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There it is in black and white: “There’s room for you to develop some good social fitness habits that will keep your relationships strong.”

Let’s just say I didn’t get an A+ on the Friendship Quiz from the New York Times.

Their Well newsletter writers concede that I do have “the outline of a healthy social network.” But, they tell me, “You could go a step further.”

Are you wondering why I’d take a Friendship Quiz? Or why a paper like the NYT would run one? They’re not Cosmo, after all.

The quiz is step one in Well’s week-long “Happiness Challenge” based on the idea that happiness helps us stay healthy, and robust relationships are among the things that make us happy. In fact, they may be the main thing that makes us happy.

The whole enterprise grabbed my attention because I study communication, and that’s at the root of relationships of all sorts.

There’s science behind this focus on friendship.

The Harvard Study of Adult Development has been going on for years now, with three generations of participants. Its current director and a colleague have included some of its findings in The Good Life: Lessons from the World’s Longest Scientific Study of Happiness.

Bottom line: strong relationships matter more than wealth, social status, or intelligence when it comes to creating a happy life.

They’ve come up with a term for evaluating and improving the health of our relationships. “Social fitness,” they say, is at least as important as physical fitness when it comes to our long-term health and well-being.

Same way we might lift light weights, take up running, or go to a yoga class, these guys recommend exercising our social selves by developing and nurturing relationships.

And they’re not alone in pointing to a connection between social fitness and physical health.

No less an authority than the Surgeon General says, “Loneliness is one of the defining public health concerns of our time.”

There’s a ton of research pointing to people with more social connections living longer. Not to mention being protected against depression and memory loss.

This sounds serious, doesn’t it?

So how do I ace the friendship quiz?

I didn’t exactly flunk it, but like they said, I have room for improvement when it comes to relationships. Maybe you do too?

What with all that pandemic-related isolation, seems like a lot of us are still keeping our distance in various ways. And then we might have barriers built in before we ever heard of COVID.

For instance, I think I know where I lost points as far as the Well quiz is concerned. The question was “How many people could you call in the middle of the night if you needed help?”

The emphatic answer is Zero.

Well, okay, I guess if I really, really had to, I could—reluctantly—call my sister. So I changed my answer to One. Does anybody really have four or more people they could call in the middle of the night?

Here’s the thing. I think I’m plenty social. I’m also a WASP. I was raised to be considerate, self-reliant, and even stoic. Old habits die hard—if I need help in the middle of the night, I’ll be waiting until morning to call someone.

Then there was this question: “How often do you talk to acquaintances in your neighborhood, on your commute, or in your workplace or school?”

My commute means walking into my home office where I work alone. I’m long since out of school. And while a bunch of neighbors were here just last week for my holiday open house, I won’t likely see most of them again until spring. This time of year, everyone’s snug indoors or scrambling to their garages as quickly as they can get there.

We won’t be having leisurely chats over the backyard fence again until spring.

So, what’s next?

The folks at “Well” gave me an assignment. “Make more connections and invest in the ones you have.”

Apparently, they’ll break that down into daily suggestions over the next week. I think I’ll get a jump on it though and call a California friend this afternoon.

You’re welcome to play along.

And if you’re thinking, “Well, easy for you, Catherine, you’re an extrovert,” set that thought aside.

The folks behind this effort to increase connections are very clear: You can improve your social fitness if you’re an introvert or just shy. They recommend engaging with people in quieter settings and smaller groups built around something you care about. Examples: a knitting club, a computer class, or working in a community garden.

So, no matter where you are on the introvert-extrovert scale, if you were going to make more connections and invest in the ones you have, how would you go about it? 

See if you can improve your social fitness and let me know how it goes. It’ll be lovely to start the New Year with more connections and deeper relationships, won’t it?