What is the essence of what’s most important in life? Of all the ideas and resources I’ve encountered, I think the Harvard Study of Adult Development aka the Harvard Grant Study) has the best distillation. One of the study’s directors—George Vaillant—summarized the findings by saying “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships.” (which I’ve since called Grant’s Razor). The current director of the study—Robert Waldinger—said “Good relationships keep us happier and healthier. Period.”
Distilling this even further, the study found a single yes/no question that could predict whether someone would be alive and happy at age 80:
“Is there someone in your life whom you would feel comfortable reaching out to at 4am to tell your troubles to?”
I call these people “4ᴀᴍ friends” And the key to having a 4ᴀᴍ friend is knowing how to be a 4ᴀᴍ friend.
Sadly, the number of these types of friends that we report having has been gradually declining. The most common answer to the question “how many close friends do you have?” is now 0. And there is a gender divide on this, with men faring much worse than women. Susan Pinker makes a compelling case that this explains the discrepancy in life expectancy between men and women. The Roseto Effect and the Blue Zones both show the healing power of a healthy, close-knit community.
So how do we fix the problem? My current idea is to create a social and emotional skills training program, taught to single-gender peer groups each containing 4–5 members. This is modeled after “moais” from Okinawa, Japan. Then teach the groups how to be open and vulnerable and non-judgemental, and all of the things that our society isn’t teaching them (or worse, is teaching them not to do). I think college roommates would be an ideal test group since they live together and spend so much time together.
This model is based on the findings of Robin Dunbar (Dunbar’s Number) and re-creates the innermost support clique that exists for indigenous humans living in tribes.
(If anyone finds this compelling, let me know. I’d love to collaborate on a pilot project. Thanks!)
I will leave you with a simple call to action: reach out to one (or more!) of your close friends—or perhaps one you’d like to be closer to—share this link with them, and tell them explicitly that they can call you at 4 ᴀᴍ or anytime to talk to you about anything. It will strengthen your friendship and will increase health and happiness for you both. ❤️