What is the essence of what’s most important in life? Of all the ideas and resources I’ve encountered, I think the Harvard Study of Adult Development has the best distillation. One of the study’s directors—George Vaillant—summarized the findings by saying “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” The current director of the study—Robert Waldinger—said “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
The study found there was a single yes/no question that could predict whether someone would be alive and happy at age 80: “Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable phoning at four in the morning to tell your troubles to?”
I call these people “4am friends”. And the key to having a 4am friend is knowing how to be a 4am friend.
The sad fact is that the number of these types of friends that we report having has been gradually declining. The most common answer to the question “how many close friend do you have?” is now 0. And there is a gender divide on this, with men faring much worse than women. Susan Pinker makes a compelling case that the discrepancy in life expectancy between men and women is this very fact. And the Roseto Effect shows the healing power of a healthy, close-knit community.
So how do we fix the problem? My current idea is to foster “moais”—modeled after the Okinawan social group—for groups of 4–5 same-sex peers. Then teach the groups how to be open and vulnerable and non-judgemental, and all of the things that our society isn’t teaching them (or worse, is teaching them not to do).
(If anyone finds this compelling, let me know. I’d love to collaborate on a trial. Thanks!)
I will leave you with a simple call to action: reach out to one (or more!) of your close friends—or perhaps one you’d like to be closer to—share this link with them, and tell them explicitly that they can call you at 4am or anytime to talk to you about anything. It will strengthen your friendship, and increase the health and happiness for you both. ❤️