Tagged Friendship

In Our Pandemic Isolation, Every Death Is a Covid Death

In Our Pandemic Isolation, Every Death Is a Covid Death

Even a cancer death like my friend’s is subject to one of the most brutal cruelties of the pandemic: Being apart.

The author and her friend Mel, who died of brain cancer on Feb. 8, had matching strands of mala beads, used in meditation. Mel’s will be put with her ashes, and the author will keep hers at her meditation table.
The author and her friend Mel, who died of brain cancer on Feb. 8, had matching strands of mala beads, used in meditation. Mel’s will be put with her ashes, and the author will keep hers at her meditation table.Credit…via Lara N. Dotson-Renta

  • Feb. 11, 2021, 3:20 p.m. ET

“I’m dying. I’ve been dying for the last year.” I heard her words a few weeks ago, and knew them to be true.

In summer of 2019, my friend Mel told me the brutal headaches she had been having were a brain tumor, and that she would begin treatment immediately. I felt a tilting sensation in my stomach, the kind you have when your body instinctively understands something your mind will not accept. She told me not to search for “glioblastoma” on “Dr. Google,” but I couldn’t resist. My breath caught. It was what stole John McCain and Beau Biden so quickly, their family’s grief so raw and public.

Lauryn Hill’s voice sang, “Ready or not, here I come, you can’t hide …”

We would ride around in Mel’s car at 16 years old, joking in Spanglish and listening to music, flipping between the Fugees and the Caribbean beats of merengue. We would roll the windows down and blast the music extra loud at stop lights, holding ice cream cones and fantasizing about how far away we could get from our hometown and the lives that we knew. There is something visceral and ferocious about friendships formed when you are young and rebellious.

Even as email became the way of the world, we wrote old-fashioned letters for many years, through my freshman year at college and through her basic training, and later during our time in graduate school. Mel liked the intimacy of letters, of the idea that you can better intuit someone’s mood from an errant pen stroke or coffee stain than from an email. After her diagnosis, we sent a flurry of handwritten letters between my home in Connecticut and hers in South Carolina, trying to make sense of why, before age 40, we were looking at extending her life rather than finding her a cure. She knew early on that the cancer would take her. It was simply a matter of time.

We made plans for me to visit in 2020. As I scanned flights, Covid deaths surpassed 200,000, then 250,000. Travel hopes dimmed, for both her safety and mine. The death toll in the United States is now approaching 500,000. Doctors nationwide help Covid patients say halting goodbyes to loved ones over FaceTime. Mel was receiving treatments alone, her husband barred from holding her hand or entering the facility because of Covid protocols. Around the world, those lucky enough to have family and friends by them as they die are more likely to see a mask and a face shield rather than a familiar face looking back at them. Slowly I settled into the idea that seeing Mel in person would be impossible.

A cancer death during Covid is still subject to the cruelties of the pandemic, one of which is isolation.

We decided to approach the cancer with gallows humor, and our messages and letters became what we termed “The Chronicles of Suck.” She sent me images of her procedures, of the wide staples on the side of her head that she called “the brain hole.”

We talked about different beliefs, among them the Buddhist idea of rebirth. I’ve long sought out dharmic spirituality, weaving yoga and Buddhist mantras into the Catholic tradition I was born into. We had matching strings of mala beads, and she started taking hers into M.R.I.s, rubbing them with her fingertips during the machine’s deafening tap tap tap noises. She sent me photos of her carefully manicured silver and pink fingernails, the part of her appearance she could most control. There were the massive bruises from the chemo ports, the PICC lines, the allergies to medications. Through letters and texts, she taught me both the lexicon and the topography of cancer, as the once familiar body becomes the source of “malignancy.”

The best I could do for her was to bear witness, to acknowledge how unfair it all is, to not call her a hero, a term so often used for those in cancer treatment. As I wrote this essay, she would insist, “Please don’t paint me as some kind of warrior fighter … I was drafted into this.” I have learned that warmly offered positivity can feel toxic and out of touch when you know the outcome has been decided.

Weeks ago, we entered a new phase in our friendship during her home hospice. Here, life and death are not linear. They overlap, they share space, they cede ground to one another, moment by moment. “Living” is very different when that living is an active dying. It is breath labored and slowed, lost words, a voice barely a whisper. We started sending short videos daily, to accommodate Mel’s irregular waking hours and inability to write or type.

The things you talk about when death is imminent are both mundane and transcendent.

We talked a lot about the past, because there was no future to speak of, not one that we would share, anyway. Even the present was tenuous, as our conversations were often asynchronous; what we saw of one another was no longer taking place by the time we viewed it. The lag and playback was a constant reminder of how our timelines would keep diverging, with only one of us continuing to keep time. She said “I love you” a lot, in each short video.

I think about Mel’s husband often, and how he shouldered so much alone in her last days. Caretakers are often invisible, but especially so when death is so abundant that we become numb to the numbers, to the sheer scale of it all. Death is everywhere, but most especially where they are.

In her last weeks Mel required lots of sleep, a source of frustration. “I’m sleeping my life away. I am so angry at it. People say to give your body what it needs, but it’s really hard to give yourself grace.” I think of the meaning of “grace,” of the idea of mercy and forgiveness that may be both received and given, and its link to both benediction and suffering. Grace hasn’t been easy to come by during the last year, but it is perhaps all we have to offer ourselves and to each other. Death will take what it has come for, but in between we can show and give love, offer empathy, and share time. Compassion and presence are grace we can give, the only peace to be had. Carrying the weight of one another is what we are called to do. Offering one another grace, even if we can’t give it to ourselves, is how we round the bend of this pandemic, and beyond.

In the days after her death on Feb. 8, I played the Fugees alone in my car.

“Now that I escape, sleepwalker awake, Those who could relate know the world ain’t cake.”

Life looks different when it is bookended, when you can see its beginning and end with equal clarity. I selfishly hope there is a beyond, and a way to tell me she is OK.

Ready or not, I knew Mel’s escape was near, that she would be released from the body that had betrayed her. I am the one grasping now, listening to recordings and looking at old photographs, trying to find her. Those left behind each grieve alone to a degree; the texture and contour of grief is unique to each of us. Yet ours is a time of communal sorrow and loss, of empty seats at too many tables.

I mourn not being physically present at Mel’s end, but I aspire to give myself the grace she sought as well, for the bittersweet blessing of being allowed to bear witness to the mess and beauty of a life, even if only from afar.

Lara N. Dotson-Renta is a scholar and teacher of Spanish and French Literatures, a freelance writer, and a yogi. She is exploring the intersection of faith and scholarship at Hartford Seminary.

Helping a Teen Who Is Angry About House Rules on Covid

Helping a Teen Who Is Angry About House Rules on Covid

Our grandson’s friends don’t socialize safely, so we don’t want him to see them. How do we keep his anger about it from causing chaos in our home?

Credit…Chloe Cushman
Lisa Damour

  • Jan. 29, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Our Adolescence columnist, the psychologist Lisa Damour, responds to a reader’s question. The question has been edited.

[To submit a question, email AskDrDamour@nytimes.com.]

Q. We are having an extremely difficult time with our 15-year-old grandson, who lives with us. He has finally found friends after struggling socially and wants to spend time with them, but they do not social distance or wear masks. Some of their families are not true believers in this pandemic. It is absolute chaos at our house because of him fighting to be able to do things. He says he is tired of Covid, because while he stays in, most of his friends do not and go about their lives like nothing has changed. He is angry and depressed and we are at a loss as to what to do.

A. You and your grandson are in a heartbreaking predicament for which there are no complete or satisfying solutions. I cannot tell you how much I wish this weren’t true. Above all, I want to acknowledge the painful reality of the circumstances you describe.

Even though there are no perfect remedies, it may still be possible to improve the situation at least a little bit. First, let’s note that you are contending with two distinct, albeit related, challenges. One is that the pandemic has uprooted your grandson’s budding social life. The other is that his perfectly warranted distress about falling out of touch with his new friends has ruptured his relationships at home. On the first front, you may be hard-pressed to offer your grandson more social opportunities than you already have. On the second front, however, there may be ways to repair your connection with your isolated teenager, who needs loving support now more than ever.

Empathy, empathy, empathy is the place to start. The situation in which he finds himself is miserable and not of his creation. It may be true that he is acting out and upsetting everyone around him, and that many other young people find themselves in similar straits, and that we are starting to catch glimpses of the light at the end of the tunnel. Try not to let these factors sap your sympathy for your grandson. The adjustments that we have been asking adolescents to make, both in how they conduct their social lives and how they learn, take almost all of the fun out of being a teenager and have been in place for nearly a year. No amount of compassion for this is too much.

Without any other agenda, deliver to your grandson the message that you are deeply sorry that the pandemic has wreaked havoc on his social life. Tenderly communicate that you grasp how painful it must be to know that his friends are getting together without him. Let him know that you cannot believe that the pandemic has gone on for so long (roughly one-tenth of the lifetime that he likely remembers) and that you understand that for teenagers in particular, the support of family cannot make up for losing touch with friends.

Compassion won’t alter the lousy circumstances, but it can still help to relieve his emotional suffering. Feeling alone with psychological pain is a lot worse than believing that your distress is seen and validated. So, do all you can to help your grandson know that you are entirely on his team.

There’s another way to look at this that may help you to move toward a better relationship with your grandson: Recognize that he may be turning an intractable, internal battle — between his desire to see his friends and his knowledge that their way of socializing isn’t safe — into an external battle between him and you.

It’s not at all uncommon for teenagers to turn vexing personal dilemmas into fractious family fights. Imagine a (post-pandemic) teenager who both wants to go to a concert and also feels unnerved by its sketchy venue. She might seek relief from being at odds with herself by recruiting her parents to take up one side of the battle. Picking this fight would be as simple as wholeheartedly lobbying to go to the concert while rolling her eyes when her folks pose reasonable safety questions.

Try to ease your grandson away from this instinctive approach by warmly and sympathetically articulating his dilemma. “It’s really frustrating,” you might say, “that your friends are doing things in a way that makes it impossible for you to safely see them. I get why you’re so upset.” This might open the door for him to welcome you as a strategic ally. “We’ll do whatever we can to help you see your friends in a safe way. Can you take bike rides together or go throw a ball around outside? We’re happy to take the blame if you want to pin the need to be outdoors and wear masks on us. Just let us know if there’s anything you can think of that we might do to make this work.”

It’s possible, of course, that your grandson won’t like your suggestion or want to test the strength of his friendships. If so, there is something else you can try. New research in the journal Child Development has found that teenagers are better able to bear pandemic conditions when their families support their autonomy. Are there choices you can offer your grandson that have not been left to him before? Perhaps you can give him more say over how or where he studies, what he does with his leisure time, who controls the remote or anything else you can bring to the negotiating table. Own the limits of what you are offering. Acknowledge that getting to pick the dinner menu won’t fix things with his friends. But having some new freedoms at home might just help him feel better enough.

Hopefully, your efforts will lighten your grandson’s mood. If he remains unhappy no matter what you try, make an appointment with his health provider to have him evaluated for depression which, in teenagers, often comes across more as irritability than sadness.

You and your grandson are not alone in feeling painted into a terrible corner by the pandemic. Even with so much beyond our control, let’s not overlook the ways, however incremental, that we can comfort and support our teenagers.

This column does not constitute medical advice and is not a substitute for professional mental health advice, diagnosis or treatment. If you have concerns about your child’s well-being, consult a physician or mental health professional.

Making New Friends During a Pandemic

Find and Keep New Friends

The coronavirus pandemic has profoundly disrupted some social circles. Here’s what experts and new pals have to say about making, and maintaining, pandemic friends.

Credit…Abbey Lossing

  • Jan. 23, 2021, 11:23 p.m. ET

It took a pandemic, a layoff and last year’s racial-justice protests to impel Margo Gabriel, a travel and food writer, to finally fulfill a long-held aspiration: to move to Lisbon from Boston. “I was like, ‘OK, I really need to think about next steps,’” Ms. Gabriel, 34, said recently. “I’m getting older.” She applied for, and was accepted to, a two-year master’s program at the Universidade Católica Portuguesa. She arrived in October.

Forming new relationships in Lisbon was a priority, but she worried about making the connections she needed to thrive in her new home, especially during the pandemic. “I’m an introvert by nature,” Ms. Gabriel said, “so I’m easily overwhelmed.” An editor she frequently works with recommended she reach out to another expat. They hit it off over coffee, finding solidarity in their shared identity as Black American women in Portugal. “We’ve been hanging out ever since,” she said.

The pandemic has profoundly disrupted some social circles: Perhaps you’ve moved yourself, or maybe you’re looking up after a year of social distancing to find your close friends are the ones who have relocated. And the guidance of public health officials to keep your distance, to mask up, to limit gatherings and to remain six feet apart? None of these are helpful for meeting new people and nurturing new friendships.

Nevertheless, Niobe Way, a professor of developmental psychology at New York University who has studied friendship for more than three decades, has anecdotally observed what she described as an “explosion of friendships” last summer, particularly in her own Manhattan neighborhood — a display of optimism in the face of our oxymoronic collective isolation. It just takes a little more intention and a little more openness.

Here’s what experts and new pals have to say about making, and keeping, pandemic friends.

Get creative about meeting prospective friends.

“It’s a difficult time to connect with new people,” said Marisa G. Franco, a psychologist and friendship expert. “The first question you can ask yourself is, ‘Is there someone you want to reconnect with?’” According to one study, rekindling “dormant ties,” or those you’ve lost touch with, is often easier than making new friends, because the individuals already trust one another. Look through your phone to see who you were texting this time last year, or reach out to a high school or college club you were affiliated with.

Lean on existing networks of friends and acquaintances, too. Though chance meetings in corridors or cafeterias may be infrequent these days, you can still turn casual connections, whether neighbors or work colleagues, into friends, or reach out to new people through shared acquaintances.

Or if that fails, join a virtual book club or a volunteer effort to connect with a stranger over a shared pastime. (It’s still possible!) Last year, Emily Beyda, a novelist, joined a roller-skating club with two other women in Los Angeles. It has since blossomed to around nine members who share techniques for new jumps, spins and tricks and linger after their practice has ended, just to talk.

And, with no clubs for dancing or reasons to go out, the group’s members have taken to dressing up: “Everyone’s showing up at 1 p.m. on a Sunday just looking gorgeous,” Ms. Beyda, 31, said. “Leopard-print bell bottoms, a gold lamé jumpsuit — dressed to the nines in the public park.”

Even if you feel as if your social muscles have atrophied, don’t brace yourself for rejection. Approaching strangers in public places might not feel so welcome these days, but “in general, people underestimate how much strangers like them,” Dr. Franco said.

Stay connected.

Writing letters, sending voice memos, scheduling phone or video dates — keeping in touch during the pandemic doesn’t have to be impersonal, even if it’s not in person. Not long after Catherine Smith, 34, moved to rural Abingdon, Va., from Philadelphia, she started trading favorite hiking routes and local tips with a new friend over Instagram. A quintessential social media meet-cute, with one pandemic-specific hitch: “We still haven’t gotten to meet in person,” Ms. Smith said.

Aminatou Sow, who hosts the podcast “Call Your Girlfriend” and wrote the book “Big Friendship” with Ann Friedman, suggested that friends try to avoid communicating over the same airwaves used for work. So if you video chat all the time for your job, don’t video chat your friends.

“We are two friends who love the Postal Service,” Ms. Sow said of herself and Ms. Friedman. Letter-writing can even be a way to meet new people across distances: In the spring, the writer Rachel Syme started a pen pal exchange called Penpalooza that has since connected more than 7,000 participants.

However you choose to stay in touch, keep it consistent: Send monthly postcards, tiny gifts or whatever baked good you’ve been perfecting recently, or get a weekly phone call on the books.

Talk frankly about your friendship.

A year ago, frequent, granular discussions about how you handle exposure to disease weren’t especially common among even close pals. Now, they’ve probably become hallmarks of your relationships. Having open, candid conversations can help buoy friendships along by establishing shared expectations and trust.

“Part of making friends in adulthood — in general, but particularly in this moment — is trying to figure out how you fit into someone’s life,” Ms. Friedman said.

Ms. Sow added: “The stating of intentions is the first place to start. In this pandemic moment, I think that is also really important to remember because so many people feel lonely and so many people feel overwhelmed and so many people feel scared.”

This means setting aside time to have conversations about how much friendship you’re looking for — whether a mere running buddy or a BFF — while still allowing for the relationship to evolve. Talking about the Covid-19-related precautions you’re each taking can also make any in-person meet-ups more comfortable.

“I tend to overcommunicate, especially now,” said Amanda Zeilinger. In July, Ms. Zeilinger, 23, moved in Minnesota to St. Paul from Northfield to start a new job at a mosaic workshop in the Twin Cities. She had anticipated it might be harder to make friends in a new city amid shutdowns, but that hasn’t been the case: Recently, she formed a pod with two colleagues so they could foster their friendship outside of work. “I think people are so starved for human connection that we’re that much more open,” she said.

Go on a date — or two or three.

“One of the defining features of our friends is that they’re exclusive,” Dr. Franco said. That means you have shared memories and experiences. So if you met through work or school or a club, plan a one-on-one virtual teatime or socially distanced walk. “Repotting” friendships, or moving them from one setting to another — a term the digital strategist Ryan Hubbard uses — can also help them gain momentum.

Developing a new friendship is not dissimilar to entering a romantic relationship, and initial meet-ups with a new friend can feel “sort of like a first date,” said Jordan Bennett, 31, a communications professional who lives in New York City. “You have the same nerves.”

Several of Mr. Bennett’s close friends left New York last summer; this, combined with a natural tendency to be “very, very social,” led him to start exchanging messages with a new friend through Bumble BFF. They met for the first time in September, and though it was platonic, Mr. Bennett said, he was also unsure how this prospective friend might react upon learning he is gay. “You don’t know if someone is an ally, or how comfortable they are,” he said. The subject emerged organically, producing a comfortable conversation about relationships; they’ve since ventured out to bars, the gym and watched the vice-presidential debate together.

After a successful initial get-together, make plans to continue meeting up regularly. Several experts agreed that consistency strengthens bonds. “Ritual is really important when it comes to connection, especially friendship,” said Adam Smiley Poswolsky, the author of the forthcoming book “Friendship in the Age of Loneliness.” Attaching friendship to a shared goal — a regular yoga practice; keeping up with a TV show — can help reinforce the relationship and your new habit.

“Being intentional, being available, being reliable and being excited are all things that work in your favor,” Ms. Sow said.

How to Get More From Your Pandemic Bubble

Well Challenge Day 3

How to Get More From Your Pandemic Bubble

Social bubbles have helped us cope with the restrictions of Covid-19. For today’s Well Challenge, look to your pandemic pod to inspire and motivate you toward a healthier and happier life.

Credit…Andrew B Myers
Tara Parker-Pope

  • Jan. 5, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Is your pandemic bubble a keeper?

Among the many lessons learned in 2020, the power of a trusted friend group may be the most lasting. This summer, nearly half of Americans said they had formed a “pod” or social “bubble” — a select group of friends to help them cope with pandemic life.

It took a pandemic to teach us what many cultures have known all along — that friendship pods can give us healthier, happier lives. Dan Buettner, a National Geographic fellow and author, has studied the habits of people who live in “blue zones,” which are areas around the world where people live far longer than the average. He has consistently found that cultures with long life expectancies value strong social ties. In Okinawa, Japan, for example, where the average life expectancy for women is around 90, people form a kind of social network during childhood called a moai — a group of five friends who offer social, logistic, emotional and even financial support for a lifetime. Members of each moai also appear to influence one another’s lifelong health behaviors.

Mr. Buettner has worked in several cities to try to replicate the moai effect. In Naples, Fla., for instance, he found 110 people who wanted to improve their eating habits, and he started by grouping them by neighborhood. (“If they live too far apart, they don’t hang out,” he said.) Then he asked questions about shared interests and values, like whether a person watched Fox News or CNN, whether they liked beach vacations or hiking, attended church or liked country music. People with shared interests who lived close to each other formed “moais” of five or six people, and then planned five pot luck dinners together.

After 10 weeks of planning healthy meals together, everyone reported eating more plant-based foods, Mr. Buettner said. And 67 percent said they had made more friends, 17 percent had lost weight, 6 percent had lowered their blood pressure, 6 percent reported lower blood sugar and 4 percent reported lower cholesterol.

Moais can form around activities like walking or bird watching, healthy eating habits or hobbies, like photography. The key is to find like-minded people with shared values and goals. And once the groups form, the members tend to support one another in other ways. When one member of a walking moai in Southern California was diagnosed with cancer, other members of the group stepped in to help with meals and caregiving.

While pandemic life has stalled many of our social plans, we’ve also learned a lot about friendships, who we can depend on and even who matters less than we thought. Even if you didn’t form a social bubble, the new year is a good time to reflect on the friendships that counted the most during a difficult year.

“It’s not only the importance of social connections, but also leaning into anything we’ve learned about the relationships that matter,” said Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University and author of “The Joy of Movement.” “What were the relationships that lasted during Covid is a really interesting thing to pay attention to. I’ll remember who kept texting when I wasn’t always texting back.”

Mr. Buettner noted that when it comes to forming healthy social groups, we sometimes have to re-evaluate friends who might be a lot of fun, but aren’t really making our life better.

“I used to have a group of friends who had a lot of unhealthy behaviors,” said Mr. Buettner, whose latest book is “The Blue Zones Kitchen.”

“They felt good to be around, but they weren’t good for me. I think it’s important to curate your pod. I’m not saying dump your old friends. I’m saying you want to be aware of the people who are additive to your life, who are going to give you the most good years going forward, and who aren’t going to infect you with their bad habits.”

To learn how to turn your pandemic pod (or any group of friends) into a health-oriented bubble, try today’s Well Challenge. Sign up for the Well newsletter to get the 7-Day Well Challenge in your inbox.

Day 3

Form a Health Bubble

The Challenge: Try to turn your pandemic pod into a lasting social group focused on shared values and better health. Add or subtract members as needed.

Take a compatibility quiz: Health bubbles are most successful when people have similar attitudes, values and goals. You probably already know if you and your pandemic podmates like the same movies, vacation spots and social media sites. Now focus on key questions around health and lifestyle choices. In the past month, how often did each person take part in rigorous activity? How often was someone sad or depressed? Does anyone in the group smoke? How many vegetables do they eat? Do they eat sweets or junk food? How much alcohol do they drink? You can take the full quiz online here.

Curate or strengthen your pod: Is yours a pandemic pod of convenience or shared values? The answers to the compatibility quiz will tell you if you’re surrounding yourself with like-minded people who can help you achieve better health. If someone in the group is too negative or has lifestyle habits that bring you down, talk to them about their goals. If they want to make changes, support them. You may need to curate your pod or bring in new people who want to focus on healthy living.

Create a health goal: Start talking to your pod mates about long-term health goals. Do you want to exercise more? Try scheduling daily or weekly walk dates. Are you interested in cutting back on sugar or eating more plant-based foods? Make plans with your pod to share recipes and cook the same meals. Take Zoom cooking classes together, or do a Zoom exercise class of the 7-Minute Standing Workout. If you have Fitbits or smart watches, sync them so you can share step counts. Even if you can’t meet in person during pandemic restrictions, you can start supporting each other’s health goals now and build on them when we can all spend time together again.

“When you make a good friend, that could be a lifelong adventure,” Mr. Buettner said. “For those of us in middle age, having the right friends around us whose idea of something fun is physical activity, whose idea of eating healthy is plant-based, who care about you on a bad day, who can have a meaningful conversation — that beats any pill or supplement any day. It’s the best intervention you can invest in because it’s long lasting and has a measurable impact on your health and well-being.”

For a Healthier 2021, Keep the Best Habits of a Very Bad Year

For a Healthier 2021, Keep the Best Habits of a Very Bad Year

Our 7-Day Well Challenge will show you how to build on the healthy habits you learned during pandemic life.

Credit…Andrew B Myers
Tara Parker-Pope

  • Jan. 1, 2021, 5:00 a.m. ET

Here’s a better way to start the new year: Skip the traditional January resolutions and make time for some New Year’s reflection instead.

Take a moment to look back on the past 365 days of your life. Years from now, when you talk about 2020, what stories will you tell? Will it be clapping for health care workers every night at 7 p.m.? Or perhaps it will be a memory from the months spent mostly at home with family members — or the pandemic “bubbles” you formed that helped friendships grow stronger. Maybe you will tell the story of losing someone you loved or remember finding strength and resilience you didn’t know you had.

While reliving much of 2020 may sound like a terrible idea, psychologists say it’s a better way to start the new year. Looking back will help you build on the lessons you learned, and you may even discover some hidden positive habits you didn’t realize you had started.

“I don’t think we’ve given ourselves enough credit,” said Kelly McGonigal, a health psychologist and lecturer at Stanford University and author of “The Willpower Instinct.” “I don’t think we have had the emotional appreciation that we need and deserve for the kind of year many people have had. The reflection that’s needed right now is a real, honest and self-compassionate look at what’s been lost, who’s been lost and what it is that you want to choose to remember about 2020. Reflection is a way of being ready to move forward into the new year. I say that every year, but I think that it’s especially true for this year.”

Reflections vs. Resolutions

Reflecting on what you accomplished in 2020 — and what you missed or lost — is also a healthier path toward self-improvement than the typical New Year’s resolution. Studies consistently show that New Year’s resolutions don’t work. By February, most people have abandoned them.

The problem with many resolutions is that they tend to be inherently self-critical and stem from a sort of magical thinking that with one big change — some weight loss, regular exercise, more money — life will be transformed. “It’s just too easy to look for a behavior that you regularly criticize yourself for, or feel guilty about,” Dr. McGonigal said. “It’s that false promise of, ‘If you change this one thing, you’ll change everything.’”

Studies show that one of the best ways to change behavior and form a new habit is to bundle it with an existing behavior — what in the science of habit formation is called “stacking.” It’s the reason doctors, for example, suggest taking a new medication at the same time you brush your teeth or have your morning coffee: You’re more likely to remember to take your pill when you piggyback it onto an existing habit. Adding steps to your daily commute often is a better way to add exercise to your day than trying to carve out a separate time for a daily walk.

By reflecting on the lessons of the past year, we can stack and build on the good habits we started in 2020. Maybe that involved figuring out new ways to exercise when gyms were closed, strengthening friendships forged through our social bubbles, organizing our homes for 24-7 living and learning, learning to cook healthier meals or making ourselves accountable for the care of others.

Now, with the distribution of vaccines and the end to the pandemic in sight, you don’t need to abandon those changes — instead, try building on them. The first challenge is listed below. Then, starting Monday and every day next week, the 7-Day Well Challenge will identify a popular quarantine habit and offer a new strategy for turning it into a healthy lifelong habit. Just sign up for the Well newsletter, and you’ll receive a daily email reminder to join that day’s challenge.

Day 1

Build on Your Gratitude Habit

Credit…Andrew B Myers

Quarantine clapping became a nightly ritual in many parts of the United States and around the world as a collective thanks to health care workers. It was both a show of community and a show of gratitude. The experience was what sociologists call “collective effervescence,” which happens when people simultaneously come together and take part in a group ritual.

Clapping for essential workers had the effect of “both unifying and energizing the group for action toward a common cause, such as persevering through the pandemic,” said Joshua W. Brown, professor in the department of psychological and brain sciences at Indiana University Bloomington. “Group expressions of gratitude can be empowering for both those expressing it and those receiving it.”

Perhaps you showed gratitude in other ways. Did you offer larger tips than usual to delivery and restaurant workers? Did you find yourself saying a heartfelt thank you to the grocery and pharmacy workers at checkout? When things got tough at home, did you remind yourself and your children of all the things for which you felt grateful? I adopted a regular gratitude hand-washing ritual, thinking of 10 things to be grateful for — one for every finger I washed.

Why it matters: Numerous studies show that people who have a daily gratitude practice, in which they consciously count their blessings, tend to be happier, have lower stress levels, sleep better and are less likely to experience depression. In one study, researchers recruited 300 adults, most of them college students seeking mental health counseling. All the volunteers received counseling, but one group added a writing exercise focused on bad experiences, while another group wrote a letter of gratitude to another person each week for three weeks. A month later, those who wrote gratitude letters reported significantly better mental health. And the effect appears to last. Three months later the researchers scanned the brains of students while they completed a different gratitude exercise. The students who had written gratitude letters earlier in the study showed greater activation in a part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex, believed to be related to both reward and higher-level cognition.

Take the Gratitude Challenge

This week, try one or more of these simple gratitude exercises.

Start small. Send an appreciative email or text, thank a service worker or tell your children, your spouse or a friend how they have made your life better. “A great way to develop more gratitude would be regular small steps — an extra email or note of appreciation to a colleague, or an extra in-person thank-you, and a focus on how rewarding it is to brighten someone’s day with appreciation,” Dr. Brown said.

Create a gratitude reminder. Dr. McGonigal keeps a sticky note on her desk lamp that reads:

1. Someone
2. Something
3. Yourself

It’s a daily reminder to express gratitude not only for the people, events and gifts in her life but also for her own accomplishments. She might feel gratitude for completing a workout, for a healthy body or for taking on a new challenge. “Gratitude is really good when what you need is a belief in your ability to create a more positive future and a willingness to trust others to help you do that,” Dr. McGonigal said. “And that feels like a really good mind-set for right now.”

Express your gratitude in writing. You can send emails or post feelings of gratitude on social media or in a group chat. Or think of someone in your life and write them a letter of gratitude. (You don’t have to mail it.) Fill your letter with details describing how this person influenced your life and the things you appreciate about them. Or keep a daily gratitude journal.

“I think the full potential of gratitude is realized when people are able to express gratitude in words,” says Y. Joel Wong, chairman of the department of counseling and educational psychology at Indiana University. “When we are able to say what we’re grateful for and explain why, it shifts our attention from what’s negative to what’s positive in our lives.”

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Grieving for a Friend by Embracing Her Daughter


Saving a Cactus, and Its Prickly Owner

I didn’t think I’d ever get over the loss of my best friend. Then her daughter came to live with me.

Credit…Lucy Jones

  • Dec. 11, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

“Will you accept a new tenant and a puppy?” Ceece texted.

A pretty, smart blonde with a lean, athletic build and a degree in finance, Ceece was the kind of 23-year-old you might hate, since she seemed a little too blessed. Unless you knew the truth.

“Why does the dog need to come?” my husband asked.

“It’s a therapy dog,” I explained. “She got him when Barb died.”

Barb, Ceece’s mom, was my best friend. We met when I was Ceece’s age, working in the publicity department of Bantam Books.

It was the worst time of my life. My father had gone to jail, I was sick with an eating disorder and I’d just lost my mom. I was cold and angry and a liar. Most people would have given up on me. Not Barb. At 6 feet tall, she towered over my 5-foot-2 self, fixed her piercing blue eyes on my hazel ones, and told me she really wanted to be my friend, but there were certain rules I had to follow for that to happen. The main one was I had to always tell her the truth.

For almost three decades after that, while she rose in the publishing world in New York and I built a TV career in Los Angeles, we maintained a long-distance friendship based on this pledge of honesty and trust. We could and did tell each other everything, first writing epic letters, then epic emails. My husband once walked in and stared at the pages of writing on my screen and asked if I was writing a screenplay. “No,” I said. “It’s a letter to Barb.”

We ended up celebrating all our monumental milestones together. We got married the same year and joked that we had married the same man. Both our husbands shared an unflappable temperament and, weirdly, both were managers at consumer banks. We bought similar first houses: Barb’s was an adorable 19th-century farmhouse, mine an adorable 1920s Spanish style.

Then we both bought the same second house, newer and in a more kid-friendly location, when the first one turned out to be totally impractical. We both got pregnant and had a baby the same year. We both ended up having two kids, a boy and a girl, and we would both tell you we couldn’t have survived the dark days when they were little without our amazing “Super Dad” men. Whatever it was we were going through, we were there for each other, and it helped that so often we were going through the same things. But if I had to name the greatest thing Barb gave me, it was that she believed in me, even when I couldn’t believe in myself.

Then one day she was diagnosed with terminal cancer and given three months to a year to live. When she made it past one year, I thought we were home free. Until suddenly, she was gone. For months after, I’d wake up in the middle of the night sobbing. I’d lost my oar and my rudder, the person who had taught me unconditional love.

In February 2019, my daughter was in college, my son had just moved out, and I was mere days into my new life as an empty-nester when Ceece texted. She’d gotten a job offer in Los Angeles. Could she stay with us? Of course I said yes.

Weeks later, after she’d spent $1,500 to ship her car, all her stuff and a giant 10-foot cactus out West, she arrived to find out the position she’d been offered was not guaranteed. The woman who hired her said her boss wanted two candidates to choose from.

“What if I don’t get the job?” she asked me, her eyes blinking back terror.

If I told you she didn’t get the job, the cactus arrived brown and droopy and the groomer found a lump under her dog’s fur, maybe you’d think I was being dramatic. But that’s what happened.

“It’s not cancer,” I said, waving the idea away with my hand.

“Actually, the vet said it could be cancer,” she told me. “He’s going to take it off.”

Ceece seemed cold and angry, shutting me out. It wasn’t lost on me that I was the same way at her age after l’d lost my mother, and that her mother was the one who had saved me. It was also a lot of pressure. I worried she was not OK, but I didn’t know how to help.

Ceece sent out resumes, watered her cactus and took her dog in for surgery. Sometimes she didn’t come out of her room all day.

Then came the time we went for a walk around Lake Hollywood. It was a perfect Los Angeles day, after the rain, crisp air, a turquoise blue sky. Suddenly the Hollywood sign came into view.

“The first time your mom came to L.A., I took her to see the sign,” I told her. “You know how she was. Loved celebrities. Called them ‘stars.’”

“She was a great person,” I said. “She changed my life.”

At first Ceece rolled her eyes. Then she asked me to tell her about her mom. So I did. After that day we explored the city together. We went to the farmers’ market, the county museum, Home Goods to shop for throw pillows. I learned she really loved plants, purses and quesadillas. Sometimes, we laughed really hard. Sometimes, we cried. As it turned out, I didn’t need to save her after all. She just needed a friend. So did I, since I’d lost the best one I’d ever had.

The production company ended up not liking the candidate they hired and asked Ceece if she was still open to the job. When she moved across town to her own apartment six months later, I was heartbroken. But I knew how to handle it. After all, her mother had taught me how to have a long-distance friendship. And both the dog and the cactus lived.

Gayle Abrams is a television writer and producer.

Building Emotional Safety Nets for Men

Building Emotional Safety Nets for Men

Support networks with other men can help fend off the loneliness and isolation many men experience.

Credit…Leonardo Santamaria


  • Dec. 3, 2020, 5:00 a.m. ET

On the surface, Sean Kushigian and Jeff Compton didn’t have a lot in common before the pandemic. Mr. Kushigian, a 37-year-old banking analyst and self-described “extrovert,” surrounded himself with like-minded friends who didn’t discuss their problems and such “negative” feelings as fear and sadness, he told me, because they were a form of “weakness.” Mr. Compton, a 37-year-old chief technology officer for an online retailer and self-professed introvert, loved “being a good listener for friends’ problems,” he said.

Three months into the pandemic, these men — who live in different cities and have never met — both faced a common, defining struggle. Mr. Kushigian experienced a depth of sadness and depression he had never before known, his alcohol consumption spiked and he began having suicidal thoughts. Every time Mr. Compton went into a grocery store, “I found myself weeping,” he said, because the “panic and anxiety” he read on other shoppers’ faces mirrored back his own.

Mr. Kushigian and Mr. Compton are like many of the men I interviewed for my book on the need for greater emotional resiliency in boys and men.

As both men have discovered, the solution to their loneliness and emotional isolation is something few men have but many need: emotional support networks — with each other.

It’s no coincidence that men are at the fore of the public health crises filling our newsfeeds. Think: unemployment, opiate addiction and overdose, sexual violence, alcohol-related deaths and, of course, loneliness and spikes in suicide. This was before the pandemic hit. In a 2020 meta-analysis, Indian sociologists suggested that the “excessive pressure to conform to traditional modes of masculinity increases the risk of men’s suicidal behavior” amid the profound isolation of the pandemic.

We already know that men are far less likely than women to seek mental health help when they are struggling, even though studies prove that avoiding “negative emotions” leads to symptoms of mood disorders, including depression. What we may not know: Men, it turns out, suffer from anxiety and depression far more than we realize or like to believe. The diagnostic scales commonly used speak to symptoms that typically manifest in women (e.g., sadness, sullen behavior, loss of appetite). In men, however, depression is often masked beneath greater anger and irritability, risky behaviors, alcohol and substance abuse and leaning more heavily into such sanctioned escape valves as exercise regimens and work.

A 2013 study published in JAMA Psychiatry revealed that, when metrics were used that considered these differences across gender lines, “men and women met criteria for depression in equal proportions: 30.6 percent of men and 33.3 percent of women … When alternative and traditional symptoms are combined, sex disparities in the prevalence of depression are eliminated.” Perhaps not surprisingly, even when men do seek help, they are less likely to receive “adequate follow-up care” because health care professionals often misdiagnose their symptoms. These little-known breakthroughs change the conversation.

This jibes with the findings of a 2015 survey of 1,000 men conducted by Priory, a British mental health awareness organization, which found that 77 percent of men polled suffered from anxiety and depression. Forty percent of these respondents said that mental illness undermines their performance in jobs, parenting and relationships, but it would take thoughts of suicide or self-harm for them to consider seeking help.

All of this wouldn’t be such a problem if men were as effective as women at creating social support networks that double as therapy. (The gender disparity is evident in the numbers and types of support groups on Meetup.com.) A 2018 study among 15 New Zealand men ages 20 through 40 published in the American Journal of Men’s Health observed that, while some men do have diverse social networks, compared with women they “typically have smaller social networks and less frequent exchanges of social support with family and friends.”

Many boys and men I interviewed for my book assured me they didn’t need support networks, because they had a close friend or two in whom they confided. What these boys and men ultimately sought from male friends wasn’t emotional support; they used what I call “targeted transparency” for solutions to the few, carefully vetted problems they willingly shared. The truth is, many men can count on close friends when it comes to counsel and physical safety — but not their emotional safety.

The 2016 book “The Psychology of Friendship which explores the wide-ranging role of friends in our lives, observes that boys are “trained” to follow a form of competition early on that defines their male-male friendships, discouraging honest emotional sharing “at all cost while encouraging direct competition and ‘one-upmanship.’” This ritualistic competition ultimately tends to create a profound deficit in many males, planting a deep seed of distrust in other boys and men. This is the reason Mr. Compton — as is true for most men — has more female confidantes with whom he shares his deeper emotional life. His male friends and family members “can’t be trusted,” he said, “to accept or engage with emotional honesty.” The last time he had male friends with whom he shared this kind of trust was during middle school.

The recent rise of men’s groups mirrors what researchers are discovering — that many men want safe spaces, or “containers” as groups call them, where they can practice emotional transparency and diminish their isolation, while relearning how to trust other men. The 2005 Irish study “Death Rather Than Disclosure” found that emotionally distressed young men “desperately wanted closer social connections and support from family members and friends,” but “they feared being judged as emotionally vulnerable, weak and un-masculine.” The lack of emotional networks has “negative implications for men’s social connectedness and mental well-being,” the researcher observed, putting younger men, especially, at “heightened risk of suicide.”

Mr. Compton eventually sought therapy and joined a men’s group online last spring. When the group began meeting in-person outside, his anxiety was so overwhelming he vomited before the meetings. Eventually, he shared with the group the deeper reasons for his severe reaction — the perceived threats of violence and rejection from other males whenever he revealed emotional honesty. To his surprise, one group mate texted Mr. Compton when he missed the next meeting, checking in on him and thanking him for his disclosure.

“That was powerful for me, to have another man accept my honest, deeper feelings,” he said. His isolation is gradually abating, as is his anxiety, and he’s starting to realize that his inability to “connect with other men emotionally was stunting my ability to find peace within myself.”

Mr. Kushigian also sought assistance — from a less conventional but increasingly popular outlet: online discussion forums geared toward mental health support. Online forums are “a good incremental first step toward reaching out for help,” John Naslund, an instructor in Global Health and Social Medicine at the Harvard School of Medicine, told me. “They’re great for guys to build confidence with sharing and asking questions” about their struggles.

Such platforms also offer anonymity. Early qualitative research shows that they can help men create connection and learn important coping strategies from people with similar struggles, promoting “self-seeking behavior, which is really important,” said Dr. Naslund, who studies digital mental health. He added that reputable organizations, such as the National Alliance for Mental Illness and Mental Health America, are good places to find such groups.

As for Mr. Kushigian, he spent the summer and autumn on the free platform tethr.men, which started last June and bills itself as the world’s first online peer-to-peer support group for men seeking emotional support. Matthew Zerker, the site’s founder, said it was developed in partnership with the Men’s Health Research Program at the University of British Columbia and the site HeadsUpGuys.org.

Mr. Kushigian said he now feels “much more comfortable” discussing his struggles. And he has noticed a sharp decrease in emotional isolation — in large part because of the power of commiserating with other men, something missing from his usual friendships.

“I feel like I’m never alone now,” he said.

Andrew Reiner is the author of “Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency.”

The Challenges of Male Friendships


Credit Paul Rogers

Christopher Beemer, a 75-year-old Brooklynite, is impressed with how well his wife, Carol, maintains friendships with other women and wonders why this valuable benefit to health and longevity “doesn’t come so easily to men.”

Among various studies linking friendships to well-being in one’s later years, the 2005 Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging found that family relationships had little if any impact on longevity, but friendships boosted life expectancy by as much as 22 percent.

Mr. Beemer urged me to explore ways to promote male friendships, especially for retired men who often lose regular contact with colleagues who may have similar interests and experiences.

After Marla Paul, a Chicago-area writer, wrote a book, “The Friendship Crisis: Finding, Making, and Keeping Friends When You’re Not a Kid Anymore,” about establishing meaningful friendships with other women, she was inundated with requests from men to give equal treatment to male friendships.

“A lot of men were upset because I didn’t include them,” Ms. Paul told me. “They felt that making and keeping friends was a lot harder for men, that close friendships were not part of their culture. They pointed out that women have all kinds of clubs, that there’s more cultural support for friendships among women than there is for men.”

In a study in the 1980s about the effect on marriage of child care arrangements, two Boston-area psychiatrists, Dr. Jacqueline Olds and Dr. Richard Stanton Schwartz, found that, “almost to a man, the men were so caught up in working, building their careers and being more involved with their children than their own fathers had been, something had to give,” Dr. Schwartz said. “And what gave was connection with male friends. Their lives just didn’t allow time for friendships.”

In their book, “The Lonely American: Drifting Apart in the Twenty-First Century,” the doctors, who are a husband-and-wife team, noted a current tendency for men to foster stronger, more intimate marriages at the expense of nearly all other social connections.

When these men are older and work no longer defines their social contacts, “there’s a lot of rebuilding that has to be done” if they are to have meaningful friendships with other men, Dr. Schwartz said in an interview.

From childhood on, Dr. Olds said, “men’s friendships are more often based on mutual activities like sports and work rather than what’s happening to them psychologically. Women are taught to draw one another out; men are not.”

Consciously or otherwise, many men believe that talking about personal matters with other men is not manly. The result is often less intimate, more casual friendships between men, making the connections more tenuous and harder to sustain.

Dr. Olds said, “I have a number of men in my practice who feel bad about having lost touch with old friends. Yet it turns out men are delighted when an old friend reaches out to revive the relationship. Men might need a stronger signal than women do to reconnect. It may not be enough to send an email to an old friend. It may be better to invite him to visit.”

Some married men consider their wives to be their best friend, and many depend on their wives to establish and maintain the couple’s social connections, which can all but disappear when a couple divorces or the wife dies.

Differences between male and female friendships start at an early age. Observing how his four young granddaughters interact socially, Mr. Beemer said, “They have way more of that kind of activity than boys have. It may explain why as adults they continue to do a much better job of it.”

In defense of his gender, he observed, “Men have a harder time reaching their emotions and are less likely than women to reveal their emotional side. But when you have a real friendship, it’s because you’ve done just that.”

He has found that “it’s important to expose yourself and be honest about what’s going on. If you reveal yourself in the right way to the right person, it will be just fine. There are risks, you can’t force it. Sometimes it doesn’t work — you get a don’t-burden-me-with-that kind of response and you know to back off. But more often men will respond in kind.”

Mr. Beemer has worked hard to establish and maintain valuable relationships with other men of a similar vintage. He joined a men’s book group that meets monthly, and after about two years, he said, “it became a group where the members really mean something to one another.”

He’s also in a men’s walking group that meets three times a week and gathers after each walk to share more conversation and a snack at a local cafe. When one member of the group had a heart attack, they visited him, cheering him up with the latest gossip and a favorite cafe snack.

“What sustains relationships over time is a regular rhythm of seeing each other,” Dr. Schwartz said. “It’s best to build a regular pattern of activities rather than having to make a special effort to see one another.”

He recalls “curing” a 70-year-old patient of his loneliness by encouraging him to join a bunch of guys who regularly dined and joked around at a neighborhood Panera Bread. “There are a lot of cafes in the Boston area where small groups of older men get together for breakfast everyday,” Dr. Schwartz said.

Dr. Olds said of her husband, “Richard has a regular group phone call with friends who live in different parts of the country. We program it into our schedule or it would disappear.”

Among other ways men can make new friends in their later years are participating in classes, activities, trips and meals at senior centers; taking continuing education courses at a local college; joining a gym or Y and taking classes with people you then see every week; volunteering at a local museum, hospital, school or animal shelter; attending worship services at a religious center; forming a group that plays cards or board games together; perhaps even getting a dog to walk in the neighborhood.

After my dentist’s wife died, he made several new friends and enjoyed lovely dinners with other men when he joined a group called Romeo, an acronym for retired old men eating out.


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When Friends Are ‘Like Family’


Credit Giselle Potter

“My friends are the sisters I was meant to have,” a woman told me. Another said that her friends are more precious than her sisters because they remember things from her past that her sisters don’t and can’t, since they weren’t there. And a man commented that he didn’t enjoy a particular friend’s company all that much, but it was beside the point: “He’s family.”

I interviewed over 80 people for a book I’m writing about friendship, and was struck by how many said that one or another friend is “like family.”

These comments, and how people explained them, shed light on the nature of friendship, the nature of family, and something that lies at the heart of both: what it means to be close.

For friends, as for family, “close” is the holy grail of relationships. (In both contexts I often heard, “I wish we were closer” but never “I wish we weren’t so close.”)

What people meant by “close” could be very different, but their comments all helped me understand how friends could be like family – and why I often say of my friend Karl, “He’s like my brother.” First is longevity. We met at summer camp when I’d just turned 15, and the seeds of closeness were planted during one of those wondrous extended self-revealing teenage conversations, when we sat side by side behind the dining hall. Our friendship continued and deepened as we exchanged long letters that traversed the distance between our homes in Brooklyn and the Bronx.

After college, Karl was the one I called at 2 a.m. when I made a last-minute decision not to join the Peace Corps. Two decades later, we were traveling together when I showed him the photograph of a man I’d just met, saying, “It’s crazy but I keep thinking I’m going to marry him” – and I did.

I was there when Karl left Brown for Julliard, and, years later, when he came out as gay. Karl knew my parents, my cousins, my first husband and the other friends who have been important in my life, as I knew and know his. I visit his mother in a nursing home just as I’d visit my own, were she still alive. We can refer to anything and anyone in our pasts without having to explain.

If I’m upset about something, I call him; I trust his judgment, though I might not always follow his advice. And finally, maybe most of all, there’s comfort. I feel completely comfortable in his home, and when I’m around him, I can be completely and unselfconsciously myself.

It’s not that we don’t get on each other’s nerves. It’s that we do. A cartoon about a married couple could have been about us: A woman standing in the kitchen is saying to the man before her, “Is there anything else I can do wrong for you?” I sometimes feel that whatever I do within Karl’s view, he’ll suggest I do a different way.

All the elements making our friendship so close that Karl is like a brother were threaded through the accounts of people I interviewed. “We’re close” could mean they talk about anything; or that they see each other often; or that, though they don’t see each other often, when they do, it’s as though no time has passed: they just pick up where they left off. And sometimes “close” meant none of the above, but that they have a special connection, a connection of the heart.

There were also differences in what “anything” meant, in the phrase “We can talk about anything.” Paradoxically, it could be either very important, very personal topics, or insignificant details. A woman said of a friend, “We’re not that close; we wouldn’t talk about problems in our kids’ lives,” but, of another, “We’re not that close; we wouldn’t talk about what we’re having for dinner.”

“Like family” can mean dropping in and making plans without planning: You might call up and say, “I just made lasagna. Why don’t you come over for dinner?” Or you can invite yourself: “I’m feeling kind of low. Can I come over for dinner?”

Many grown children continue to wish that their parents or siblings could see them for who they really are, not who they wish them to be. This goal can be realized in friendship. “She gets me,” a woman said of a friend. “When I’m with her I can be myself.”

It would be easy to idealize family-like friendship as all satisfaction and cheer. And maybe for some lucky people it is. But friends can also resemble family by driving you crazy in similar ways. Why does she insist on washing dishes by hand when dishwashers do a better job of killing germs? Why does he always come exactly five minutes late?

Just as with literal families, friends who are like family can bring not only happiness but also pain, because the comfort of a close bond can sometimes morph into the restraints of bondage. The closer the bond, the greater the power to hurt – by disappointing, letting you down or, the ultimate betrayal, by dying. When a friend dies, a part of you dies, too, as you lose forever the experiences, the jokes, the references that you shared. A woman in her 70s who was mourning her lifelong best friend said the worst part was not being able to call her up and tell her how terrible she felt about her dying.

Sometimes we come to see friends as family because members of the family we grew up with live far away or feel too different, or are just too difficult to deal with. A woman who ended all contact with a sister explained that the option of cutting off a family member who brings you grief is a modern liberation, like the freedom to choose a spouse or divorce one. Holes left by rejected (or rejecting) relatives — or left by relatives lost to distance, death or circumstance — can be filled by friends who are like family. But family-like friends don’t have to be filling holes at all. Like my friend Karl, they can simply add richness, joy and, yes, at times, aggravation, that a literal family – in my case, two sisters I’m very close to — also provides.

Deborah Tannen is a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University and the author of “You Just Don’t Understand!” and “You’re Wearing THAT?”.


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The Secrets to a Happy Life, From a Harvard Study

What does it take to live a good life?

Surveys show that most young adults believe that obtaining wealth and fame are keys to a happy life. But a long-running study out of Harvard suggests that one of the most important predictors of whether you age well and live a long and happy life is not the amount of money you amass or notoriety you receive. A much more important barometer of long term health and well-being is the strength of your relationships with family, friends and spouses.

These are some of the findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, a research project that since 1938 has closely tracked and examined the lives of more than 700 men and in some cases their spouses. The study has revealed some surprising – and some not so surprising – factors that determine whether people are likely to age happily and healthily, or descend into loneliness, sickness and mental decline.

The study’s current director, , outlined some of the more striking findings from the long-running project in a recent TED Talk that has garnered more than seven million views.

“We publish our findings in academic journals that most people don’t read,” Dr. Waldinger, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, said in a recent interview. “And so we really wanted people to know that this study exists and that it has for 75 years. We’ve been funded by the government for so many years, and it’s important that more people know about this besides academics.”

The study began in Boston in the 1930s with two very different groups of young men.

In one case, a team of researchers decided to track Harvard college students through adulthood to see what factors played important roles in their growth and success. “They thought there was too much emphasis placed on pathology at the time and that it would be really useful to study people who were doing well in their young adult development,” Dr. Waldinger said. The study recruited 268 Harvard sophomores and followed them closely, with frequent interviews and health examinations. In recent years the study has also incorporated brain scans, blood draws and interviews with the subjects’ spouses and adult children.

At around the same time the study began, a Harvard Law School professor named Sheldon Glueck started to study young men from some of Boston’s poorest neighborhoods, including 456 who managed to avoid delinquency despite coming from troubled homes. Eventually the two groups were merged into one study.

Over the decades, the men have gone into all walks of life. They’ve become lawyers, doctors, businessmen and — in the case of one Harvard student named John F. Kennedy — president of the United States. Others went down different paths. Some became alcoholics, had disappointing careers or descended into mental illness. Those who remain alive today are in their 90s.

Through the years, the study has produced many notable findings. It showed, for example, that to age well physically, the single most important thing you could do was to avoid smoking. It discovered that aging liberals had longer and more active sex lives than conservatives. It found that alcohol was the primary cause of divorce among men in the study, and that alcohol abuse often preceded depression (rather than the other way around).

The study has gone through several directors. Dr. Waldinger, who took over in 2003, is its fourth. He expanded the study so it focused not just on the men but also on their wives and children. The researchers began videotaping the couples in their homes, studying their interactions, and interviewing them separately about nearly every facet of their lives, even day-to-day spats.

As the researchers looked at the factors throughout the years that strongly influenced health and well-being, they found that relationships with friends, and especially spouses, were a major one. The people in the strongest relationships were protected against chronic disease, mental illness and memory decline – even if those relationships had many ups and downs.

“Those good relationships don’t have to be smooth all the time,” Dr. Waldinger said. “Some of our octogenarian couples could bicker day in and day out. But as long as they felt that they could really count on the other when the going got tough, those arguments didn’t take a toll on their memories.”

Dr. Waldinger found a similar pattern among relationships outside the home. The people who sought to replace old colleagues with new friends after retiring were happier and healthier than those who left work and placed less emphasis on maintaining strong social networks.

“Over and over in these 75 years,” Dr. Waldinger said, “our study has shown that the people who fared the best were the people who leaned into relationships with family, with friends and with community.”

Dr. Waldinger acknowledged that the research showed a correlation, not necessarily causation. Another possibility is that people who are healthier and happier to begin with are simply more likely to make and maintain relationships, whereas those who are sicker gradually become more socially isolated or end up in bad relationships.

But he said that by following the subjects for many decades and comparing the state of their health and their relationships early on, he was fairly confident that strong social bonds are a causal role in long-term health and well-being.

So what concrete actions does he recommend?

“The possibilities are endless,” he said. “Something as simple as replacing screen time with people time, or livening up a stale relationship by doing something new together, long walks or date nights. Reach out to that family member you haven’t spoken to in years — because those all-too-common family feuds take a terrible toll on the people who hold the grudges.”