I was in a meeting with a group of leaders the other day and after being prompted by a question most of them said that they had many acquaintances but very few friendships. It was clear they weren’t particularly happy by this fact but felt their busy life didn’t leave them much of a choice. I find it paradoxical that in a day and age where we have so many more ways to stay connected with other people, every study I read says that people feel lonelier and more disconnected than ever before. This is especially troubling for people in leadership positions because they feel naturally isolated to begin with.
My own anecdotal experience is that women are better at starting and maintaining close relationships than men. It is just how they are hardwired. However, even women are now struggling to stay connected with each other under the pressures of busy work weeks, long commutes, and family commitments. Sometimes it can feel like there is just too much to get done and not enough hours in the day. When you find yourself in this space it’s hard to reach out and make friendships a priority. However, cultivating meaningful relationships outside of your spouse/significant other and family is a critical part of a happy life.
There need to be people in your life who don’t primarily see you as husband or wife or parent or grandparent or son or sibling or extended family or colleague or boss. You need to be able to step out from behind a given role and just be you. Good friends allow you to be an individual without any predetermined agenda besides enjoying each other’s company and finding common bonds. You can relax and let “let your hair down” and just offer each other support or have fun. You can be “real” without worrying about the consequences of how that might affect the formal relationship. Friendship is always a matter of choice rather than obligation.
If we continually narrow our relationship circles as we get older, we run the risk of smothering the remaining people who are left. We also increase our probability of ending up feeling lonely and alone. There is nothing sadder to me when I attend a funeral and hardly anyone attends or when someone in a hospital or nursing home gets minimal visitors. In the end, our happiness is directly correlated with the quality of relationships we form with other people. Acquaintances come and go and are usually insignificant in the big picture of life. However, going through life building and maintaining good friendships will make the journey less arduous and more meaningful. Don’t get me wrong. Family should always be a priority and is the most important thing, but it isn’t everything.