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Why "Gathering" with Friends is Key to Stress Relief

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How important is it to have a robust group of friends in life? Can it be that having a regular gathering with people you have come to know intimately is one of the most cherished aspects of daily life? I think it is, or can be. I believe we have lost this in modern society. Fewer of us go to churches or synagogues to see friends and neighbors, we are driven to work longer and harder, and reality shows look pretty good at the end of a long day to watch others get together while we collapse under the covers.

Extended families are dispersed so we rarely see distant cousins for holidays, and nuclear families run here and there without a moment to breathe; having 'take-out' dinners in the car between baseball and hockey practice. Dining room tables are used for storage, or simply collect dust when they should be the centerpieces of memories.

We schedule our kids and grow up to be scheduled adults. Our social time is now being squeezed into micro sentences posted on Twitter- who has time for a regular conversation! Getting 4 or 5 couples together for an evening of cards? Forget it. No one has time. We don't have time to eat, take evening walks, or have leisurely conversations in the back yard. And, forget about a commitment to weekend "get-together's" with neighbors and friends that drag on all day long. Does anyone else miss that?

In our rugged culture of individualism, we are all standing alone, yet we are not meant to be such solitary creatures. We are creatures of relationship. And not just one, we need layers of connections in order to feel whole. We need good food, exercise and proper rest to be balanced in our physical body; but we also need our partners to be present with us, we need good friends, we need close family ties, we need to have an open neighborhood culture, we need our work relationships to be meaningful and not cut throat, and we need to feel part of a global family.

The backlash to this crazy, compartmentalized modern life has been a recent craze of "hobby groups" to satisfy this need without consciously realizing it. No longer a part of daily life, we have to fabricate excuses to get together regularly. Today we will make time to be part of some sort of book club, coffee klatch, golf group, supper club, hiking group, game night, or knitting circle - does anybody focus on the book or task exclusively? Of course not! It's a place to gossip, relax and unwind. Perhaps we are driven to squeeze in time for these groups because they are a powerful contributor to health and well being. I may be so bold as to say it rivals anti-depressants, raw veggie diets and obsessively exercising at the gym.

Even some of our greatest minds in studying human behavior and the new rage of "Happiness" books may have overlooked the power of a regular monthly poker game with the guys. Certain elements are always the consistent that become a type of ritual: same table, same food, same cigars, same easy laughs. It takes away the stress of every day life, engages a flow state to slip into, and is a routine that not only takes the edge off; it is a component we build our overall sense of happiness in general.

While we give these social groups barely a nod scientifically, the sheer volume is worthy of investigation. Americans regularly get together to enjoy: Girl's Night Out, Monday Night Football, bridge night, pick up basketball, book club, Sunday night dinners, knitting circles, AA meetings, Weight Watchers, new mom's groups, babysitting co-ops, poker nights, weekend bar-b-ques, bunko or bridge game nights, soccer clinics, stock club, scrapbooking, garden clubs, meditation group, hiking, charity non-profit groups, gourmet supper clubs.... The list goes on and on.

We are wired for 'village style' community lifestyles at the very core. Our modern society has stripped away the importance of these groups to such a degree most of us do not even realize it is the "What's Missing" in our lives. Fundamentally, we long to belong. We crave a place to be part of a group with whom we are accepted, where we can care and be cared for. It helps us to hear that others are feeling the same way, or have experiences we can relate to. It may not solve anything, but it lessens our burdens to know we carry them with others.

Many people I have met have never experienced a deeply connected group, and wish they could. I believe having a special group does not have to be left to chance or random circumstance -- it can be consciously created at every layer of relationships in your life.

Maybe you once had a special group of friends in your life. If not now, why not? Is it too hard? Are all the people around you unapproachable? Are we all mildly depressed and lulled into a solitary funk?

Those who have a robust social life derive the benefit of having reinforcing encounters on a regular basis, and are great mood elevators. If you are rushing through the bank and run into someone who recognizes you -- what happens? An instant rush of positive emotion, you feel rooted in your community to see someone you know and like, you have common topics to discuss without requiring any extra time or work to maintain such a quick exchange.

In a down economy with no cash to spare, spending times with friends is cheap. It feels good, and it improves your health. When people get together, oxytocin, the "feel good" hormone is released that combats the negative effects of stress. Tom Rath wrote a book called Vital Friends and in it he describes the astounding response on a Gallup poll to improved work performance at almost every category if someone felt they were working with a "best friend."

So, maybe 2009 can become the year of gathering. The year to put regular dates on the calendar to get together with those friends you always wanted to know a bit better, to turn off the reality shows at night and have a game of Scrabble with your spouse. To clean the bills off the table and have a family dinner with the lit candles, cloth napkins and a vat of mac-n-cheese on a school night. If you can't afford your therapist, better not scrap those martini nights with the girls...sometimes it's all you need to get by on a bad day.

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