My father passed away this year, as many of you likely know.

He and I worked together for 25 years, more than half of my life.

During that time, we worked with nearly 100 colleagues and who knows how many clients, organizations, local and state leaders, friends and genuinely good people. There were a few bad ones, but so few and distant that I have trouble remembering their names and faces.

Once when I was frustrated about a good person – one of our best – choosing to depart The Ehrhardt Group to pursue the next phase of her career, my father said simply that we need people.

“We can’t do what we want to do or achieve what we want to achieve without the people in our lives,” he said.

I knew my old man was right when he said this. After the hundreds of calls, visits, texts, emails and cards I’ve received across these past months, I can definitively say I know it now.

So, in thinking about what we’ve learned this year, my answer is people. Not just individually, but as communities. Who we spend our time with, including time by ourselves, forms our outlook on life, on our community, our nation and world. It impacts how we make decisions and communicate – or not communicate – with one another.

We need each other, and we have more in common, than we do apart.

Less Time with Friends Today and More Time Alone to Doomscroll

We say that people make our lives more meaningful, but we are choosing to spend more time alone.

In a Nov. 23 column in The Washington Post, economist Bryce Ward said that between 2014 and 2019, “time spent with friends went down (and time spent alone went up) by more than it did during the pandemic.” Between 2010 and 2013, we spent about 6.5 hours a week with friends. By 2019, the average American was spending around 4 hours per week with friends, according to the U.S. Census Bureau’s American Time Use Survey. By 2021, we spent only 2 hours and 45 minutes a week with close friends.

It doesn’t matter whether we are rich or poor. Male or female. City-dwellers or out in the country. Married or single. White or non-white. We are alone, probably too much.

Americans report fewer close friends than they did 30 years ago, according to commentator and entrepreneur Scott Galloway. One in seven men and one in 10 women in the U.S. don’t have a single friend.

This self-imposed or unintended isolation is showing up in how we choose to spend our time. It’s also appearing earlier in our lives.

In his column, Ward highlights that smartphones crossed the 50% market penetration threshold in 2014, coinciding with the marked decrease in time people spend with each other. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 35- to 44-year-old people today spend more than 15% of their leisure time socializing, while 15- to 19-year-olds spend the highest percentage of their leisure time on video and computer games.

More than half of Americans between the ages of 13 and 25 – Gen Z – spend four or more hours per day on social media, according to Morning Consult.

In the Gulf South, 68% of us spend three hours or more with our smartphone daily. More than what we spend watching TV or working on our computers.

Some may say that time spent on social media, talking to friends on FaceTime or over games of Madden23 is time well spent and meaningful. My son and daughter would agree with this statement for sure.

But does face-to-face, in-person communication do something different for us as humans than just being on a screen with them?

How We Spend Time Doesn’t Match Up with What We Say is Meaningful

In 17 advanced economies around the world, citizens consider their family a more significant source of meaning in their lives than anything else, according to the Pew Research Center.

In the U.S., it goes family, friends and then stuff when it comes to what gives us meaning. Family and friends made up two of the top three sources of meaning in nearly every other nation.

Related to this is a finding in the 2022 Gulf South Index that shows the closer we get to our own driveways, the better we feel about our lot in life. The state of the world? Ugly. The state of the U.S.? Dumpster fire. How are things going in your neighborhood? Pretty fair to sunny.

In addition to trusting local news and other information, we feel better about our lives, as opposed to seeing everywhere else as teetering on the edge of the abyss, because our neighborhoods and communities are where our people are. The people we talk to face-to-face. The calls we make to the people who understand us. People we ask an opinion of and value what they have to say.

When we are alone too much, we are left to our own devices – literally – and the tools that ultimately breed separation and isolation, if left unchecked, such as social media sites, online fringe shows and hours and hours of Netflix. A sea of “surface-level acquaintances” that don’t provide the sense of belonging and connection that we need to thrive individually and improve the community collectively.

“People Who Need People.” – Barbra Streisand, Funny Girl

It would’ve been hard to get through this “what we’ve learned” column without this song bouncing around in my head. Either this or the theme from the Golden Girls.

When we have people, those relationships can be just as important as diet and exercise, according to the Science of People and related research.

Social connections are linked to lower blood pressure, a lower body mass index (BMI) and even a reduced risk of diabetes. Having people keeps our minds sharp. We learn and share. We communicate, hopefully without yelling at each other.

Just like the negative impacts of spending too much time alone, these physical and mental improvements from friendship span across all age groups.

For the last 80 years, researchers with the Harvard Study of Adult Development studies “the psychosocial variables and biological processes from earlier in life” and how that predicts “health and well-being in late life.” They followed and communicated with 268 Harvard graduates and 456 men who lived in Boston for eight decades.

Their findings? “At the end of the day, the only factor they could correlate with happiness was the quality of their human relationships. Close friendships, familial connections and marriages surpassed other variables like social class, genetics, I.Q., fame, or fortune.”

We need people, as humans and communicators. We don’t necessarily need a lot of them, maybe as few as three close friends. But we need them, nonetheless.

As 2022 concludes, I’m sad because I miss my dad. He was one of my people. He always will be. However, I am grateful for the rest of the people around me, from those closest friends to my colleagues walking the halls of The Ehrhardt Group. They make me better and I hope your people make you better as well.

Merry Christmas, y’all. See you in 2023.

Marc Ehrhardt
The Ehrhardt Group