The New Science of Friendship: How Bro-time Can Save Your Life


There’s a terrible moment in every guy’s life, usually somewhere in his mid-30s, when he realizes that he and his best friends have begun to drift away from one another. You know how it is. Those weekly rounds of beer? They’re not even monthly anymore, they’re yearly. And that golf outing that keeps getting delayed? You haven’t thought twice about it. All of a sudden, you’re busy and married, and when it comes to your buddies, you feel like lone planets with rarely crossing orbits. Sure, you get to catch up when someone gets married—and you can always be relied upon for a hearty “congrats!” on Facebook when someone announces a new child—but you can’t help but feel that the party is somehow over.

This grim realization had dawned on Jared Cohen and his five best friends, on New Year’s Eve, in 2015. They’d all descended on Baltimore for a wedding—one was the groom, another the officiant, Cohen and the rest were groomsmen and ushers. But before the evening’s festivities began, they escaped for an afternoon run to burn off some energy and jitters.

The sun was out, the air was a balmy 50°, and the guys—one wearing a tuxedo (it was a wedding, after all)—darted through the maze of office towers downtown. Soon, they found themselves facing a long, steep hill, and did what any self-respecting group of hypercompetitive men in their mid-30s would do: They sprinted as fast as they could to the top, which they reached panting, sweaty, and smiling. As Cohen and his friends stood high above Baltimore’s Inner Harbor—a group of pre-middle-aged Rocky Balboas basking in the triumph of their summit—it felt like they were a decade younger, when they had few responsibilities and no shortage of time to spend with one another.

Later that night, the six of them were drinking wine when Cohen brought up his recent resolution to get in the “best shape of his life.” Decker Walker, a management consultant, piped in that his girlfriend had just bought him the P90X3 video. The rest of the guys were intrigued, and no doubt a little drunk, so they all agreed to join him the next day for a workout session. Sure enough, the group met in the cramped gym at the Kimpton Hotel Monaco Baltimore for a Jan. 1 workout that was a hilarious mess, according to Walker. It was a bunch of hungover guys contorting themselves into awkward positions, arms flailing, legs dangling, and bodies teetering over into near belly flops. “We were all over the place,” Walker said. “We looked ridiculous.”

But they were also having a blast.

When Walker said he planned to keep up with the program by working out every day for the next 90 days, Cohen had an idea. “Let’s all do it,” he said. The rest of the group wasn’t sure—90 days of working out every day? Who was going to be able to pull that off ?

But no one was going to be first to back down.

In 2017, it’s easy to forget how important actual friendship really is.

On Facebook, we’ve all got hundreds, sometimes thousands, of friends, and we’re told that we live in an era of unmatched interconnectedness. Who needs to make an effort? You can just read your news feed and see your old buddy’s pictures—or his latest political rant—right? Isn’t that keeping up?

Well, no, it isn’t, and that’s especially true if you’re a man.

University of Maryland School of Social Work professor Geoffrey L. Greif, author of Buddy System: Understanding Male Friendships, famously categorized women’s friendships as “face-to-face” and men’s friendships as “shoulder-to-shoulder.” When female friends get together, they’re comfortable sitting across from one another and just talking. Male friends usually need to perform an activity to reach the same level of intimacy.

Sure, men can pour out their hearts to one another, but that tends to happen only if we’re doing something together. When Cohen and his friends ran through Baltimore, they were engaging in classic “shoulder-to-shoulder” behavior, catching up on one another’s lives and enjoying one another’s company by finding a challenge to share in. “When we hang out, we always like to do stuff that has people moving instead of just sitting around,” says Walker.

This shoulder-to-shoulder behavior isn’t just fun. Studies have consistently shown that friendship leads to all manner of positive outcomes. Having a friend you see on most days, for instance, boosts your sense of well-being by the same amount as earning an extra $100,000 a year. If that friend lives within a mile of you, all the better, because, according to economist, author, and professor Paul Dolan, Ph.D.—who’s also a world-renowned expert on happiness—people who have friends who live that close are 25% more likely to feel happy than those who don’t.

Even if you don’t have someone who lives nearby, maintaining intimate friendships is key. A study of Swedish men found that friendship significantly decreased their risk of suffering a heart attack; romantic attachments did not. On a darker note, psychologist Julianne Holt-Lunstad found that having few social ties increases your risk of dying in any given moment by the same amount as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

None of these happiness and health findings even touch on the impact of friendship on improving cognitive function, boosting pain tolerance, and making challenges seem less daunting—yet there are benefits, too.

And yet, as men get older, they’re finding themselves increasingly short on time to maintain those relationships.

The Pew Research Center recently found that modern-day fathers spend nearly three times as many hours with their children and twice as many hours doing house-work as their fathers and grandfathers did in 1965. With demanding careers and only so much time in a day, men are faced with a paradox: Being a good dad and a good husband seems to inevitably lead to being a bad friend.

“Figuring out how to manage one’s time is the most difficult thing a man—and a couple—has to do,” says Grief. “So if I’m 35, when do I have time to be with my family, when do I have time to be with my spouse, when do my spouse and I have time to be with our couple friends, and when do I have time to be alone? I haven’t even mentioned work. So as you turn more to the work world and the world of family, it’s a real challenge to keep the friends who were so important to you in your late teens and early 20s.”

So, yes: Guys, too, have trouble “having it all.”

But what Cohen and his friends began to realize as their workout challenge started to progress was that finding time for friendships, fitness, and family didn’t have to be a zero-sum game. Maybe those aspects of life could actually strengthen one another.

“My wife always says she has a lot of fun being with me when I’m around those guys,” says Cohen’s friend, Jeff McLean. “It’s like I’m a more animated version of myself, I kind of light up a little bit more. Remember Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom where they had those three stones and when you put them together they’d all glow? I feel like that with us.”

Cohen met his friends in his early 20s, when the six of them were Rhodes and Fulbright scholars together at Oxford.

Sure, they were Type-A überachievers, but they were also your typical twentysomething guys, playing knock-down, drag-out intramural basketball games, throwing boozy costume parties, and taking adventurous trips. “It’s the type of group where, if we were walking across a field, we wouldn’t be able to get from Point A to Point B without two of us racing,” says Cohen.

They’ve all gone on to ambitious careers in wildly different fields. Cohen, now 35, wrote a book on Middle Eastern youth culture and was hired by Condoleezza Rice as part of the State Department’s policy planning staff. Today, he’s the founder and president of Jigsaw, a think tank within Alphabet Inc., Google’s parent company, which deploys technology to fight violent extremism, attacks on free speech, and cyberbullying. (Wired called Jigsaw “Google’s Internet Justice League.”) Walker, a former college football player with a logical mind and a mischievous streak, became a partner at a management consulting firm. McLean is a Naval Academy grad who Cohen imagines “becoming governor of Wisconsin some day,” and has made his career flying fighter jets. Dov Fox, a workaholic intellectual who moonlighted as a stand-up comic, got his dream job as a law professor. Alex Pollen, the laid-back, outdoorsy type, recently became a neuroscientist and assistant professor with a lab at the University of California San Francisco School of Medicine. The energetic guy who seemed to always be leading the group into wild adventures? He became a Navy SEAL.

By the time they’re reunited in Baltimore, and flailed about the Hotel Monaco gym, their careers had flung them across multiple states and countries. So, as they began their fitness challenge, they decided to keep one another posted on their progress every day over WhatsApp.

The heckling started immediately. The first to finish his workout on a given day would write to the group with some version of “I knew I was going to win, I just didn’t know it would happen this early.” If someone in the group hadn’t reported his workout by the afternoon, he’d get taunts: “Where are you, it’s 4 p.m., are you out?”

But, in between, the men used their fitness challenge to just, well, be friends. They shared pictures of their kids. They chimed in with updates about their lives. The shoulder-to-shoulder back-and-forth was getting mixed in with some very classic face-to-face talk. They hadn’t talked this much since grad school.

Their fitness improved, though not everyone stuck with the challenge. The Navy SEAL never even started, choosing instead to watch from afar; but everyone agreed he was in the best shape anyway. And Pollen ditched in the first week. “As a scientist, I know that every experiment needs a control group,” he says. In mid-January, Cohen feared he’d drop out when he flew to Switzerland for the World Economic Forum in Davos and had no gym access in his rented apartment. But he adapted, keeping his streak going with a body-weight workout of planks and pushups. A week later, he and Pollen took a vacation to Antarctica. On the sea voyage from King George Island, their boat careened over massive swells, and Cohen felt nauseated. Game over? Hell no. He and Pollen hit the vessel’s small gym to lift weights and pull out 500-meter sprints on a rowing machine. “After that,” Cohen says, “my feeling was that I could keep going for 366 days.”

When the 90-day mark arrived, 

Cohen, Walker, Mclean, and Fox had all maintained an unblemished workout streak, and Walker sent them all celebratory trophies decorated with a bodybuilder in an Atlas pose. That could have been it, but by then, working out every day—and talking every day—had become routine practice, so the four men re-upped for the entire year.

The twists and turns continued. Cohen contracted a mild case of Lyme disease but bested it quickly, fighting off the lethargy-inducing symptoms with gut-busting runs on the treadmill. McLean’s wife gave birth to their second child, and he found himself performing burpees outside the postpartum recovery room. Walker got off intercontinental flights in Tokyo and forced himself to work out as soon as he arrived at his hotel. Fox dropped out in late September, finding himself for a day on solo daddy duty. “I went to the guys with my tail between my legs and said, ‘I couldn’t make it happen.”

But the benefits were palpable for everyone. As McLean puts it: “I’m happier talking to them every day.” With Cohen, Walker, and McLean closing in on their 366-day streak, I ask Cohen what he’ll do after the challenge ends on Dec. 31. Answer: He’ll wax eloquent about the benefits of this kind of a workout program, not just for him and his friends, but potentially for any group of guys with a desire to stay in touch and get in shape. All you need is some discipline and a smartphone.

But how, I wonder, will Cohen keep the conversation going once the fitness challenge is finished?

There’s a pause, then Cohen makes a not-so-surprising revelation. “When you’ve invested 366 days, how do you bring yourself to stop and sleep in?” he says. “I plan to just keep going. It anchors my day, no matter where in the world I am and no matter what I’m doing.” 

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