By: Neal J. Roese // This article was originally posted on hbr.org.
Everything we do to succeed in our careers is improved when we’re supported by a foundation of strong, stable friendships. Basic research tells us this is so, yet many who focus on their careers run the risk of losing touch with their closest social connections.
Psychologists define close friends as those nonrelatives whose birthdays we celebrate, with whom we discuss intimate matters such as work or marital stress, and whom we might call upon for help with a move or a medical emergency.
These people are critical for both our psychological and physical well-being. The number and strength of our friendships has long been a consistent predictor of emotional well-being. And beyond the psychological benefits, friendships can influence our basic physiology, as shown by studies that link social connections to cellular-level protection against disease. We are less likely to catch a cold or suffer from acute stress responses if we have a solid network of friends. In a recent meta-analysis of 148 studies, having strong social relationships was associated with a 50% reduction in risk of mortality.
But maintaining close friendships is increasingly a challenge for ambitious professionals. The problem becomes all too clear when you look at how regretful people tend to feel about losing touch with friends.
Regret and Relationships
Psychological research has examined what adults tend to regret later in life, and there is a clear pattern of top regrets centering on love and work — that is, romantic, family, and friend relationships on the one hand and career, work, and education on the other hand. (Regrets about financial missteps rank just below these love and work regrets.) My research with Mike Morrison and Kai Epstude, for example, surveyed over 1,300 people across five studies and found that people’s largest regrets revolved around relationships and career. People described their regrets about relationships much more intensely than those about careers and other nonsocial aspects of their lives. What concerned them most was the absence, dysfunction, or loss of social connections. Further, we found that the intensity of social regret was related to how much people felt their fundamental need to belong was threatened by the lack or loss of relationships. Romantic relationships ranked first in frequency of regrets, followed closely by family relationships — and friendships were eighth. What this tells us is that many people can recognize the immediate importance of putting time into romantic and family relationships, but friendships are not quite so top of mind. Friendships can easily be neglected.
The Challenge of Friendship Today
Part of the challenge today is that our definition of friendship keeps changing. We’re developing larger social networks but ending up with weaker intimate ties. Despite being overcommitted to work and family obligations, having unprecedented geographic mobility, telecommuting instead of working beside colleagues, and tapping or tweeting instead of talking, we seem to have a lot of friends: about 200 social media friends and 11 offline friends. But in terms of close friendships, we average only about five, and for the most intimate friends, with whom we would share, for example, details on our sex lives, we average around two (down from about three in 1985). We can expect busier schedules and career demands to only make it more challenging to build, prioritize, and maintain intimate friendships.
Steps Toward More Meaningful Friendships
Friendships have never been more important for effective career performance. Research has shown that friends make you better on the job and help you earn more, partly because they provide an emotional buffer that keeps you motivated and focused. So it’s important to think about how you can improve the depth, value, and longevity of your friendships.
Make the effort. People regret losing connections to once-close friends, but may be less likely to notice the importance of friendships, as compared with romantic and family connections. If you’re early in your career, now is the time to make the extra effort to develop and maintain your friendships. This means counteracting the natural drift away from friends that most of us experience, especially after our twenties, as we focus more intently on careers and starting a family. Call a close friend instead of just clicking on their Facebook page; make plans rather than excuses. Face time (and I don’t mean the iPhone version) trumps Facebook time. Men struggle more than women at maintaining one-on-one relationships, so they may have to work harder to get time with friends onto the calendar.
Ask for your friends’ perspectives. Having friends is important, but so is how we interact with them. Close friends are especially helpful at righting our distorted perceptions of ourselves, whether with regard to a promotion we didn’t win or a romantic relationship gone sour. Friends help us to celebrate our wins with more vigor and move on from losses with heads held higher. The very act of sharing and connecting in this way can help us strengthen and preserve close friendships.
Plan around shared interests. Get small groups together with a particular theme in mind, like seeing a movie, trying a new kind of cuisine, organizing for a political event, or addressing a particular career issue.
Make new friends. A particular challenge in today’s global economy is moving to a new city or country and leaving behind an established friend network. What does a New Yorker do upon arriving in Singapore for a one-year assignment? It has been so easy to connect with others online who share our same passions. Seek out like-minded people who live nearby and meet up face to face.
Prioritize work and friendships. Progressing at work and maintaining friendships may seem mutually exclusive, given the time and effort that both involve, but they’re not. Go ahead and set ambitious career goals, but don’t sacrifice close ties in the process; give each one the energy required. Career and friendships can reinforce each other, as when friends at different firms get together to share big-picture career insights, inspiring each person’s passion for professional growth.
Research shows that friendship matters, yet the challenges to maintaining strong, intimate social connections have never been more severe. There is no special magic to making and keeping friends. At the end of the day, strengthening friendships is as difficult as managing a career, but by taking the above steps, and most of all by recognizing that friendships demand prioritization and effort, you can boost your career performance and your life satisfaction at the same time.
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