I sometimes joke that I don’t like people very much. Actually, it’s not really that I don’t like people. It’s more that I really do like being alone. At the end of the day nothing is more enticing for me than to come home, change into comfortable clothes and settle into the evening with my wife, a simple meal and our shared desire to be homebodies.
This fondness for solitude is particularly acute when traveling. While my colleagues are eager to meet at the bar for drinks and then head to a nice restaurant for a long dinner, I yearn for a quiet table somewhere by myself—where I can pull out a favorite book or do a little journaling.
So, it was unusual a couple of weeks ago when, on a business trip to Charlotte, I accepted a colleague’s invitation to spend the night at his lake house. This is not the kind of thing I usually do. I prefer hotels–where I don’t have to talk to people, and where I can spend the evening in solitude.
But I know that my inclination to be alone might not always be good for me. So, I accepted the invitation. And, as a result, I enjoyed an evening that ended up being much richer than any I could have experienced sitting alone in some nameless restaurant with my favorite book.
It was late afternoon when I arrived. After shooting some sporting clays, we built a fire at the edge of the lake, drank cold beer and talked about our lives. We talked about families. We talked about religion. We talked about backpacking. We talked about all kinds of things, but not once did we talk about work.
After a dinner of steak and grilled asparagus, my friend pulled out his trail maps and showed me the spots he most liked to camp while hiking in the mountains. He showed me pictures of a backpacking trip he took with his daughter shortly after her successful battle with leukemia, and pictures from a party he throws every year for children who have survived cancer.
To think, I would have missed all of that if I’d done what I usually do—headed to a hotel to hunker down by myself.
Reflecting on this evening at a the lake, I was reminded of a recent TED talk by Dr. Richard Waldinger. Dr. Waldinger is the Director of the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The Harvard study is the longest running study of adult development and it tracked the lives of 724 men over a period of 75 years. The study centered around one question—What is it that keeps us healthy and happy as we go through life?
It seems the answer is good relationships.
The study shows that loneliness kills. People more socially connected to family, friends and community are happier, healthier and live longer. Apparently, social connections are really good for us.
This is important information for those of us who inhabit a culture that tells us that in order to experience the “good life” we need to push harder and achieve more. As lawyers we are considered, by the world’s standards, the epitome of “success.” We’ve graduated from law school. We’ve passed a bar exam. Landed good jobs. Made good money.
But it turns out the treadmill of “success” can be a lonely and isolating place. According to the Harvard study, it’s not our bank account (or even our cholesterol level) that will determine how long we will live; but rather it’s how satisfied we are with our relationships.
Does this mean I’m now going to happy hour every Friday?
Hardly. I will always have a fondness for the exquisite nature of an evening at home. But I also know that life holds a certain richness that is not found in the solitude of my back porch.
Maybe I can be more willing to invite the lawyer across the table to show me pictures of his grandchildren, or to have coffee and talk about something other than our case. Maybe when traveling, I can take advantage of the fact that none of us are able to enjoy the comforts of our back porches, and share a meal and some deep conversation with colleagues about something other than work.
The science from the Harvard study tells us these kind of interactions are good for our health. Lived experience tells me they are good for my soul.