Live Closer to Your Friends

Sometime during the pandemic lockdowns, I began to nurture a fantasy: What if I were neighbors with all of my friends? Every day, as I took long walks through North Vancouver that were still nowhere near long enough to land me at a single pal’s doorstep, I would reflect on the potential joys of a physically closer network. Wouldn’t it be great to have someone who could join me on a stroll at a moment’s notice? Or to be able to drop by to cook dinner for a friend and her baby? How good would it be to have more spontaneous hangs instead of ones that had to be planned, scheduled, and most likely rescheduled weeks in advance?

This doesn’t have to be just a dream. Friends who already live in the same city could decide to move within walking distance of one another—the same neighborhood, block, or even apartment building—and campaign for others to do the same. Doing so would likely involve a lot of effort on the front end, but the resulting community could pay emotional dividends for years. Meeting up would be a breeze if you didn’t have to travel as far to see one another. More than that, the proximity would make it easier to support one another materially and emotionally. Even just knowing that someone you cherish is near could be reassuring. The more I’ve thought about it, the more I’ve become convinced: We should all live close to our friends.

For the past century, the nuclear family has defined U.S. homes. But long before parents-plus-2.5 kids became the norm, Americans lived surrounded by friends and extended family. Clan-style groups of kin and non-kin remain standard in many cultures. Even in the U.S., this mode of living thrives where cultivated; think of college campuses, which tend to be the kind of walkable communities where you’re regularly running into pals on the street or having an impromptu party at somebody’s place. Queer people have also long formed nonbiological “chosen families” and moved close to one another. Living across the hall from one’s friends is even enshrined in one of America’s most enduringly popular TV shows.

Yet young adults are conventionally expected to focus on their career, getting married, and starting a family. Putting this energy into coordinating a move with all of your buddies may seem quirky—but doing so could actually be really good for you. Having supportive friends is associated with greater day-to-day happiness and longer life spans, sometimes even more so than having strong familial or spousal relationships. It’s also linked to lower levels of depression and mental decline as we age. And friends are particularly important at a time when 36 percent of Americans report feeling “serious loneliness.” Although technology is making it easier to maintain long-distance bonds, nothing can replace seeing friends in person. Researchers have found that happiness spreads “like an emotional contagion,” especially among those who live close together. When one person becomes happier, their next-door neighbors’ chances of also growing happier rises by 34 percent; friends living within a mile of each other are 25 percent more likely to feel happy, and their friends have a 10 percent chance of feeling happier too. Live around people who make you happy, and you might create a feedback loop that perks up everyone around you.

Having a pal around is also just practical. For people with kids, a friend in the neighborhood might be able to help with child care in a pinch, saving you the cost of a last-minute sitter; those without children might welcome the chance to bond with friends’ kids. And for people who live alone, proximity to friends can make saving on some things easier: You might share household items you don’t need every day or split bulk groceries, for example. But no matter your particular setup, being around more people you trust makes getting through hard moments easier. Friends in the neighborhood can drive you to the hospital in an emergency, saving you an expensive ambulance ride. Or they can simply come over when you’re feeling down, or bring you a hot meal when you’re sick.

Of course, people can get many of these benefits by sharing a place with their friends, and plenty do. But some would prefer to live alone—28 percent of households in 2021 were one-person, up from 13 percent in 1960. Many others want to live with their family or partner. Living near rather than with friends offers community without the need to sacrifice other priorities. Plus, far more people can occupy a neighborhood than can comfortably share an apartment.

Moving close to your friends requires some masterminding. Cities can make doing so easier by dismantling single-family zoning codes and encouraging a variety of housing types in neighborhoods, giving those with different budgets and living situations options that fit their needs. But even without official policies, people can make it work on their own—assuming they’re persuasive enough. Sam Unger, 32, a food scientist and a friend of mine, has created a chosen family like this in Montreal, where about 15 of her friends live within walking distance of one another. When someone moves away, they try to transfer their lease to other friends. And when pals based elsewhere in the city are looking to move, Unger will try selling them on the positives of her neighborhood and sometimes even look for housing for them. She just convinced one friend of the merits of an apartment only two minutes away from hers, which has already brought her joy and peace of mind. “It’s funny,” she told me. “The other day, I bought a fire extinguisher, and she’s like, ‘Oh, well, I have one. You could just call me if you had a fire, and I’d be right over with it.’”

Logistically, becoming closer with your neighbors might sound simpler than contriving proximity to friends. But it’s reasonable to want the people you already love to be nearby. “I don’t think there’s any shame in saying, ‘I really just miss my friends that I’ve known for 10 years and want to really hold on and maintain those connections,’” Grace Vieth, a Ph.D. candidate researching adult friendships at the University of Minnesota’s Social Interaction Lab, told me. Plus, making new friends in adulthood is notoriously tricky: 22 percent of Americans say they haven’t made a new friend in the past five years. A friendly community has the potential to naturally expand and create a more social living situation for all.

Many people are prepared to move for a new job, to be with a romantic partner, or even just for an adventure. Moving to be closer to buddies should be no different. Friends are not incidental to a good life; they’re essential to one. So why not shorten the distance between you and them?

The Atlantic