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Hanging Out With Your Friends Is Good for You

Photo-Illustration: by The Cut; Photo: Getty Images

Swellness” is a monthlong series exploring the health-and-wellness stuff no one talks about.

Across from the main entrance of my high school, there was a small platform — just tall enough that you had to clumsily clamber up on it — with a sign warning that it was state property and, therefore, should not be clambered up on. On and around this platform is where, for four years, a big chunk of my best hanging out happened. After school, while waiting to be picked up, my friends and I would gather there, killing time until our often late rides arrived.

Any place where my friends and I could stretch out our time was my lifeline. Surrounded by them, I was always able to forget the argument that had made me cry that morning or the crushing rejection that swiftly followed my first two “dates” with my high-school crush. Hanging out with my friends gave me a sense of belonging and a reliable, regular dose of dopamine. Study after study backs up what my high-school friends helped me innately understand: Human connection is not an extra treat for the leisurely. It is actually at the core of what we need to live a satisfying life — in other words, to live well. That’s right: hanging out is a wellness practice.

But a whole host of factors make hanging out progressively more difficult, especially as we age. As I’ve settled into adulthood, I’ve found myself increasingly overscheduled. I don’t remember the last time I saw a friend on short notice, and I’ve had weeks and even a full month go by without any meaningful social interaction with anyone other than my roommate. I have, on several occasions, found myself feeling lonely and depressed, craving someone to talk to or share space with, and not known who to call. So I called an expert.

In her book Hanging Out: The Radical Power of Killing Time, Sheila Liming, a writing professor at Champlain College, lifelong musician, and preeminent scholar of hangoutery via a lot of experience doing it, treats hanging out like a sacred activity worthy of careful consideration and study. In seven chapters, she analyzes as many forms of hanging out concluding with an eighth instructive one on exactly how to hang out.

Part of the problem, says Liming, is the shrinking of public spaces — there are very few places that we can go to interact and exist, not consume. Another factor: the overscheduling I mentioned earlier. While our use of digital technology is not by any means the only factor here, she says the convenience and speed with which we can accomplish tasks and contact each other has changed the way we treat time. “As communications got faster, our understanding of an overall daily schedule shrank from what fits into hour increments to, suddenly, what fits into minutes or seconds,” she says. “We end up filling up our schedule to the point where any blank space feels vaguely threatening. It’s foreign. It’s weird. We don’t know what to do with it.”

Recently, I went to a comedy show where a comedian, Allison O’Conor, put it perfectly. She joked about her own recent attempts to follow a routine and live a “healthy” (by TikTok-influencer standards) lifestyle: waking up early and drinking matcha, going to the gym, working, getting to bed early. The punch line was that she’d never been lonelier and hadn’t seen her friends in weeks. I laughed, but the joke hit home.

In the U.S., Liming says, there’s a prevailing individualist mindset. And it manifests in the realm of wellness in the focus on self-care and individualized solutions like one-on-one therapy or cutting off people who are deemed toxic. I don’t mean to say that therapy, self-care, or cutting off toxic people are essentially or always bad — just that they are individualist solutions sometimes applied to systemic or collective-based problems. And when we decide we don’t need other people, Liming says, it can get dangerous for society.

“What happens if we give up on the idea of each other in a democracy? If we start to assume that there’s nothing we could ever want from strangers and that we have no allegiance to strangers, even though they occupy part of our world and part of our social setting?” wonders Liming. So what can we do about this? Liming gave me an assignment: I was to get together with a friend without any idea of what we were going to do together.

“I’m very interested in hanging out as improvisation,” says Liming. “Sometimes, I think the most fun that I ever have hanging out with friends is when I don’t have anything set and ready to do. Finding out where that leads can be very interesting for figuring out things about your relationship and about the other person.” This resonates with me. In high school, and even more so in college, hanging out happened organically without much planning involved. The possibilities of where my day or night could go always propelled me to enter whatever dorm room I was invited to or to stay up a little longer to watch my floormates play video games.

Now, seeing a friend often means we have to go through our schedules, mark down days and times in calendars, decide on a location having considered everyone’s neighborhood, interests, and budget. It’s actually a lot of work.

I had already set aside an evening to spend with my friend Grace, but we hadn’t yet agreed on a specific plan or even a time. I proposed this idea of an unplanned evening with her, and we decided she’d come over to my apartment at 6:30 p.m., then we’d see what happened.

Grace and I first met at a grocery store in 2019 — a few months after I’d moved to New York. She was often working checkout on weekends, when I usually went, and we’d get into conversations about eggs, produce, and sustainability. When I ran into her after she’d stopped working there, we became friends. The last time I saw Grace was at my birthday party almost a year ago. In the time since, she’d started nursing school and I’d become worse at managing my schedule. We’d initially planned to see each other in December and rescheduled to February. Now it was March.

The day of our hang, I was exhausted, and so was she. I was on deadline for multiple projects, and she’d just taken her first major nursing-school exam after more than a week of straight studying. Still, she arrived with a card game in hand, we hugged and headed inside, then … well, neither of us quite knew what to do at first, especially because we hadn’t seen each other in so long. I offered beverages. She declined, and we sat down for some much-needed life updates. When we reached a lull, I asked her how she was feeling: night in or night out? We agreed that we both needed a cozy night in and promptly ordered sushi. I hadn’t been outside all day, and the walk to pick it up was the revitalization I needed. Our conversation got livelier and we complained about how hard hanging out had gotten.

Back inside, we paired the sushi with homemade miso soup and fun beverages: a matcha latte for Grace and a prebiotic soda for me. Then we picked up the card game, We’re Not Really Strangers, which felt appropriate for the night we were having: It’s a “get to know you” game with three levels — from least to most intimate. She told me about the doubts and concerns that had made her hesitate to pursue nursing at first. I told her about my first impression of her when we’d met. At the end, we wrote each other notes that weren’t supposed to be opened until we parted.

Before she left, I convinced her to join me in testing out the karaoke set I’d bought and not yet used — with the enticement that we could and would do it sitting down. We sang a few songs: some Rihanna deep cuts, a High School Musical duet, and, I’ll admit it, a P!nk song.

As the night concluded, I thought of Liming’s chapter “Jamming As Hanging Out” about her experiences with two different bands she was in. “Jamming, like hanging out, asks only one thing of us: It asks for our time,” writes Liming. “Time is the pure currency that powers the wheels of creative improvisation. Indeed, it is the only thing that can.” That’s essentially what Grace and I did all night. We shared with each other the most precious thing any human has: our time.

Spending that unrushed time with Grace was such a balm during an uncomfortably busy week. It was the kind of hanging out I wish I could do every day, and it fortified me to face the next day with a little more ease. Now I’m preparing myself for a late spring and summer of hanging out — at potluck dinners like the one I’m going to tonight, on rooftops, in a mug-painting session a friend and I signed up for. I’m making space in my schedule to just hang.

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Hanging Out With Your Friends Is Good for You