Women

08.27.13

When Leaning In Means Sacrificing a Social Life

Countless studies have shown that friendships are essential to ‘having it all,’ so why do most of our work-life discussions forget to address socializing outside the family?

We’re at 14 months and counting since the birth of the latest “having it all” debate thanks to Anne-Marie Slaughter’s Atlantic cover story. That piece, thoughtful in its critique of the social and professional structures that make it hard for women to balance motherhood with careers, struck a chord with the public—a chord journalists haven’t stopped banging ever since. It’s a testament to Slaughter and a boon to American women that the article has inspired countless spinoffs. These stories have buttressed the Lean In–style conversations that need to take place to achieve real reform in the workplace.

With a tight focus on the work-family balance, leaning in and having it all hasn’t always resonated for single or childless women. Even so, they can often relate to the frustration of trying to break the glass ceiling while maintaining some semblance of a personal life.

But there’s an important part of the “having it all” equation that’s being left out: friendship.

It’s puzzling that discussions on quality of life so often neglect to mention friends—and some even go so far as to shove social lives out of the picture. Deb Spar, the president of the all-female Barnard College, recently wrote an article for Glamour magazine detailing the challenges women face with great expertise. But at the end of the story, she offered a piece of advice that sits strangely: “Banish guilt from your social life,” she wrote. “You don't have to accept every invitation. Before you RSVP, ask yourself: (1) Is it required for work? (2) Will it help you professionally or intellectually? (3) Will you enjoy it? If the answer to all three is no, don't go.”

Shouldn’t enjoying your social life have everything to do with “having it all”?

Of course, doing things you don’t feel like doing can be draining. But why would enjoyability come last on this list? Shouldn’t enjoying your social life have everything to do with “having it all”?

Countless studies have proven the connection between a robust social life and happiness (not to mention the connection between happiness and health). Researchers at Harvard Medical School found that joy is contagious: “One person’s happiness,” the study posits, “triggers a chain reaction that benefits not only their friends, but their friends’ friends, and their friends’ friends’ friends. The effect lasts for up to one year.” A British study found women need at least 33 friends to consider themselves “extremely satisfied with their lives.” (Men need 49.) Researchers at the London School of Economics found that time spent with friends boosts mood by 8 percent, compared with a 5.9 percent boost from partners and 1.4 percent from children.

Yet friendship rarely seems to factor into the “having it all” equation. And even when it does, it serves as a function of helping women balance their professional and familial responsibilities; as Spar wrote in Newsweek last year, “Women can choose ... between jobs in far-off cities and those that leave them closer to family and friends willing to help with the inevitable crises of child rearing.” Friends, in this reckoning, serve as extra babysitters.

Sure, when you have kids, there’s less time for parties. But all adults—men and women, parents and singles—need friends. Opting out of a social life might make sense logistically. In some cases (think single moms who balance three jobs), it may be a near necessary. But if we don’t have companions to let our hair down with, to call when the husband or the kids are on our last nerves, or to bounce ideas off, we can’t really say we “have it all.”