We have covered the important role that your acquaintances play in your social world, and this week we are going to move to the next largest circle of the “Friendship Rings,” your average, every day friends. I do not mean average in a demeaning way, but merely as a way to differentiate these friends from the other types. For simplicity sake, I am going to refer to these people as friends from here on out. These friends are less numerous than your acquaintances, but they also bring a stronger, more fulfilling relationship.
After you meet someone and they are firmly established in your acquaintances level of friendship, if you find that you have a lot in common and enjoy each other’s company, typically you will move them into your friends level. At this level of social connection, you are more open to divulging your thoughts and feelings creating a deeper bond between you, but you are still cautious about what and how much information you share. There is a personal, emotional connection between you, but it is not extremely close. These are the friends you call up to bar hop on the weekend, invite over to watch the ball game, and go to lunch with, but you wouldn’t ask them to house sit while you are on vacation or call them at 3 a.m. to come get you when you have a flat tire. These friendships do require some amount of time and effort in order to be maintained, but the amount of work needed is minimal. You probably have dozens of these friends at any given time, and they play a very important part in determining your happiness with your social world.
I learned first hand the importance of having a group of friends of this type when I first moved to Lawrence, Kansas, for graduate school. When my brother and I made this huge trip together, we knew it would take some time to get our lives situated the way we wanted, and that this process would definitely have its challenges on multiple fronts. I knew that there would be issues that would arise with nursing care, Medicaid, and other logistical life problems, and I had prepared myself to overcome them. All things considered though, this enormous life change went fairly smoothly from that perspective. I was so worried about all of those potential problems and succeeding in grad school though, that I forgot that I also had to take care of my social needs. This oversight could have had a major negative impact on my life if not for the amazing advice of my faculty advisor.
I was a month or two into my first semester of graduate school, and I thought that everything was going great. I was doing good research that I enjoyed, getting straight A’s in my classes, and my boss was happy with the work I was doing. I was really busy, but that is the life of a grad student. Each week I would meet with my faculty advisor to discuss how I was doing in the program and go over our research together, and he always seemed pleased. At one of these meetings after we had talked about everything we needed to cover, my advisor asked me, “How are you liking Lawrence? What local places have you tried?” I thought for a moment, and then I told him that I had not had a lot of time to explore yet. His expression changed to one of mild concern as he said, “Who have you hit it off with socially in the department?” Once again, I thought for a minute, and I replied that outside of grabbing a coffee while we talked about work or class, that I hadn’t really socialized much with anyone. Now his facial expression was very concerned, and it is at this point that he gave me some very good advice that I still live by today.
He looked right at me with this expression of deep concern and said, “Scott, you have to are a life outside of class and work. You have to make time for this part of your life, just like you make time to study and do research. If you keep going along working all of the time, you are going to get burned out, and you won’t make it through the entire program. You have to find a balance between work and play. We would much rather you take a few hours a week for yourself and be productive for 4 years here, than have you work nonstop for a year and get burned out and leave the department.” He went on to tell me that the quality and quantity of my work and research was more than adequate, so I could stand to take some time off. He told me to relax and enjoy myself over the weekend, and then we parted ways and went home.
I thought about what he had said to me and my social life a lot over the next few days. I felt like I had done a good job of meeting new people, as I was at the acquaintances level of friendship with my colleagues in the office, my course mates, and my nurses. I lived with my brother, so I had someone in my close friends level of friendship, and these types of friends take time to develop. I realized though, that there was no in between. There were no regular friends in my world. This is why I had no social life. These are the people in your life that get you to go out to the bar or convince you to not study to play video games. If I was going to create a happy, successful life out here and make it through graduate school, then I needed to get to know some people. From that week on, I have made sure that I devote at least a few hours a week to socializing and having fun.
Being the uber-rational, logical mathematician that I am, of course I have quantified my social needs into a simple formula. I call this little tool for describing your social world the “social threshold.” Each of us has a certain level of social interaction that we have to have in order to maintain happiness in our lives. Some people need more than others, but we all have this minimum level, or threshold. In order to meet this threshold over a long period of time, you must have relationships at all 3 levels of friendship, as these factors interact synergistically in satisfying your social needs. For a brief length of time, you can function without 1 of the levels, but eventually, no matter how much social interaction you get from the 2 levels you do have, you will not be able to meet your threshold, and your happiness will suffer. Like with all things in life, you must maintain a sense of balance among the 3 levels of friendship in order to find happiness and success.
I have no doubt that if my advisor had not intervened that day, that I would have gotten burnt out, and it is extremely possible that I would not have gotten my Master’s degree. This is by far the most important lesson I learned in graduate school, and it is a lesson we all must keep in mind as we go through life. Are you maintaining balance in your social world? If you have felt less happy or alive lately, maybe you should think about your social relationships and whether all 3 of your “Friendship Rings” are well populated and maintained. Make time every week to grab a beer, see a movie, or golf with some friends. Put it in your day planner if you have to, but make sure you do it. Plus, not only should you be ecstatic to schedule fun time, but every once in a while you really get to know one of your friends and they move into your close friends level of friendship. These incredible, but rare, relationships will be discussed in next week’s entry in the “Friendship Series.”