It's a little ironic that, as social media pushes the virtual friend count to new heights, the culture as a whole is getting ever more isolated. Researchers say that Americans have fewer close confidants outside family than ever before. One in four have no confidants at all. A study at the University of Michigan reported that 75 percent of college students have lower empathy than their peers did 30 years ago, which isn't going to boost the social cause; neither will a spike in students' narcissism over that same period, documented in research at San Diego State University.
Exploding social media hasn't dented the social isolation trend of the last couple of decades. It's a reminder that there's no substitute for the real social deal -- folks you've actually met in person, with whom you've shared experiences and built intimacy that goes beyond the surface chatter. There's no doubt you meet some great folks online, as I have, but the social animal needs to connect more than superficially with others of the tribe. Our core psychological need for "relatedness," say researchers, mandates that we have close relationships with others.
It gets harder in the adult and career worlds to take care of that social mandate. Time is the fastener of friendship, and we have less of that... or so we think. There's always time, if you make the time and lose the stranglehold of time urgency -- the false emergency that would have you believe you're too busy to live.
One of the best ways to improve real social life is through a forgotten option that's been shoved aside by overwork, the flat screen TV and the time sink that social media can be: participant recreation. Play is the real-life social network. It's a social catalyst that creates immediate common ground between strangers and makes it easy to forge friendships that can last a lifetime. The basis for the relating is the fun and the activity, not what anyone does for a living. You get behind the masks of the workaday world. It's similar to travel in that way -- you accept folks at face value and the resume doesn't matter. The unconditional realm of play keeps the inauthentic yardsticks away, which is why it creates the kind of bonds that satisfy your deepest relational needs.
I saw the power of play close at hand in the course of researching my new book, "Don't Miss Your Life." I met kayakers, climbers, dancers and a host of other life enthusiasts who had found camaraderie and real friendships through pursuing their passions and hobbies. Case in point: Kim Travis, an actress and small theater owner who had to leave New York City and her beloved softball team to take care of her ill mother in Austin, Texas. Travis' connection with her team was so important that she commuted from Austin to New York and back every Thursday to coach her Actor's Equity team in Central Park. Travis loves softball, but the flights every Thursday were about one thing: the people. "Most of us have been playing together for years," she says. "There's not one person on that team who doesn't love the others. We're a family."
Over and over, in dozens of different activities, people had found not just good friends but family. It was the support of fellow band members, choir singers or orienteering friends that helped people get through bouts of cancer or the death of a spouse. Several told me they don't know what they would have done without the support of their activity comrades when life's biggest challenges came calling.
Our real-life social networks are hugely important, and vanishing. Many suburban streets these days look like ghost towns -- there's not a soul to be seen. Humans emerge only to go to and from work. Even the kids are inside, buried in video games. Neighbors who might be burning up the social media pages inside their homes barely know each other outside.
Over the last three decades, Americans have become less and less participant-oriented and more and more audience members. We are less likely to join groups, from sports teams to civic groups, than we used to be. We are more likely to live alone. More social isolation feeds less empathy and fewer social skills. We get so used to dealing with people via e-mail or online that we forget how to function around live humans. To break out of isolation row, we have to develop a skill-set -- tools of "life intelligence" that allow us to self-determine a participant and prosocial path.
Play offers a highly targeted option to build real relationships that can satisfy your critical social need. Social connection is a well-vetted predictor of well-being. People who are content with their social lives are happier and healthier. Studies show that participating in enjoyable social activities is a strong predictor for increased daily well-being. The more active your leisure life, the higher your life satisfaction.
There are no agendas in the non-judgmental act of play, so it creates a level playing field that cuts across the usual social and income barriers. The Broadway Show League that Travis' team plays in has featured stars from Al Pacino to Kevin Spacey, but teams also include stagehands and crew members.
Salespeople the world over know that the art of the deal happens on the golf course or over lunch. You cut to the core in play, making the usual boundaries drop away. The scripted self gets replaced by the real thing, at ease and no longer on guard. We're a lot more inclined to connect when our real selves are doing the connecting -- instead of the business card or presentation face. Playing puts you in the frame of mind to be open to others. Negative feelings close off receptivity.
Marty Herman, an accountant in Southern California, put himself on a whole new social trajectory when he took up salsa dancing. He marvels how stepping out into an activity that was nerve-racking at first has brought a host of real-life friends that he wouldn't have had otherwise. "Dancing has totally changed my social life," he says. "It's been a huge plus." Playing in an adult kickball league introduced marketing coordinator Ariana Mayman to dozens of friends, including three roommates and a boyfriend. "In a big city, it's easy to feel very small and alone," she told me. "Kickball gives you the confidence to walk up to anyone, anywhere, and feel comfortable having a conversation."
You don't have to be a social butterfly to unleash the social sparks because the activity itself brings everyone together. You do have expend some effort, though. You have to get out of the house, away from the computer and impound the phone. Clicking is so much easier, but it's the participation that satisfies your core self-determination needs. Friends, optimal moments, elation, exhilaration -- it's all there for us when we step out of the sedentary box and into the center of life fully lived.
HuffPost Lifestyle is a daily newsletter that will make you happier and healthier — one email at a time. Learn more