Unfortunately, societal incentives push many of us toward deal friends and away from real friends. The average American worker spends 40 hours on the job during the workweek. In leadership, the numbers are much higher. Most of us work with other people, so during the workweek we have less time for our family than for our colleagues, let alone for friends outside of work. In this way, deal friends can easily crowd out real friends, leaving us without the joys of the latter.
Read: Work-life balance has to include friendship
Perhaps deal friendships have displaced real friendships in your own life, leaving you feeling a bit bereft. If this is the case, the hardest part—recognizing the problem—is now behind you. The steps to regaining a healthier friendship balance are fairly straightforward.
Give yourself a friendship checkup.
Ask yourself how many people know you really well—who would notice when you are slightly off and say, “Are you feeling okay today?” If you answer “no one,” know that you aren’t alone. In 2018, an Ipsos poll conducted for the health provider Cigna found that 54 percent of Americans surveyed said they “always” or “sometimes” felt like no one knew them well.
Read: How friendships change in adulthood
For another test of real friendships, try listing a few people, not including your spouse, with whom you are comfortable discussing personal details. If you struggle to name even two or three, that’s a dead giveaway. But even if you can, be honest: When was the last time you actually had that kind of conversation? If it has been more than a month, you might be kidding yourself about how close you really are.
2. Go deep or go home.
Cultivating real friendships can be tricky for people who haven’t tried for many years—maybe since childhood. Research shows that it is often harder for men than for women. Women generally have larger, denser, and more supportive friend networks than men. Furthermore, women generally base their friendships on social and emotional support, whereas men are more likely to base friendships on shared activities, including work.
Read: The kind of love that makes people happiest
Recognizing this gender pattern, and also that both of us could benefit from deeper friendships, my wife and I started organizing our social life specifically around conversations about more profound issues. At the risk of becoming Mr. and Mrs. Intense, we directed dinnertime chats with friends away from trivialities like vacation plans and house purchases, and toward issues of happiness, love, and spirituality. This deepened some of our friendships, and in other cases showed us that a more fulfilling relationship wasn’t going to be possible—and, thus, where to put less energy.
3. Make more friends you don’t need.
The key to building perfect friendships is to see relationships not as stepping stones to something else, but as boons to pursue for their own sake. One way to do this is to make friends not just outside your workplace, but outside all of your professional and educational networks. Strike up a friendship with someone who truly can do nothing for you besides caring about you and giving you good company.