The Hard Facts: How Close is Close Enough?

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“When a friend who lives less than a mile away becomes happy, it can increase the probability that you are happy by 25 percent. In contrast, the happiness of a friend who lives more than a mile away has no effect.” (Connected: The Surprising Power of Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives by Nicholas A. Christakis and James H. Fowler)

Yesterday’s blog post was another ode to consistency. But, as we know, proximity is another vital factor for friendship. The closer you live to someone, the better shot you have of hitting it off. Research shows that having similar addresses matters more than having similar values or interests.  Sometimes, a difference of mere feet can affect who you click with. The person you sit next to in class has a much better likelihood of becoming your best friend than the  student four seats down.

But what are the parameters? How close is close enough? Reader Marie inquired about as much in a comment yesterday: “I am wondering how close you need to live to a friend (or group of friends) to stay actively involved in their lives and not fall into a distant relationship? Obviously across the country is a distant friendship. But what about across the state? Or across a metropolitan city? That could be an hour away. How close do your friends need to be before your friendship starts fading due to the distance? Is a friendship that is 10 minutes away more likely to continue than one 30 minutes away?”

This is such a good question, and it’s actually one I put in my book proposal back in the day. Would someone I liked just-enough but lived in my neighborhood be a more likely BFF than someone I totally clicked with but lived across town?  I tend to think the mile-marker is a pretty good barometer. Someone who lives within a mile of you probably will have the most influence, not just on your happiness (as referenced above) but also on your loneliness level. Once a friend lives more than a mile away, it becomes tougher to see them on a whim or meet for a quick lunch.

When I first started this blog I heard from a potential friend who lived in Illinois, but still about an hour away from me. We discussed getting together, but ultimately it didn’t work out. The main reason? Distance. Once it takes an hour to see someone across the state, it’s not much more difficult (though certainly more expensive) to fly across the country. I think the ability to get a spontaneous Sunday morning brunch is the key to close friendship. Even if you never actually get that last-minute meal, knowing that you can actually helps a friendship thrive.

To answer Marie’s questions, I sort of think that, yes, a friendship might start to fade if a BFF moves from 10 minutes away to 30 minutes away. It’s not that you won’t be best friends anymore, but I think that sense of immediacy and closeness that you get from a nearby pal might wane a bit. I would posit that a 10-minute-away friendship is more likely to thrive than a half-hour-away one.

Basically, every little bit counts. 10 minutes is better than 30, but 30 is better than an hour. It might sound formulaic, but I think it’s just reality.

So, my take—with a little help from Christakis and Fowler—is that a mile is the magic distance. Just the simple fact that your happy friend is within a mile of you is probably what’s making you 25 percent happier, anyway.
What do you think? Do you have a friendship distance hypothesis? Think my one-mile rule is too limiting?

10 Comments

Filed under The Search

10 responses to “The Hard Facts: How Close is Close Enough?

  1. Sam

    Living in Chicago I think the minutes away is more important than the miles. I would love to have a friend within a 10 min. I think I would hangout with them all the time. But if you are 4 miles away I might suggest a central meeting place rather than going to their place. Funny the things that change when you go from suburb to city!

  2. I would base it on drive time: friends who you can get together with and not have to factor in driving time are going to have a greater potential for BFF-dom.

    I know personally when I think of friends who live, say, on the other side of bad construction where the driving would be PAINFUL (hello, Chicago! two seasons: winter and construction), I’m not nearly as apt to make plans — it seems silly to spend 2 hours driving for an hour’s worth of dinner.

  3. Darlene

    I guess this depends on where one lives. When I lived in the suburbs, it was not a huge deal to drive from one suburb to another to see a friend. But now that I’m in the city and have no car, transportation is a huge issue! My friends who live in the suburbs don’t want to come into the city — it scares them. And it’s an enormous PITA for me to get out to them because the Metra does not stop everywhere, and the trains run so far apart that you run a real risk of missing the last one out for the night.

    Even within the city… if it’s the middle of winter and freezing cold and snowing, I am less likely to go see a friend (especially if she’s just a potential friend whom I’m getting to know) if getting there requires multiple buses and els. That’s probably bad of me…but who’s at her best after standing in the below-zero windchill getting snowed on for an hour?

  4. When I lived in Los Angeles, every good friend I had lived about a 40 minute drive away from me (give or take depending on the traffic on the 405 freeway). I have never felt so alone and depressed, despite having wonderful phone conversations and meeting up here and there for planned events.
    It was the nights after work when no one could meet me for a quick drink, or come over and make dinner together that were really frustrating. I spent a lot of time at a Starbucks down the street trolling for local friends and just to get out of the house. I made one pal but he was a bit of a weirdo, so that fizzled quickly.

    I had come from college where I had lived in the same apartment complex as my BFFs and constantly spent time at each other’s homes, and the shock of not being a stone’s throw away from them was hard on me. Also my boyfriend at the time was still in college so visiting him was also tricky and exhausting. Everyone I cared about was far away enough that I could not even feel comfortable calling them in an emergency.

    After this experience, I totally believe that distance plays a large role in who you grow closer to as a potential BFF.

    If I can walk over to your house easily, there is a good chance you will be the first person I reach out to for an impromptu taco date at that great restaurant in our neighborhood. If I have to take a train and a bus to see you, I am probably not going to even think to suggest hanging out on the fly, as it would take a few hours to even meet up. Automatically I will see the person in the hood probably 5 times to every 1 planned event with the farther away person. And grow closer to the one I get more face time with. It is inevitable.

    • Melissa

      I agree, Leanne, especially your point about the shock of coming from that kind of enclosed college world where you are surrounded by BFFs 24/7. It’s been 4 years since I graduated and moved out of that type of environment and it’s still sometimes hard to adjust to not being able to see my friends whenever I want, at any hour of the day, every single day and night. They don’t warn you about that part when you are warned about “the real world” and how different it can be from college life.

  5. I agree – it depends where you live. In the city, 1 mile is a great parameter. In my small hometown in northern Michigan? You get a lot more flexible with distance. And I don’t think it’s necessarily the time factor, it’s the hassle.

    It takes me the same amount of time to drive 3.8 miles from River North to Lake View as it would for me to drive 30 miles in my hometown. I happily make the 30-mile drive, as it’s pretty much open road. I find all ways to avoid having to drive those 3.8 miles in the city…

  6. Ana

    Agree with all above…depends on where you are, and is more about convenience than actual mileage. When I lived in Houston, a lot of friends were about an hour away, but that was the norm, and I was Ok with driving 30-40 minutes to meet up with someone (also I didn’t have kids at the time, so my time was much more flexible).
    Now we live in a smaller urban city, no car…anyone who lives outside of the 2 mile radius of the city seems really inconvenient, since I’d have to take a train or find a ride to visit with them. I have a lot of work friends that live in the burbs and I rarely see them outside of work for that reason, though I know that if we lived in the same area, we would definitely get together.

  7. I only have one friend in Chicago that actually lives within a mile of me, and we don’t see each other any more often than I see my friends who live in other parts of the city or those who are about an hour away in the suburbs. I feel like part of living here is spending time commuting places – I have a really long commute for work, why not commute for friends too? But like many aspects of friendship, a lot of it comes down to how willing both parties are to make an effort to get together. My suburban friends and I take turns hosting, so no one feels like they’re constantly spending tons of time traveling to see the other.

  8. Marie

    Rachel – Thanks for posting my question! I had been hoping that I’d see answers that 45 minutes to an hour was the magic distance to keep a friendship going strong. Personally I feel like it is around the 15 minute mark. After that it starts to seem more like a chore to have a quick lunch or coffee even if it is planned in advance. I thought I might be the exception since I hate driving and I live in a mid-size city where there isn’t much traffic/travel time. Now I have to rethink my next move which was going to be to the outer suburbs away from my friends.

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