06/12/2011 11:36 am ET Updated Aug 12, 2011

Friendship: A Counterintuitive Way to Increase Your Energy

One of the more common complaints I hear among women seeking new friends is the amount of energy it takes to meet people -- and not just to meet them, but then to put in the consistency to foster them through the stages from acquaintances to friends.

Initiating a "we should get together for lunch sometime" feels like risk of possible rejection. Then come three emails back and forth to get it scheduled. Then comes the fear of small talk, not knowing what we're going to find in common to share. And there's a certain self-consciousness that feels ever-present as we worry about how we're coming across and what image we're presenting, and wondering if they already have all the friends they need. Knowing how to follow up takes a whole different energy, as most of us don't want to appear over-eager, and yet the women on both sides crave validation. And then come the three weeks of scheduling back and forth to get the next lunch on the calendar to repeat the process. It can be exhausting. Who has the energy for it?

Gretchen Rubin, in her column in the June 2011 issue of Good Housekeeping, describes three types of fun: challenging fun, accommodating fun and relaxing fun. In the differences between the three we can find a valuable insight to those of us who feel uncertain whether we have the energy required for making new friends. All our activities fall under these three categories, starting with the most demanding fun (requiring the most energy from us) and ending with the most passive fun (requiring the least energy from us):

  1. Challenging fun includes the types of activities where we are learning some new skill or stretching ourselves in new ways. Obviously, this demands a great amount of time, energy and anxiety as we step into experiences outside our comfort zone.
  2. Accommodating fun includes the events in our lives that call for organization, coordination and planning. Our get-togethers, family trips and club meetings all require some advanced thought and energy in order to step into the fun.
  3. Relaxing Fun includes our most popular pastimes: watching TV, surfing the internet and reading. Clearly, this category is the easiest -- no anxiety, little effort and minimal planning.

If all things were equal, it would behoove us to spend more time watching TV as that activity requires less from us. We're tired and overworked; surely we deserve to get our joys in the easiest ways possible?

However, Rubin, the author of the acclaimed New York Times bestseller "The Happiness Project," says research shows that "challenging fun and accommodating fun, over the long term, make people happier because they're sources of the elements that build happiness: strong personal bonds, mastery, an atmosphere of growth."

When you think about what we tend to brag about to friends or post on Facebook, it usually falls under those first two types of fun. They're the moments that bring us joy, make us feel proud and remind us we're alive.

And yet, we tend to do the last type of fun, the relaxing one, the most. Clearly the first two forms of fun demand way more energy from us, compared to grabbing the remote control.

A counterintuitive truth is that often the things that give us the most energy also demand the most up front.

An old aphorism says that it takes money to make money. Perhaps the same could be said of energy. If we want energy -- the feeling of vitality -- then we might have to be willing to give more of it to get it. This may be a moment where a higher investment leads to a higher pay-off.

It is definitely easy to give a "thumbs up" to our friends' status updates and maybe, if we're feeling up to it, even come up with a witty and warm comment. But at the end of two hours of Internet surfing, I can guarantee that you rarely feel more energetic.

Compare that to showing up at a book club meeting, a happy hour with co-workers, an extended family gathering or a dinner with potential friends. At the end of a workday, it's probably the last thing you feel energized to do. If you're anything like me, you just want to get home and give yourself permission to not be "on" anymore. These activities require confirming the plans, getting there, finding parking, feeling your nerves and apprehension at the door, walking in wondering who you're looking for and if you'll know anyone, and holding a conversation like the adults that we are. Ugh! I'm tired just writing it!

And yet -- isn't there always a "yet"? -- these very activities are the ones that stimulate us and give us hope. It is counterintuitive to expend what little energy you have left when you feel a need to conserve it. But if we truly understood the returns, we'd know that the less we have, the more important it is for us to strategically invest it in the activities that are proven to give us the maximum results.

And the best thing about spending your energy making friends is that as you do it more and more, time spent with them begins to require less and give more. The returns are compounded.

More on this topic from Shasta on the blog:
"Are New Friends Worth the Energy Output?"
"The Flywheel of Friendship"