When my wife and I moved to New York City in 2001, recently graduated from college and newly wed, we were eager to find friends. We knew nearly no one but were sure we’d soon find a fun-loving group like the 20- and 30-something New Yorkers who spontaneously dropped in on one another on TV shows like Seinfeld and Friends.

We hatched a plan. After moving into our Midtown Manhattan apartment, we invited all the neighbors over for drinks by placing Kinko’s-printed quarter-sheets into everyone’s mailboxes. Then, we waited for our versions of Chandler, Kramer, and Elaine to show up. But they didn’t. In fact, no one did. As the ice in the cooler melted and the guacamole browned, not a single person among 100 apartments stopped by. Not. One. Person.

Recalling that episode now, we sound embarrassingly naïve. We didn’t realize friendships in the real world worked nothing like the ones we had forged in our dormitories, let alone those we saw on television. Yet as it turns out, our desire to belong to a tight community was far from foolish.

Recent studies have shown a dearth of social interaction with people you care about and who care about you not only leads to loneliness, but is also linked to a range of harmful physical effects. In other words: A lack of close friendships may be hazardous to your health.

Dying for Friends

A 2010 meta-analysis reviewed 148 studies involving over 300,000 participants and concluded that having weak social ties was as harmful to health as being an alcoholic and twice as harmful as obesity. Julianne Holt-Lunstad, co-author of the analysis, told Reuters, “A lack of social relationships was equivalent to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day.”

A more recent study, published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, found a biological response to loneliness that triggers disease. According to the researchers, social isolation sets off a cellular chain reaction that increases inflammation and suppresses the body’s immune response.

Perhaps the most compelling evidence that friendships affect longevity comes from the ongoing Harvard Study of Adult Development. Since 1938, researchers have been following 724 men, tracking their physical health as well as social habits. Robert Waldinger, the study’s current director, said in his recent TED Talk, “The clearest message that we get from this 75-year study is this: Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.” Socially disconnected people are, according to Waldinger, “less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”

Lest we think having 500 Facebook friends might offer some protection, Waldinger warns, “It’s not just the number of friends you have … it’s the quality of your close relationships that matters.”

So what makes for a quality friendship? William Rawlins, a professor of interpersonal communications at Ohio University who studies the way people interact over the course of their lives, told The Atlantic that satisfying friendships need three things: “Somebody to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy.”

friend4

Diagram adapted from the work of William Rawlins.

Finding someone to talk to, depend on, and enjoy comes naturally when we’re young. In college, for example, we build strong bonds when nearly everyone around us is also searching for connection. But as we grow into adulthood, the model for how to maintain our friendships isn’t clear. We graduate and go our separate ways, pursuing careers and starting lives miles apart from our best friends.

Suddenly work obligations and ambitions trump buddies and brewskis. It becomes impossible to be spontaneous without planning for weeks, if not months, in advance. Once children enter the picture, exhilarating nights on the town become exhausted nights on the couch.

friend3

Friendships Starve to Death

Unfortunately, the less time we invest in people, the easier it is to make do without them, until one day it becomes too awkward to reconnect. “Since we haven’t spoken for so long,” we think, “where would we even begin? If we were still close friends wouldn’t we have spoken more by now?”

This is how friendships die — they starve to death. But as the research reveals, by allowing those friendships to starve, we’re also malnourishing our bodies.

Case in point: Several months ago, I found myself in a funk. I now live in San Francisco and whenever someone asked, “How are you?” my reply was the standard Silicon Valley yuppie salute: “Good! Super busy!” Yet this wasn’t exactly true. I wasn’t good.

To put things in perspective, I wasn’t bad, either. Things were fine. By all measures, more than fine — I had a healthy family, a growing business, and interesting clients to work with. I’d recently published a book that became a Wall Street Journal best seller, and if my social media stats were to be believed, I had plenty of friends and followers.

friend2

And yet, the funk. I soon identified the problem: The more professional opportunities came my way, the more time I spent away from my real-life friends — the people I truly cared about. Maintaining friendships with people to talk to, depend on, and enjoy takes time.

As an undergraduate, I first heard the term “residual benefactor” in an economics class. A residual benefactor is the chump who gets whatever is left over when a company is liquidated — typically, not much. When we’re not careful, the people we care about often become residual benefactors: We leave them for last, giving them whatever bits of time are left over after we’ve attended to everything else.

The Solution, the Kibbutz

If the food of friendship is time together, how do we make the time to ensure we’re all fed? My friends and I have recently come across a way to keep each other close. It fits into our lifestyles despite busy schedules and a surfeit of children. We call it the “kibbutz.”

In Hebrew, the word means “gathering,” and for our gathering, four couples meet every two weeks to talk about one question — sort of like an interactive TED Talk over a picnic lunch. The question might range from a deep inquiry, like “What’s one thing your parents taught you that you want to pass on to your children?” to a lighter, more practical question, like “How do you disconnect from your iPhone on weekends?”

Having a topic helps in two ways. For one, it gets us past the small talk of sports and weather, and helps us open up about stuff that actually matters. Second, it prevents the gender split that happens when couples convene in groups — men in one corner, women in another. The question of the day gets us all talking together.

friend5

Consistency and Stiff-Arming the Kids

Every other week, rain or shine, the kibbutz is on our calendars — consistency is key. There’s no back-and-forth emailing to find a time. We always meet at the same place, and each couple brings their own food so there’s no prep or cleanup. If one couple can’t make it, no biggie, the others carry on the conversation.

What about the kids? In our group, kids are welcome, but they don’t run the show. Typically they play on their own, but if they interject, they’re given a stern response that sounds something like: “I’m having a conversation with my friends because my friends are important to me. You’re welcome to listen or join the conversation, but please don’t interrupt unless it’s an emergency.”

For our children’s sake, we want them to know that adult friendships matter. We don’t want them to have to rely on TV to figure out how adults interact. By watching us, our children see that being a good friend means listening when others have something to share, and not being distracted by anything else — including our cellphones, the football game, or even our own children (unless someone is bleeding).

The entire affair lasts about two hours, and I always leave the kibbutz with new ideas and insights. Most important, I feel closer to my friends. No, our group isn’t as funny or spontaneous as the pseudo-New Yorkers I grew up watching on TV. But it turns out that fun wasn’t what I was missing — it was authentic, caring friendships. Making time to invest in my most important relationships finally snapped me out of my funk and provided the psychological nourishment I didn’t know I was missing.

Not only that, it turns out the time I spend with my friends is also an investment in my future health. Forget diets and the latest workout routines. The best medicine may be to gather your favorite people around a table and make a toast: “To friendship, and your health.”

Here’s the Gist:

  • Studies show adult friendships have a significant impact on our happiness and well-being.
  • Committing to my “kibbutz” has had the biggest impact on my happiness over the past year. Here’s how our group works, but the lessons can apply to any adult friendship:
  • Book the time – Reserve time on your calendar for the foreseeable future so there’s no guesswork or scheduling headaches about when you’ll see each other again. Our group meets every two weeks.
  • Go deep – Talking about a meaningful topic strengthens your bonds. Get past the shallow small talk. In our group, a different member brings the question of the day to each meeting.
  • Don’t let kids derail you – Children benefit from seeing you model a healthy adult friendship. Tell the kids they can listen or participate, but they can’t interrupt unless it’s an emergency.

Nir’s Note: What do you think? How do you keep your friends close despite a busy schedule? Are you inspired to start a kibbutz? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below and please share this essay if you found it interesting.

Illustrations by Liz Fosslien

For more insights on using psychology to change behavior, join my free newsletter.

Get my latest blog posts by subscribing now!

Share this essay:

  • Julie Harris

    The ‘kibbutz’ ritual – I would definitely be into doing this with other families/friends in our area: spending regular time and going deep. It’s what I naturally seek to do when I invite people over. As a questioner-introvert, deep connection is what I like to create. Bravo for creating a ritual that feeds that! I’ll even go out on a limb and say I think kids should be encouraged to join in. They are as capable at responding to questions like how can we turn off tech or what an important legacy looks like as many adults. That’s my experience with most of the children I hang out with (aged 7 and up).

    • http://www.nirandfar.com/ Nir Eyal

      Agreed, we always invite the kids to participate if they’d like to discuss the topic at hand.

  • Jim Preston

    I like the concept but you are in SF. Down here in Silicon Valley everyone is too busy and spread out for even that. When I left here for Anchorage in 1979 I was stunned how easy it was to make friends and do things together, like canoe trips, skiing, fishing, camping, or meeting at homes and restaurants. One positive was that few people had extended family in Alaska so new-comers joined each other as family.

    In SV there are no lack of such locations but few people, even adult couples with no kids, will / can commit to your kibbutz schedule. There are too many cars stacked up for hours on freeways between us. When they get home they are tired.

    Before I left SV it was difficult to meet friends I grew up with in Santa Clara Valley due to the distance hassle but at least we socialized with neighbors. Twenty years later our neighbors are transient and mostly from other cultures. We’ve reached out to them but they show no interest. Actually, one Indian IT guy is very sociable but we find we don’t have the bandwidth. We are also the problem.

    A problem for us is that we have done so many things in life that we quickly get bored with people. We love hanging out with fellow mountain bikers who’ve traveled but nothing develops beyond that. Once we’ve told some stories there is nothing else to say. We often find that we’re the ones entertaining everyone else with our stories but we’re getting little in return. We move on…

    • http://www.nirandfar.com/ Nir Eyal

      Actually, I drive down from SF to meet my friends in Palo Alto. It’s worth the trip 🙂

      • Antigone Klima

        Fascinating response. And surprising. Jim is reaching out and this response is all about you and nothing about anything he’s said. This makes it sound like you’re undependable – can we trust you to listen?
        While I’m sure this isn’t the case at all, because I’ve seen ample evidence to the contrary, which is probably why this response was such a surprise for me, it certainly seems like a bit of a slap in the face.
        Where’s the empathy? The questions to help work through the issues to the underlying concerns so Jim can move on? Or at least an acknowledgement of his situation before blathering about yourself again.
        Platitudes about it being worth the trip mean nothing. This article is about the importance of connection, and yet this response is completely devoid of any interest of connecting.

  • Dashiel St. Damien

    I love your response to children interrupting, i need to usevthat more often, thank you.

  • Lesley Brownlie

    Thanks for this article. It made me think of a discussion group we just formed at work – it started because everyone was talking about the ‘Making a Murderer’ series on Netflix and a bunch of us decided to have a chat about it over lunch. Then we picked a new topic for the next week – the Serial podcast and then the Undisclosed podcast etc. etc. We now meet once a week for an hour/hour & a half on Thursdays and have new members joining when they hear about how fun it is. All group members have mentioned how much they like it and I think it makes a real difference to everyone’s week. It feels like a real connection and is different than just talking about work.

    In this day & age, I think face to face connections are so important! Take the hour you would spend surfing your ‘freinds’ facebook posts and go say hi to someone!!

  • seanperlmutter

    Love the kibbutz idea. Deep, intellectually curious conversation among friends easily trumps the alternatives. But it doesn’t seem like it would be a great tool for making new friends, which can be challenging at mid-life, particularly for men.

    • Antigone Klima

      Hi, Sean,
      We do “team bar nights” at work to get people used to seeing each other as, well, people instead of co-workers. Sometimes folks then begin developing friendships and seeing each other for game days, lunch, helping around the house on projects, etc.
      It helps to work in an area that’s actively placemaking, which is rare because it requires both population density and open space.

  • http://www.cheriana.com Cheriana

    I watched that TED talk recently too and have similarly felt in a funk because of a lack of time with good friends. It’s so important to have that work/life balance. Thanks for posting!

  • Melina Watts

    I would have eaten the guacamole that you and your wife prepared and invited you over the next week! Good for you for reaching out even in NYC.

    • http://www.nirandfar.com/ Nir Eyal

      Thank you Melina!! 🙂

  • Melina Watts

    One thought: the worse traffic gets the harder it is to connect iRL. It is a huge deal to go see a friend outside of our area code — way more so than a decade ago. I’ve found scheduling friend-events that are right after friend or kid events allows the commute thing to be more easily managed.

  • ganesh

    Loved the idea! Thanks for sharing…👍

  • http://www.livingforimprovement.com/ Jonathan Guerrera

    Great post, Nir! I’ve been grappling with fading friendships as well.

    What has worked best for me is offering to cook dinner for 3-5 friends as often as I can. It allows me to an opportunity to improve my cooking skills (which were nil a few years ago) and reconnect with friends at the same time. And hey I needed to cook for the week anyways — why not just cook in bulk and get a social event out of it?

    During busy weeks I invite friends to do a hangout/work session at a coffee shop, so no one has to feel like they’re unable to work on their top priorities for the day in order to log some friends time.

    The Kibbutz is a great idea! Can’t wait to give that a try.

    • Mayank Batavia

      Jon, ‘fading friendships’ … aptly put.
      The cooking idea, sounds cool, doing that for long? why not share that it in a little more detail?
      cheers

  • http://theonewhodo.es/ the doer

    Thank you for sharing. Some practical question: How do you manage the questions for the future and the venue? How long are your kibbutz meetings? Did you start with a precise group of friends? What about the new people joining later and their motivation?

    • http://www.nirandfar.com/ Nir Eyal

      How do you manage the questions for the future and the venue? A: rotate who brings the question. We always meet at the same place.
      How long are your kibbutz meetings? A: 2 hours
      Did you start with a precise group of friends? A: yes
      What about the new people joining later and their motivation? A: We haven’t gotten to that question yet.

  • Steve Bennet

    Nice post! Thinking people in a Manhattan apartment will even read a flyer let alone attend a party thrown by someone they don’t know simply because of proximity is hilarious. Of course, in our Palo Alto neighborhood, the same tactic works quite well…

    I’ve found that as my kids got older (one still in college, one graduated) that I began to focus a lot more on friendships and less on work related events. You definitely realize as you get older that work will fill less time in your life, material possessions will become less important, and it will be the friends that you value (and most importantly having friends that have been with you a long time).

    Interesting This American Life segment on fame impacting friendship (Producer Neil Drumming talks with his friend Ta-Nehisi Coates about Ta-Nehisi’s newfound fame and their friendship.
    http://www.thisamericanlife.org/radio-archives/episode/573/status-update?act=2). Spoiler alert – it has an unexpected twist in the narrative.

    • http://www.nirandfar.com/ Nir Eyal

      Thanks for sharing that Steve

  • Amanda Kendzior

    That´s a great idea and one that I hope to try once I move house next month. Though in a town of 2k people I might be a bit stuck for choice!

    One thing I´ve noticed, moving from London to a somewhat contained neighbourhood in Barcelona, is that I´m constantly bumping into friends on the street. We all live very nearby to each other, none of us use cars to do errands, and there are plenty of communal social spaces.

    The interactons may be brief, but they do help to strengthen a friendship as well as provide for more spontaneous ´shall we have a coffee and catch-up´ moments.

  • http://knowfast.co Know Fast

    Hi Nir, this post is very interesting!
    I really liked the idea of scheduling a recurring meeting with your friends and making sure it indeed occurs every time.
    I’m not so sure about the idea of setting up a specific topic for each meeting to discuss with your friends.
    Doesn’t it make the gathering feel more like a professional meetup instead of just friends spending time together and dynamically letting the conversation flow?

    • http://www.nirandfar.com/ Nir Eyal

      We small talk for a few minutes and when a natural lull occurs the person assigned the topic usually jumps in. It all happens kind of naturally now especially when we’ve done it for a while.

  • Elizabeth Klein

    Love the post but wondering how you make those friends in the first place? I have a bright, beautiful and talented daughter that has moved to NYC right out of college just as you did. She has never found it challenging to meet people or make friends until now. Can you share what you did when you arrived in New York to find friends. Obviously the little open house didn’t work – so what did? This seems to be an issue for many people moving to large cities but you never read how to change it – specifically!!

    • http://www.nirandfar.com/ Nir Eyal

      This is certainly a struggle for many people and perhaps others can chime-in with ideas as well. One way we’ve found new friends is to join affinity groups like Meetups and take adult ed classes. I recently took a cooking class in SF and met some wonderful people. However, our kibbutz friends are people we met at grad school and through our child’s school.

  • http://github.com/aumcode Dmitriy Kh

    Very very good post. Thank you so much! Ain’t it crazy? Never have people been that close tp each other due to technology, yet never have all of us been farther apart

  • Marina

    Thanks a lot, Nir, for a very interesting and inspiring article! That`s a very sharp topic for me and it`s very similar to your case – I have a healthy and loving family(my husband and my child), but I miss my friends from Russia a lot… Especially I miss the dependence part of the friendship in USA.. I`m not sure it`s exist here at all or I can create one. Even though I like your creative solution – ‘kibbutz’, it feels a bit artificial to me. Here, in the Bay Area it would be difficult for me even to gather a few acquaintances, who share common interests , to organize something like this (but I promise – I`ll try! How many people is an optimal numeber from your expirience?). Also, do you think that ‘kibbutz’ covers dependable part of the friendship? I have no doubts that it covers two other parts.

    • http://www.nirandfar.com/ Nir Eyal

      To answer your question, our group is 4 couples. I sincerely hope you find a fulfilling group if that’s what you wish Marina.

    • Tony A.A.

      Agreed. The idea of Kibbutz is great once you have identified a group of mutual friends. I tried getting my friends together a few times but this quickly degenerated to pairwise meetings that take a lot more effort and time to maintain. So now allocating biweekly time for friendship means I see my friends once a month at best, but typically once every 2-3 months.

      Nir, any tips on how to get the Kibbutz started in the first place?

  • DrSteven Gerzoff

    Nir, why are you trying to re-invent the wheel. As a Jew you have Shabbos. Turn off the cell phones. Have a meal with friends.I’m sure you can find something deep to discuss in the weekly parsha.Find yourself a Rabbi. I’m sure this will impact your happiness.

    Simcha Moshe Gerzoff

    • RecoveringAdjunct

      Perhaps it may be that not all of Nir’s friends observe Shabbat, or are even Jewish, for that matter. And maybe he’s doing that for a reason: seeking out a more diverse gathering, sans religious overtones or obligations. (Just guessing here.) Hence ‘Kibbutz’ vs. Shabbat. Although I’m not Jewish, I actually live in the Holy Land — so I have an idea about the role religion can play in life, but I draw the line at telling people where it should.

  • KILL LI

    I got my already programmed blanked ATM card to withdraw the maximum of $5,000 daily for a maximum of 31 days. I am so happy about this because i got mine last week and I have used it to get $60,000. UK base hacking company is giving out the card just to help the poor and needy though it is illegal but it is something nice and The card withdraws money from any ATM machines and there is no name on it, it is not traceable and now i have enough money for me and my 4 kids . Just send him an email today and get yours at:

    [ atmhacker@yandex.com ] OR [+441163261224 ]

  • Matthew Ridenour

    This is great — our favorite churches in San Francisco (both City Church and Reality) have community groups that meet every week to share life and faith through discussion and meals. It’s the BEST way I’ve ever found to build true, unique, and authentic friendship that leads to abundant life — the simple fact of meeting together regularly. Thanks for the share!

  • Tom Kelleher

    I worked at Healthways International on products for population well-being for many years and the firm had an internal contest for things we did to practice what we preach, and improve or maintain our own wellbeing. I won third prize (hey, a tee-shirt!) for the “No Stress Parties” that my wife and I sometimes throw. It was an an Idea I had on reading Dan Buettners books, “Blue Zones” and “Thrive.” He mentions one high-wellbeing culture where folks gather to celebrate anything, at any time. I loved that, and announced that we were hosting a No Stress Party, which meant:

    – Come to our house at (whatever time)
    – If you have food to share, bring it; if not, no stress
    – If you have something to drink, bring it; if not, no stress
    – If you want to bring your kids, sure, no stress
    – We aren’t coordinating menus, or who brings salad or desserts; whatever food shows up, shows up; whatever we have in the fridge, you’re free to raid it
    – We aren’t planning any activities; we’re sure SOMEthing will happen, and it will be fun
    – We aren’t cleaning the house beforehand; we won’t sweat it if you don’t

    The message was “It’s just good to be together…so come.” I posted it on our kids’ school chat system and the next day we had about five or six families show up, some of whom we’d never had over socially. We just talked and laughed and the kids romped and some of the grown ups romped, too.

    I was just talking to my wife at lunch today about doing another one, called a “Do Nothing Get-Together,” in a few weeks when the warmer weather settles in. For this one, we’d say “Come on over and do what you like. Throw rocks into our stream, read a book on the lawn, play music on the porch, drink wine and talk out back…whatever.” I’m aiming for that feeling on day 5 of a 7-day extended family vacation, when everyone is caught up and folks just relax and find their own balance; some take walks, some read, someone’s making a sandwich, etc.

  • Gary Helm

    How very, very true your words are. I have also found that we tend to drift away from our friends and it becomes increasingly more difficult to reconnect as time goes by.
    We tend to initially put the blame on life becoming busier with family and work etc.
    Then, in time loneliness sets in and we shift our thoughts over to maybe we’re not good enough anymore for these people, when if the truth were to be known, our friends are also going through these same thoughts.
    A kibbutz is definetely a great way to solve and/or eliminate this problem and starting one is a great way to reconnect.
    Does anyone agree that perhaps this is a social skill that should be taught in our schools, so that our children do not have to struggle with this loneliness, until they find an article late in life, similar to this one.

  • Mayank Batavia

    Great read! kubbutz sounds cool too!
    To me, the best part was how it could serve as a role-model of how adults interact, outside of TV and movies….

  • Beverley Wharton-Hood

    Thanks Nir, what a great idea. I have two ‘bookclubs’, neither of which really feature books except accidentally. They have a habit of becoming a moan or groan session as the dominant person/people share their latest life challenges.
    I love this as a way to explore deeper issues and to have richer conversations.
    I will definitely try it and give you feedback.