Not long ago, I opened an intriguing email from Jennifer, an acquaintance from my community choir. “I’ve realized I want to be around people who make me happy,” she wrote. “I’ve been seeing how I feel after interacting with different people and making a mental list of who I feel good about. And you’re on my list.”
Then she invited me—and 11 other women—to a “Movie Night” to be held every six weeks at her house. We’d chat, eat, and watch feel-good movies. She made it clear in her invitation that there was no pressure to show up to all or any movie nights. Brilliant! I emailed her back immediately. I was in.
Later, Jennifer admitted she had some puzzled reactions to her invitation. While all the women were eager to participate, some said they didn’t see themselves as upbeat people. “I told them they didn’t have to be cheery around me all the time. I invited them because they made me feel happy,” she says.
Research shows that “happy-people gatherings” such as Jennifer’s make sense. In a U.S. study, researchers measured the happiness of 4,739 people at regular intervals over 20 years. The study found that a person’s happiness depends on the happiness of people they connect with. Amazingly, it also found that happiness spreads not only between direct friends, but also among friends of your friends’ friends! And those good feelings seem to be the most contagious among friends of the same sex.
“People with more supportive friends are less likely to develop depression and anxiety,” says Dr. Toupey Luft, a psychologist in Penticton, B.C. “Though you can’t choose your family or work colleagues, you do have control over friendships.” With a little effort, you can add more positive relationships to your social circle. Here’s how:
Tap in to how you feel
“Nobody is all positive or all negative,” says Luft. “But there are people you tend to feel more positive around. Use that as your barometer, and keep track.” When spending time with them, pay attention to your gut reaction afterwards. Are you feeling drained or upset? To help you keep track, Luft suggests taking a moment when you get home to write down what your mood is when around them.
For two months, Jennifer, a couples’ therapist, tracked which people made her feel energized. “After seeing someone, if I walked away with a bounce in my step, I wrote their name on a list I kept at the back of my family calendar,” she says.
She was surprised by the results. She noticed she felt “dragged down” after lunch dates with two friends who often vented non-stop without ever asking about her. But she didn’t want to end the relationships. Instead, she has a meal or goes for tea with them once a month. “We’ve always been there for each other, and I’m not weeding out negative people,” says Jennifer. “I’m just putting the emphasis on people I feel good around. Several friends in my close inner circle were not on my ‘happy people’ list—even though I’d call them if there was a catastrophe. Different friends play different roles.”
Get to know yourself
While it’s great to gather with positive friends, it’s also cathartic to vent with others in similar life situations. “But if you’re all just complaining and nothing is changing, it’s not healthy, “ says Luft. Make sure you’re not projecting. Are your friends negative, or are you doing most of the complaining? Do your friends talk only about themselves? Considering the answers to these questions can help you decide if you want to confront them and risk their getting mad. Or you could lessen contact and let the relationship fade naturally.
To know what qualities you want in a friend, do some soul-searching, suggests Luft. Ask yourself: What are my top five values in life? If you like outdoor adventure, for example, look for friends to help you explore that by joining them on a canoe, biking or hiking trip. “Also, define what a positive friendship is for you,” says Luft. What do you need? What do you find nurturing?
Join a group…
Sometimes your hobbies can lead to supportive friendships. Check out local newspapers, websites and bulletin boards to find a group or class for something you enjoy. Once a month, Kathe Lieber, of Montreal, attends an evening of “Potluck and Shakespeare” with 10 to 20 people. After wine and dinner, they sit in a circle, pick roles and read aloud an entire Shakespearean play. “I’ve discovered kindred spirits,” she says. “It’s wonderful to do this with others who love it as much as I do. I feel elevated.” A self-described “extreme extrovert,” Lieber also belongs to a movie group, book club and dinner club. Since she works and lives alone as a freelance writer/editor, she treasures the groups she belongs to. “I need intellectual and social stimulation.” Most importantly, these friends are always there for her, and have supported each other through illness, divorce and death.
…Or try one-on-one
Not into groups? Look for individual interactions instead. “Put the energy out there that you’d like to get back,” says Luft. “Set small goals, such as having coffee with one new person, and pick up on cues. If someone suggests going for lunch sometime, set a date. If you admire someone at work, ask if they’d like to go for a walk at lunch.” When you’re at the gym, smile at the regulars in your fitness class.
Don’t be afraid to be honest
“If you’re constantly feeling disappointed with a friend, try talking about what you both need,” says Luft. For example, tell her what support you want during tough times in your lives. While your friend may need to be left alone, you may crave casseroles and caring phone calls. “I call those conversations ‘weeding the garden,’ ” says Luft. Sometimes friendships can withstand those conversations and sometimes they can’t. With some friends you laugh and have fun at the movies together —and that can be enough. With others, you treasure them for your deep connection. As my friend Jennifer says, “I feel seen, heard and valued by my friends. And I don’t feel judged. Hopefully, they feel the same way about me.”
September 2011 issue of Best Health magazine