One Part of Your Life You Shouldn’t Optimize

In a recent conversation with a colleague, the topic of Zoom came up, and I pointed out that the advantage of socializing with friends on video is the ability to simply say goodbye and X out of the conversation — no need for lingering or superfluous pleasantries. My colleague laughed and remarked: “Even better: Stay on a free Zoom trial! This way, it kicks you off after 40 minutes, regardless of what is happening.”

And she’s right: Pandemic-era socializing can be incredibly efficient. But maybe — hear me out — efficiency shouldn’t be the main goal when it comes to friendship? Intimate relationships take time to build and their benefits are not measurable, at least not in immediate and quantifiable ways.

Even before Covid, a stark and disconcerting trend was underway: a decline in meaningful relationships and a rise in social isolation. A 2019 survey found that a whopping 61 percent of Americans reported feeling lonely. Making friends as an adult is difficult, and research published in 2020 in the journal Personality and Individual Differences offers some clues as to why: Among the top reasons adults have an especially hard time making friends is that they are less likely to trust new people — and because they say they don’t have time.

Though there are many factors underlying what Surgeon General Vivek Murthy has called the “loneliness epidemic,” I lay the blame for some of it on our collective obsession with optimization and efficiency. This obsession has gotten worse since the pandemic began — with a recent study by Microsoft suggesting that knowledge workers are doing much more work in the evenings and on average logging an hour more work per day overall.

It’s not just that extra work leaves us less time for socializing. In the age of Covid and social distancing, we have become, by necessity, risk-averse. As the boundaries between work and life have blurred, we’ve said no to social invitations to protect our time, as well as our mental and physical health; we’ve cut people out of our lives who hurt us or bring us down; and we’ve prioritized family and our closest friends over casual acquaintances.

No doubt, there are some real benefits to this shrinkage of our social circles, and perhaps even in the culling of certain relationships. Saying yes to everyone and everything, and overextending ourselves in the process may be a good habit to shed. Many of us during the pandemic have embraced solitary joys such as reading or gardening, and that is all well and good.

But sometimes I wonder: Are we saying no to that coffee or birthday party invitation because we genuinely don’t want to do it, or because we are addicted to optimization and efficiency?

I have spoken and written about “heroic individualism,” the term I use to describe the game of one-upmanship that many of us engage in, against both ourselves and others. In that mind-set, measurable achievement is the main arbiter of success, and productivity is prioritized over people. To research my book on groundedness, I interviewed hundreds of people from different walks of life on what they value, how they spend their time, and their levels of fulfillment — and it seemed to me that heroic individualism was on the rise before Covid. Then it got a booster.

Earlier in the pandemic, people with the privilege to do so streamlined their entire lives. We got our groceries delivered. We exercised in our basements. We ate lunch at our kitchen tables, which had become our desks, and scheduled our virtual interactions in half-hour increments.

To be clear, much of this was for good reason. We had to protect ourselves and others from the virus and, for those of us with kids, we had to protect our sanity during whack-a-mole school closures.

But now that offices are calling workers back and socializing is returning to something resembling normal for many of us, we have to decide which pandemic-era habits to hold on to, and which to ditch. It might be tempting to retain some of these social efficiencies — especially if you’ve found you’re crushing your to-do lists and enjoying the Netflix catalog. But there is an inertia to an optimized way of life in which time for building and rebuilding friendships can all too easily get cannibalized.

It was hard enough to make and maintain friendships as an adult beforehand. In our new, streamlined way of life, it’s even harder. While the research is unequivocal that relationships are key to both mental and physical health, meaningful relationships are neither productive nor efficient, at least not in the short term.

Making new friends involves many inefficiencies: hanging out for hours on end; buying or preparing food or drinks for people who you may or may not click with; traveling to unfamiliar places or homes at appointed times, even when you’re not in the mood; commuting to the gym or the neighborhood park instead of working out at home. Not to mention, maintaining existing friendships also takes work and emotional investment — without any guarantee of a return.

If your goal is optimization today, tomorrow or this week, it almost always makes sense to push friendship-building and maintenance down the list of priorities. But I’d suggest that the more important cost-benefit analysis to do is the longer-term one: If your goal is to be grounded and fulfilled over the course of a lifetime, then there is nothing more important than nurturing our essential bonds.

Building a community of friends, even if it starts with a feeling of obligation, boredom or mild irritation at the time invested in it, is a part of how we protect ourselves and our families from the vagaries of human existence, as the writer Jonathan Tjarks wrote movingly in The Ringer recently. Facing his own cancer diagnosis and thinking about who would be there for his young son if he dies, he describes the investment of time he has made into making friends in a “life group” he attends regularly at his church: “Life group is a different kind of insurance,” he writes. “People talk a lot about medical insurance and life insurance when you get sick. But relational insurance is far more important.”

The good news is that even if our relationship-building muscles have atrophied, with a bit of work they’ll regain their strength. The research of John Cacioppo, a social neuroscientist at the University of Chicago, found that while loneliness and isolation build on themselves, so too do friendships and community. As you meet and connect with a greater number of people, you expand your social skills and confidence.

Like so much else about emerging from this pandemic, the key is pushing through the resistance and making a first step — in whatever way you deem it safe to do so, given your health situation and Covid surges. That might mean asking a neighbor to go for a walk, agreeing to an after-work drink even if you’re a bit tired, or making a dinner date with a friend whom you haven’t spoken with in a while. My wife, Caitlin, often tells me, “You’ll be glad when you’re there, and you’ll be glad afterward that you did it.” She’s always right.

Is there pleasure — and a certain nobility — in solitude? Of course, especially for introverts like myself. But even the Buddha himself directed his followers to seek companionship. In the Pali Canon, one of the oldest remaining Buddhist texts, the Buddha’s loyal attendant, Ananda, approaches his master and asks whether it’s true that “good friendship, good companionship, good comradeship” make up half of the spiritual life.

“Not so, Ananda! Not so!” the Buddha replies sternly. “This is the entire spiritual life, Ananda — that is, good friendship, good companionship and good comradeship.”

Brad Stulberg (@BStulberg), an executive coach who writes about excellence and mental health, is the author, most recently, of “The Practice of Groundedness.”

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