BRAINPOWER TIP #6: CONNECT
You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.
You’ve heard it before: man is a social animal. And it’s the truth. We like to think we’re independent, up-by the bootstraps, self-reliant John Wayne types, never asking for a free lunch. But it ain’t so: not one of us would have made it much past a few hours old without all kinds of help from the adults around us. Unlike, say, sharks, whose mothers swim blithely away after giving birth, humans are born helpless. We need nurturing, feeding, and educating for many years before we can hope to survive on our own.
But we need other people beyond infancy. In Paleolithic times, man’s capacity to cooperate with other men—to work together to build shelters, bring down large prey, grow food, travel long distances, and raise and protect children was what allowed him to survive, thrive, and eventually become the dominant species on earth (it certainly wasn’t his physical strength, speed, or acute senses, all of which were laughable when compared with many other competing species). It’s part of what makes us who we are.
News flash: as a gender, we men aren’t that great at connecting with others. We’re terrible at reaching out to other people when we’re in a time of need. Or, equally, when someone else is in need. We’ve seen one too many movies and TV shows propagating the lone, strong, capable hero myth, and we’ve swallowed it hook, line, and sinker. Successful men, in particular, are prone to the “lone wolf ” syndrome. “Alpha males,” who have often built their livelihoods on being independent-minded leaders and appearing fearless and decisive to others, may hesitate to open up for fear of appearing weak; no one wants to be the “beta male.” As a result, they’ve fallen out of the practice of opening up, and they wind up perpetuating their own isolation.
Consider the “male deficit model,” a sociological theory based on thirty years of data on friendship and relationships. According to this theory—which has its roots in a 1982 UCLA study on the differences between male and female relationships—our friendships are far less intimate than women’s. We compete with our friends more, and report lower satisfaction with our relationships with friends. And the more we adhere to antiquated ideas of manhood—the strong, silent approach—the worse off our friendships are.
Missing out on friendship has more serious consequences than you might think. Loneliness reduces cognition and motor function, and it increases stress hormones and perhaps even chronic inflammation. According to a recent review study encompassing over a quarter-million test subjects, loneliness is just as bad for your health as smoking fifteen cigarettes a day, or alcohol addiction, or not exercising. It’s twice as bad for you as being obese.
On the flip side, research suggests that having strong social connections is a major factor in living a long, happy life, perhaps equal to eating a good diet, getting proper exercise, and maintaining healthy sleep habits. In fact, a single good friend can increase your life expectancy by ten years. According to the “Blue Zones” research, having strong social connections is one of the key factors in extraordinary longevity. One 2010 study even found that strong social ties are the number one predictor of survival among cancer patients.
Bad news for men who want to connect socially with other men: poker nights, bowling leagues, and nights out with the guys are slowly becoming things of the past. Even if our dads were involved in such things, it’s more and more unlikely that we are.
According to a longitudinal study, the median number of people in a “network of confidants” (tight groups of intimate friends) decreased from 2.94 to 2.08 people from 1985 to 2004. Twenty-five percent of Americans said they had no one to talk to at all in 2004. For most of us, family has replaced community. And as admirable as that may seem, while friendships add measurable years to your life, family relationships have a negligible effect on longevity. So having no friends is bad for you—inside and out—and having strong friendships can have many health benefits, and might even save you from cancer.
But how many of these friends do you need for the benefits to kick in? Since you’re a guy, I’ll get down to brass tacks for you: you need three real friends. Dr. Robin Dunbar, an anthropologist at Oxford and an expert on human societies, has found that most people are capable of maintaining stable relationships with about 150 people. Ten to fifteen of them will be members of a “sympathy group,” and three to five will be close friends who can be relied on in times of trouble. Four-o’clock in the morning friends. Guys who would visit you in the hospital if you needed them to. Guys who would bail you out of jail. Guys you can confide in.
When thinking about the state of your friendships, consider the following:
- Who are the friends who would stick by you if you didn’t have the job you have, the money you have, or the wife or partner you have? Which of the people you know are stand-up enough to be there for you no matter what?
- Conversely, are you a good enough friend to be there for the people you know as well? Have you taken such steps for anyone outside your inner circle? How often do you take steps to make someone feel supported and important?
You probably have many acquaintances—from work, through your wife’s friends or your kids’ school with whom you’d probably enjoy spending some time outside of the office or school parking lot. If, like so many other men, you’re lacking in the friend department, then proactively cultivate those relationships. Go get coffee or a beer, shoot some hoops, go surfing or play tennis. Guys do well with structured, repeated, time-bound activities, and many men find their closest friends in formal men’s groups dedicated specifically to deepening men’s connections with one another. Whether or not that’s your thing personally, a strong and ongoing connection to your friends is one of the most essential components in your long-term health and well-being so find a way to make those connections.
During the summer, I often get together for workouts with a group that includes many super accomplished alpha males, among them the surfing star Laird Hamilton, the fitness icon Darin Olien, and überfit TV & movie actor John C. McGinley, as well as producers and directors of some of the world’s major blockbuster movies. Laird outlines the activities for the morning—usually a punishing combination of bodyweight strength moves, swim training, core exercises, and ice water immersion. It’s always incredibly challenging, but it’s also richly rewarding—not only because the workout is so tough, but also because being in the presence of so many successful guys who all share similar values is inspiring. Everyone bonds over the challenges of the workouts, and we all celebrate the fitness and mental breakthroughs we individually make. We’re also aware of the personal challenges each of us faces in business, career, family, and relationships and, between sets and after the workout, we check in with each other about how our lives are going.
Like Laird, all of these men are at the top of their field: high performers who strive for excellence in every area of their lives. Their company helps keep me sharp, always pushing me to do more in my businesses, career, and life—rather like a tennis player playing up to the level of his competition.
If I spent a lot of time with less successful men, I imagine the opposite would happen, just as it does when I play tennis against players who are less skilled than I am: my own game suffers. Even when your life is on track, other successful people can inspire you, show you what’s possible, and introduce novel approaches to business, career, and family that may not have occurred to you. Those are the people you want to surround yourself with: the guys who help you play up a level. It also helps that many of these guys are younger than I am. It keeps me feeling sharp and relevant and on top of things. And there’s no better feeling, as a guy in his fifties, than keeping up with guys who are ten and twenty years younger.
As I write this, I’m four weeks out from a three-day hike along a section of the John Muir Trail, a rugged 220-mile path along the backbone of the High Sierras in California, which concludes with an ascent up Mount Whitney, the highest summit in the contiguous United States. My climbing partners: two guys in their twenties. Most men my age would be worried that they’d be the weak link in such a group, and would thus beg off. I’m expecting to be inspired—and hopefully to inspire them, too—by showing them what thirty-five years of fitness training can do for you when you’re pushing hard to the summit of a fourteen-thousand- foot mountain. I intend to look for more challenges with vital, inspiring people for the rest of my life: projects that force me to challenge myself and call on reserves of energy and tenacity that I didn’t know I had.
The right people (and they’re often younger people) can allow you to expect more out of yourself—and ultimately to get more out of yourself. Sadly, the opposite can be true as well:
Maria and I recently met a very fit and active seventy-year-old man and his vivacious sixty-five-year-old wife who said that many of their old friends were slowing down due to obesity, joint pain, and simple resignation. Their less-healthy friends seemed to feel no desire to travel or experience new things, right when this couple had started to dive in—and they felt this was personally slowing them down as a result. The couple told us they were in the process of redefining these relationships for that very reason: they didn’t want their friends to hold them back in life.
If you’re hesitant about cultivating relationships with people who are younger than you, remember that you have something to offer them as well. The young guys in Laird’s group appreciate the informal mentoring that naturally occurs when younger and older guys begin talking about shared interests, goals, and ambitions.
When I was living my surfer lifestyle on the Gold Coast, I had the benefit of many older mentors who helped me along in both my academic and business lives. I wouldn’t be where I am today without the help of guys who took the time and energy to guide me, and now I’m happy to pay it forward.
I’m grateful and fortunate to have these guys in my life—it’s one of the reasons I travel an hour and a half from Newport Beach to Malibu to train with them. I feel like my connection with them, and the other half dozen or so close friends with whom I stay in touch regularly, represents a new branching out in my life. I’ve gone through phases in which I’ve been extremely focused on my career, and whittled my social circle down substantially. My career flourished during those times, but looking back I know I felt isolated. My sense of happiness and value as a man rose or fell with the fluctuations of my stock portfolio. Maria was always her supportive self, of course, but without other men to connect to, who shared similar pressures and aspirations, my life was much more limited. In the last few years, I’ve placed a much higher priority on social connections, and I’ve been much happier for it.
Some men find similar solace in more official male-only or largely male groups. The YPO—Young Presidents’ Organization—caters to the specific concerns of business leaders. Because many of the members are well known, the organization operates under a code of complete silence, kind of like Fight Club: what gets discussed at the meetings stays at the meetings. As a result, its members feel safe about opening up, and lots of good truth-telling occurs when its members get together. Not everyone is a young president, of course, but many such groups are out there, each dealing with a different type of men’s issue. And if, like most men, you lack a lot of support from other guys, these groups are well worth exploring.
One final, interesting physiological fact about social connection: it’s a potent, automatic stress reliever. Oxytocin, sometimes known as the “cuddle hormone” because mothers secrete it when they nurse, is also secreted by both men and women when they interact socially. It’s associated with greater empathy and feelings of connection.
The kicker, though, is that it’s also released during times of stress: when we’re under intense pressure, our bodies signal us to reach out to others, and connect with them. This may be nature’s way of telling us to work together when times are tough. When normal citizens risk their lives to come to the aid of complete strangers during large-scale disasters, that may be the biological imperative of oxytocin: nature telling us to reach out and help others.
But we don’t need to wait for an emergency to take advantage of this physiological urge. If you’re stressed-out, connect with someone. If possible, help someone. Better yet, make volunteering in some capacity a regular part of your life. Your body is asking for it.
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