On Thanksgiving, the LA Times ran an article by two professors — one from Harvard Medical School, the other from UC San Diego — touting the importance of keeping everyone in your social network of friends and family, even those who are demanding or get you angry.
As evidence, the professors point out that, while a study they did in 2007 found that people with overweight friends were more likely to gain weight than those with normal weight friends, they also found that those people who got rid of their fat friends gained more weight than those who kept their heftier friends. They also noted out that those who stay connected are more likely to be happy, pointing to an interesting statistic:
“Each happy friend increases a person’s probability of being happy by about 9%, while each unhappy friend decreases it by only 7%. So the virtue of staying connected lies in playing the averages. It’s true that the best-connected individuals at the center of the social network are more likely to “catch” an unhappy wave spreading through the network, but they are even more likely to catch a happy wave.
As a result, the people who stay connected are significantly happier than people who don’t. In the battle between the happy waves and sad waves, happiness wins.”
Finally, they noted that family and friends share things with each other like gifts, information, and kind gestures. All this leads them to their conclusion that “We need our connections, good and bad. Every one of them.”
Well, yes and no. I’m a big fan of social networks. One of the first things I recommend to anxious and/or depressed therapy clients is that they spend more face-to-face time with family and friends. If they don’t have many connections, maybe because they just moved to a new town, we talk about ways to meet other people with similar interests. If they are really stuck, I’ll get them started by sending them off to a cafe where they can at least see other people and have a little interaction. Social isolation is very stressful. Social interaction can bring stress down and raise a person’s mood.
But there is a caveat: it has to be good, or at least neutral, social interaction. When you have a toxic relationship, you negate the benefits of having the relationship. I’ve had clients for whom a dinner spent with their “best friend” always left them stressed out and miserable for the whole week. Dumping such “friends” opened the door to getting to know people who became real friends, improving my clients’ moods and their lives significantly.
Now I’m not recommending that you disown your brother or ditch a friend the first — or second, or third, or fiftieth — time you have a fight. Disagreements, bad days, annoying habits, they can happen in any relationship. You need to take a big picture view of what goes on between the two of you. If you get along okay with someone generally, keep them in your social network. However, anyone who brings you down regularly or has you questioning your worth whenever you are with them is not someone to spend time with. Avoid them. And if you feel like those are the only people you ever meet or make friends with, consider talking with a therapist about changing your expectations about how others can treat you. You may have been stuck in a pattern that kept attracting the wrong people into your life, but that pattern can be changed.
Here’s the second caveat: you need people in your social network. So if you decide that you really have to to stop getting together with your old high school friend or limit calls and visits to your sister, you need to spend more time with other people in your life. Seek out the ones who make you feel good about yourself, even when they challenge you. Go out for coffee. Schedule a game of squash. Host a dinner party. Do whatever suits you, but make time for it in your busy week. It will help lower your stress overall.
What if all the positive people in your life live in another state, or you have too few people like that around to spend time with, or you don’t have anyone like that in your life at all? Then it’s time to make more friends. Join something, like a sport, or a book club, or an alumni group. Go to a friendly church, mosque, or temple. Volunteer for a good cause where you will be working with other people. Any activity can do the trick so long as you actually spend time meeting and talking to other people over time. That’s the easiest way to start new friendships.
Please e-mail me at firstname.lastname@example.org to set up a get-acquainted session by phone or Skype to talk about how we might work together on what’s blocking you.