What if we structured our lives around friends, not work?

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Nowadays, most of us know that to feel good, we need to schedule in time for our physical and mental health. That might look like yoga, a lunchtime walk, weekly therapy or an evening HIIT class at the gym. But we’re rarely – if ever – so intentional about friendship.

In the hubbub of daily life, socialising and connection are often seen as “nice to haves”; tacked onto the end of other, more important priorities. And the biggest of those is work. The average person spends one-third of their life at work, along with an extra year worrying about work in their free time and 2,400 hours a year in unpaid overtime. That’s a huge chunk and time and energy directed towards just one area of life.

I’m not saying work isn’t important. Clearly, for most of us, it’s not a choice to make an income – and bonus points if we enjoy doing so. Moreover, work can be critical to the kind of inner purpose that gives us a sense of belonging and drive. It’s part of the reason we get out of bed every morning.

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If we want to be fulfilled as a society, we have to restructure our lives around people

Yet, in this milieu of things that make us happy, social connection is just as vital. There’s no point putting work centre stage of a fulfilling life if there’s no time for friendship to balance the equation. But, with loneliness rates soaring globally, that’s exactly the payoff that many of us are choosing to take.

Addressing our struggle with an “epidemic of loneliness,” United States surgeon general, Vivek Murthy, had a novel idea. What if we refocused the lens of our lives around connection rather than work? “We ask people to exercise and eat a healthy diet and take their medications,” Dr. Murthy told the New York Times. “But if we truly want to be healthy, happy and fulfilled as a society, we have to restructure our lives around people. Right now our lives are centred around work.”

In other words, in order to get our quota of social connection in life, we need a different sort of culture. One that recognises the pivotal role of relationships on our lifetime health and wellbeing. So, how do we go about doing this? It’s not as if we can hit “out of office” and skip off merrily into the hinterlands of coffees, meetups and quality friendship time. But we can be more conscious about scheduling in space for community and connection.

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Investing in consistent connections can have a profound effect

Take the Japanese tradition of moais, or groups of neighbourhood friends – a concept highlighted in the Netflix documentary Live to 100: Secrets of the Blue Zones. According to presenter and researcher Dan Buettner, the Japanese province of Okinawa is one of the world’s celebrated Blue Zones, where residents enjoy significantly longer lifespans than most. 

And one of the reasons why elders in Okinawa thrive is that they have access to moais – providing a form of inbuilt support and companionship, from their childhood right through to old age. As 77-year-old Okinawan Klazuko Manna puts it, “Each member knows that her friends count on her as much as she counts on her friends. If you get sick or a spouse dies or if you run out of money, we know someone will step in and help. It’s much easier to go through life knowing there is a safety net.” 

Of course, you may be lucky enough to have this group already present in your life, in the form of a close friendship circle. But if you don’t, or if the premise of it is hazy – you only get together now and again, in snatched windows of free time, for example – you may want to think about how you can make it more structured. Because investing the time and care into this kind of consistent connection can have a profound effect on wellbeing. It’s about creating your own go-to safety net, outside of partners, children and so on. 

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Refocusing on friendship means putting boundaries in place at work

Equally, it’s worth paying attention to the quality of your social connections. According to neuroscientist Andrew Huberman, “While we don’t always have as much control over which social interactions or work interactions we have to engage in, we should really strive to understand and indeed pay some serious attention to whether or not certain types of social interactions … lead us to have improved mood and mental health.”

He cites research from psychologist Prof. Lisa Feldman Barrett that shows social interactions either tax us (actively causing stress), leave us neutral or have the capacity to make us feel happy and relaxed. So taking a step back to understand who these people are in your own world can allow you to limit or expand your time in kind. 

Finally, restructuring your time around friendship means putting boundaries in place at work. It might help if we turn to the Swedes to set an example here. As the Guardian reports, Sweden has a “stunningly healthy work culture” whereby employees take personal time “really seriously, as opposed to in the UK, where we don’t mind trampling over home-lives and lunchtimes”. 

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We schedule in time for physical and mental health, but friends are seen as an extra

This includes regular coffee and cake breaks – where work chat is off-limits – flexible work hours, short work days (it’s rare to be in the office after 5pm) and legally ascribed four-week blocks of holiday that can be taken all at once. It all adds up to an environment in which people are “more considerate and intentional about boundaries”. 

Now sadly – unless you’re freelance – you can’t easily decide your own protocols around holiday, or the specifics of a given work culture. But you *can* decide to ring-fence your own personal time with consistent gestures you stick to; such as finishing work on time, or untethering from emails outside work hours. 

You can 100% say no in this way, to prevent your professional life from overstepping its bounds and corroding your precious time and headspace. In fact, you should – since it enables you to say a big fat “yes” to more scope for friendship and connection. Which, in turn, is pivotal to your lifetime happiness; as much as anything you get from work. 

Flash Pack is a group travel company that specialises in small group adventures for solo travellers in their 30s and 40s. Find out more about how we work, and our mission to build a global community of friendships

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