what makes a good life? Where should we invest our energy and time? Psychiatrist Robert Waldinger set to find out. As the director of a 75-year-old study on adult development, Waldinger has unprecedented access to data on true happiness and satisfaction.

Watching entire lives unfold provides good data for understanding what makes a difference to a happy existence. It turns out that it is not fame, wealth, or popularity that matter; in the end it comes down to three things:

1. Social connections are really good for us —loneliness kills

It turns out that people who are more socially connected to family, to friends, to community, are happier, they’re physically healthier, and they live longer than people who are less well connected. And the experience of loneliness turns out to be toxic. People who are more isolated than they want to be from others find that they are less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely. And the sad fact is that at any given time, more than one in five Americans will report that they’re lonely.

2. The quality of your close relationships matters

It turns out that living in the midst of conflict is really bad for our health. High-conflict marriages, for example, without much affection, turn out to be very bad for our health, perhaps worse than getting divorced. And living in the midst of good, warm relationships is protective.

Once we had followed our men all the way into their 80s, we wanted to look back at them at midlife and to see if we could predict who was going to grow into a happy, healthy octogenarian and who wasn’t. And when we gathered together everything we knew about them at age 50, it wasn’t their middle age cholesterol levels that predicted how they were going to grow old. It was how satisfied they were in their relationships. The people who were the most satisfied in their relationships at age 50 were the healthiest at age 80. And good, close relationships seem to buffer us from some of the slings and arrows of getting old. Our most happily partnered men and women reported, in their 80s, that on the days when they had more physical pain, their mood stayed just as happy. But the people who were in unhappy relationships, on the days when they reported more physical pain, it was magnified by more emotional pain.

3. Good relationships don’t just protect our bodies, they protect our brains

It turns out that being in a securely attached relationship to another person in your 80s is protective, that the people who are in relationships where they really feel they can count on the other person in times of need, those people’s memories stay sharper longer. And the people in relationships where they feel they really can’t count on the other one, those are the people who experience earlier memory decline. And those good relationships, they don’t have to be smooth all the time. Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker with each other day in and day out, but as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.

Over time, relationships make a big difference to the quality of our lives, and yet we hardly focus on developing them. In the busyness of our daily commitments we may go weeks, months, even years out of touch with family, friends, and community.

Matei mentions that having friends nearby helps you save on things—like bulk groceries, or household items you rarely use. Or borrowing the famous “cup of sugar” (chat included) when all you really need is a quick contact with a human being.

When my mother had her hospital emergency, she was able to rely on her friend to pick up the dog and her neighbor to help lock up behind her. Several years ago, I had to drive myself to the hospital in the middle of the night. It turns out that having friends all over the world is fantastic when you love to travel. But it sucks when you have an emergency.

Why don’t we stay close to friends if it makes us happier?

Three ideas.

1. Society’s idea of success is at odds with your own

The playbook of what you’re supposed to do with life is a big reason. Go to college, get a well-paying job (there’s the whole return-on-investment thing at play here), marry, have 2.5 children, buy a minivan (or increasingly an SUV), live in the suburbs (because that’s what you can afford), save for the kids’ college, etc. etc.

You can see already how the combination of these factors takes you away from friends. Many people I know followed the jobs to have a career. And it became more important to do that as they got higher on the career ladder—where the jobs are fewer and farther between (including expat assignments).

Then there’s specialization. Choose a scientific, technical, academic or niche field and you know you’re headed to the ‘place’ where it’s possible to practice. People who move far away are already far away from family. Like me, they need close friends more. And parents aren’t really like friends, are they?

Americans perception of success continues to be at odds with reality.

In 2019, Gallup found that, “Many more Americans are achieving success according to their own views of success (‘personal success’) than what they believe to be society’s views of success (‘perceived societal success’).”

After status, other top contributors to the overall composition of perceived societal success are education (19.8%) and finance (8.8%). In contrast, personal determinants of success are far more varied, with education (17.1%), relationships (15.6%) and character (15.4%) similarly important.

Matthew Killingsworth, a happiness researcher and senior fellow at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, Daniel Kahneman, and Barbara Mellers found that money can indeed buy happiness (to a certain extent). Which debunks some of the Gallup data from two years prior.

2. Friends are all over, you’re in one place

I have friends all over the world. Social networks facilitated meeting people from different places. But even before that, I mentioned that I moved to America. Many move to other countries, especially after college. My cousin lived in Japan for 33 years.

Through a precursor of social networks I met the person I consider my best friend. He lives in Australia. Which makes it hard even to coordinate times for a phone call. Work collaborations are more distributed. You could working on projects with people in all continents—and make a few friends in the process.

Maybe you stayed in touch with friends from college who now live several states away. That’s been the case for many people I know. With families and jobs, it’s hard to get together in person beyond driving distance and fixed yearly or periodical appointments.

So you try to make new friends. But making friends in midlife is hard.

The number of close friendships Americans have appears to have declined considerably over the past several decades. [Source: May 2021 American Perspectives Survey]

3. There never seems to be enough time

Whether you live in the city or in a suburban area, over-scheduled calendars means that unless you’re right next door, it’s hard to get together. It’s quite easy to pile on lists of tasks and keep trying to punch above our weight.

Tim Kreider wrote about The ‘Busy’ Trap for the NYT:

Busyness serves as a kind of existential reassurance, a hedge against emptiness; obviously your life cannot possibly be silly or trivial or meaningless if you are so busy, completely booked, in demand every hour of the day.

An obvious busy to see from the outside. Harder from inside the many commitments that could further your career, or get you ahead in your endeavors. Another side of being busy is harder to identify—because it’s part of cultural context.

Americans really value their time, which is tied to their privacy and independence. Also, I found that friendliness is not one and the same with ‘friend’ or desire to be a friend here. For example, the casual greeting ‘how are you doing?’ is not meant as a conversation starter. Just a polite way of acknowledging you in passing.

There’s a disconnect between wanting to be perceived as friendly, nice, and helpful and the actual desire to preserve private space and not get too close with people right away. Which shows up either as ‘I’m really busy right now’ or ‘sure, let’s do it’ and ‘it’ never happening (ghosting).

You have to put a lot of time and energy into forging a connection. Time that could be spent being productive.