By Jan Bruce
Can you imagine a public health campaign... for friendship? Billboards to remind you to take a walk with your best friend. Morning talk shows covering research on how social connections can decrease morbidity and mortality rates by 50 percent (like this Brigham Young University study). Television PSAs with celebrities telling their friends how important they are. Friendship-building classes sponsored by the local hospital.
It sounds a bit silly, but the idea came to me when I read a short Q&A with Carlin Flora, author of Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are. Flora explains that peer pressure isn't just a middle school hobgoblin; we have a lifelong tendency to become like our friends -- to adopt their eating habits, health habits and even career aspirations.
It follows, then, that if you want to improve some aspect of your life, your best bet may be the buddy system. This is the power of the support group, right? Want to incorporate daily meditation into your life? Make a connection with someone who does. Want to get control over your sugar cravings? Spend time with supportive people you like who've been there. Want to realize a career dream? Have coffee with the dynamo down the hall who's doing it right now.
The problem is, of course, that time is in short supply to see the great friends you have, let alone find new ones, and consistency is key to making lifestyle changes or growing a friendship. Here are two ways shore up current nurturing connections, plus two tips for reaching out beyond your circle, even if you're strapped for time.
1. Celebrate your connection.
Give a thank-you card. Go out to dinner together to mark the day you became friends. Carlin Flora writes, "people in romantic relationships always celebrate anniversaries, yet you might have a friend for 15 years and you've probably never gone out to dinner and raised a glass to that. It'll make you feel great, it'll make them feel great and it will strengthen the bond between you."
2 Commit to time together.
Make a standing appointment to see each other, whether it's every Tuesday night or the first Friday of each month. Even if you have to reschedule, moving an existing date keeps it on your radar. To help you commit (because life will get crazy), buy in together for a seasonal subscription or membership to a theater, sporting event, exercise class, or meditation training. Or, share the ordinary. Figure out what you or your friend need to get done, even if it's a weekly errand (picking up the kids, shopping, or making that long haul to pick up your brother's truck), and do it together every week.
3. Find a partner in crime.
Whether you want to lose 15 pounds, walk 10,000 daily steps, leave work on time, or read more books, having a partner (or partners) in crime will make you accountable and far more likely to do what it is you set out to do. If you already have a good friend who shares the same goals, great -- but chances are you'll feel even more accountable to someone you don't know than someone who's likely to let you off the hook. Use this as an opportunity to connect with someone you only kind of know (a newish colleague, a woman from your gym you always chat with). This kind of formal goal-sharing can give you a great opportunity to get to know this person better and en route to your achievements and interests, you could form a special friendship.
4. Find new friends online.
When it comes to making new friends and exploring new connections, it really is a lot like dating (without all the pressure!). And that means you can do it online. While your sum total of Facebook friends doesn't translate into closer or better friendships, it does give you access to people you don't know all that well. Throw it out there that you're looking to create a book club, or maybe you want to attend a specific lecture happening at a nearby university -- post it and ask who's interested. Even better? Get a friend to join you and pool social media networks and invite others to join, or have a few people you know bring a friend along. The group friend date approach is a great way to expand your circle.
(Also check out Girlfriend Circles, an online service that helps match you with potential friends in your area, which is great for totally busting out of your same old crew.)
Bottom line: Your friends can have an enormous effect on your quality of life. Not that you have to make a thousand BFFs! Friendship runs the gamut from sisterhood to pleasant acquaintanceship. The point is to populate your life with positive and inspiring connections at as many levels as you can -- and little connections count.
I love the idea of friendship as public health because it makes your social connections as important as daily exercise and leafy greens. Your whole community becomes involved in the project of health, until it really is public health, each person learning and teaching as they go simply by living their lives.
Jan Bruce is CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, the new digital coaching system for stress, which helps both individuals and corporations achieve measurable results in stress management and wellness.
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