Transforming Friendships from Thematic to Genuine

This is part eight of an eight-part series published over eight consecutive weeks.

Are you happy that, like Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, you didn’t have to traipse around London to listen to someone else’s albums? Happy with the convenience of Spotify or iTunes?

The Real Goal: Social Connection

You may want to think twice: just as the journey toward a goal is often more rewarding than achieving it, social interaction is often more important than the reason for coming together.

Without it, Richards and Jagger never would have become a central part of the underground blues community in London that was an incubator for one of the greatest rock and roll bands in history. In Keith’s words:

Mick and I must have spent a year, while the Stones were coming together and before, record hunting. There were others like us, trawling far and wide, and meeting one another in record shops. If you didn’t have money you would just hang and talk.… Blues aficionados in the ’60s were a sight to behold. They met in little gatherings like early Christians, but in the front rooms in southeast London. There was nothing else necessarily in common amongst them at all; they were all different ages and occupations. It was funny to walk into a room where nothing else mattered except he’s playing the new Slim Harpo and that was enough to bond you all together … That’s what we lived for, basically.

The point for Keith, Mick, and the rest of the Londoners gathered in front rooms across the city was never to just listen to the record; it was having a reason to get together.

Tying the Stake to the Tree

Our social lives have become so fractured, each digitally mediated in a direction disparate from those of others. If we wish to create enduring friendships—what I call “CMSRs” (Compassionate, Meaningful, Sustainable Relationships) in my new course Managing Loneliness: How to Develop Meaningful Relationships and Enduring Happiness—we need to slow down to the speed of life.

What does that mean, in this context? Take time each week to hang out with the same (new) people doing the same things (e.g., taking a language class, going to yoga, playing on the same sports team, going to the same karaoke night or interactive piano bar) until they are no longer new in our lives and become our friends.

Having a theme in common provides a context through which genuine friendship can develop. In the case of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, it was listening to records together. Social psychological research has found that proximity and repetition generate liking, the basis of friendship.

For the Rolling Stones lead singer and lead guitarist, buying new blues records together was like a stake that you tie to the young tree of their blossoming friendship. Once the tree grows sufficiently, the stake loses its importance—you can even throw it away. The friendship, like the mature tree, remains.

Today, there is a shortage of such stakes. We opt for convenience over the potential for social connection. We dismiss the importance of the stakes—the shared interests explored in person. As a consequence, we end up without the friendships.

It’s “Need to Do”

While it is admittedly awkward that we have to make these kinds of choices in our current society, the truth is that, just as socializing with others was “need to do” rather than “nice to do” when I lived in an African village, it is also “need to do” for all of us today—no matter where we live.

Making social time a priority will decrease the distressing feelings of social isolation that have become an unfortunate by-product of the digital age and bring untold happiness and well-being back into your life.

Make the life-transforming decision today to look for small ways to choose connection over convenience in your life. I am confident that you can make this seemingly small mental shift and pave a new path that leads to new friends, improved relationships with old friends and family members, and more happiness and social connection.

Question the Glowing Rectangle in Your Hand

To get started, take a no-holds-barred look at your relationship with the efficiency afforded you by your laptop, smartphone, or tablet. Question how you are spending your time.

Begin by asking yourself, “What am I doing with those extra hours now that I can more efficiently communicate with others and get things done?” Then reflect on what you are doing with the time that should be freed up in your life by the efficiency of technology-mediated communication.

When you spend two hours in the morning replying to emails, are you using the extra hour or two you saved from visiting others’ offices or calling them on the phone to go for a long walk in nature, work on your car, go dancing, or spend a few hours with a good friend?

Alternatively, are you using the time you saved by sending pithy, emotionally vacant messages to send more pithy, emotionally vacant messages?

Now that these new technologies have come along to save you time, are you getting even more things done and communicating even more rapidly—using briefer and briefer chunks of typed text instead of looking someone in the eye and speaking from the heart—or are you using this time to enhance your closest relationships, including your relationship with yourself?

In the third millennium, that is the question.