| Outlook |

Everyone Needs a Friend

The clearest finding was: Strong relationships keep us healthier and happier

Want to increase your chances of living a healthy and happy life, with your faculties intact until an advanced age? Invest in your relationships, both with your family and your friends.

That’s the most powerful finding that emerges from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest longitudinal study of the factors that contribute to a person flourishing as an adult. It began in 1938, with 724 participants drawn from disadvantaged families in Boston and from Harvard undergraduates, and was subsequently expanded to include spouses of the participants and more than 1,300 descendants.

The current director of the project, Dr. Robert Waldinger, and his co-director Marc Shulz, wrote a book in 2023, The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Largest Study of Happiness, summarizing the findings to date. And the clearest finding was: Strong relationships keep us healthier and happier. Older couples (into which category I suppose I now fall), for instance, in deeply attached relationships, where they know they can depend upon their spouse, experience little diminution in their moods, even when they are in physical pain.

One of my walking partners (incidentally, a great way to deepen friendships) told me last night about an article he's been saving for decades written by a hospice director. She wrote that the most frequent regret of people approaching the end is: I wish I had devoted more time to family and friends. Almost no one, Waldinger says in a TED Talk, expresses sorrow over not having been richer.

Bottom line — social connection is good for us, and loneliness is toxic. In any given year, those suffering from prolonged loneliness are 26 percent more likely to pass away than those who do not.

That is bad news in a world in which Harvard sociologist Robert Putnam’s title, Bowling Alone, captures the skyrocketing degree of loneliness. And, I would guess, it is good news for Orthodox Jewish men whose days are rich in social connections, beginning with the morning minyan, and for all Torah Jews, both men and women, whose lives are characterized by a rich web of familial connections.

THOUGHTS ABOUT FRIENDSHIP are prominent at this particular moment, as my wife and I prepare to embark on a trip to the States, because making new friends has always been a big part of the excitement of speaking tours for me. We are going to Los Angeles to visit older friends, who find it more difficult to get to Israel than formerly. I first met them about twenty years ago, when their son, to whom we were close when he was learning in yeshivah in Israel, suggested I stay with them on a visit to L.A.

And from L.A., we will spend a couple of days in Arizona, in part so that we will be able to tell the Ribbono shel Olam at meah v’esrim that we saw His Grand Canyon, but principally to spend time with two couples whom I met on previous trips to Phoenix. Both couples are native Chicagoans, as are my wife and I, and I clicked instantly with both. The first time I met one of the couples, we stayed up schmoozing almost until sunrise, when I could observe the lunar landscape of cacti and rocks from their picture window. Red sky at morning.

My wife has met one of the couples in Israel twice, and she also bonded quickly with them. And I’m eager to introduce her to the second couple, in the hope of recreating the excitement of my first stay in their home.

The point of this itinerary is simply to explain why I associate travel with making new friends. As I have written previously, while traveling we reveal aspects of ourselves more quickly than we might at home, with those whom we have known for a long time and whom we will see again frequently.

Encounters while traveling are something like a first shidduch, where you try to convey something of who you are in a relatively brief period of time, not knowing whether there will be another opportunity. Or as they say, “You only get one chance to make a good first impression.”

BUT THE REAL TAKEAWAY I want to emphasize is how many more opportunities there are for friendship in our immediate surroundings than we realize. That has become crystal clear to me since Covid and diminished desire to travel have kept me closer to home.

Twice in the last three years I have become close friends with neighbors whom I’ve known for decades and with whom I previously had a nodding, friendly relationship. In one case, we were thrown together by one of those early-morning small Covid minyanim, and discovered that we have an almost unlimited number of subjects to speak about. In the other, it was twice-weekly trips in his car to the heart rehabilitation gym, during which we have about 15 minutes to talk each way.

(Though this is not my subject, I might add that the heart rehabilitation gym creates a special kind of camaraderie among those participating. Everyone there has been forced to confront that he may not be in quite the splendid condition he imagined and that immortality is not in the cards. That shared vulnerability creates a feeling of closeness.)

The two new friendships mentioned above have alerted me to an important secret: We may be surrounded by people from whom we have much to gain — not the least being the pleasure of their company — and much to give as well. The Maharal asks in his commentary on Pirkei Avos: Why is the quality of friendship (reiah) ranked before the quality of being beloved (ahuv) in the list of traits one must possess to be considered osek b’Torah lishmah? He explains that friendship is by definition mutual whereas one can be beloved without reciprocity.

So here’s my advice: No matter how long you may have known someone at some level, remain ever alert to the possibility that they could become a genuine friend and confidant. And making new friends is always good for us.

Hidden Treasures

Pesach cleaning every year inevitably turns up surprising treasures, and that is particularly true for someone like myself who requires three full days just to sort through papers strewn everywhere before I can start dusting my desk or cleaning the floor of my study.

And this past Pesach, there were even more treasures than usual on account of my having inherited my mother’s desk, which she in turn had inherited from her mother. It was there that my grandmother sat every afternoon, elegantly dressed, writing out checks, even when she had no money left.

Upon reaching into the large bottom drawer, I discovered an old picture album. Upon further examination, the album included photos of my grandparents as newlyweds from 1924, a full century ago.

Another find was a notebook full of high school papers from my youngest brother, Mattisyahu, characteristically neatly filed. Apparently, my sister-in-law decided that I would appreciate them more than anyone else after his passing and had dropped them off at some point. My brother only got one B in high school, when he made the mistake of asking his speech teacher, who was known to go on weekend benders, if he could deliver his speeches on some day other than Monday.

His other teachers seemed to have enjoyed his sense of humor more. What struck me most was that he was confident enough of his good graces in their eyes to fully indulge his unique sense of humor. One paper was dedicated to his older brothers, “without whom I would be an only child.” I also found a packet of earnest letters written to him in my first months at Ohr Somayach and as he was about to enter college. I had no memory of adopting such a hard sell or of being so ineffective in doing so.

Along with the desk came letters from children that my mother had saved. She had begun distributing them to their authors in her lifetime, but apparently had not completed the task. The one that brought back the most memories was from my fourth brother, nearly eight years my junior.

He was the most idealistic of us, and the one first drawn to serious Torah study and observance. The opening paragraph of a letter written to my parents when he was 17, served as a poignant reminder of how much I owe to him:

“In a recent class, we were trying to put in perspective three concepts: being good, being wise, and being happy. My answer is that I want to be good. Being happy is a strength I will have as long as I feel I am doing what is right. Wisdom is not an end; it is the means. If I want to do what is right, I must first know what is right. Doing good is my purpose, wisdom is the means, and happiness is the result.

“Throughout my life I have found that this wisdom has come from my Jewish heritage, the Torah, more than it has come from my environment. Our house, by the grace of G-d, has been built upon Torah foundations in many respects. Our love for learning, our close family, and our desire to behave properly serve as examples.”

Thank you, Max, for your clarity, for your independence and stubbornness, which made you immune from the scoffing of your older brothers, and for having shown us the way.


(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 1013. Yonoson Rosenblum may be contacted directly at rosenblum@mishpacha.com)

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