Will Belonging to a Tribe Result in a Longer, Happier Life?

men and women sitting around table

by Roger Reid

You say you’re not tribal?

Then you may be hurting your chances of living a long and healthy life.

In a recent Ted Talk titled, “What Makes a Good Life?” (www.bit.ly/TED-GoodLife) Robert Waldinger recapped findings from the Harvard Study of Adult Development, the longest study of adult life ever done.

After tracking participants for 78 years, one of the most important (and surprising) discoveries to date has been the importance of personal relationships. The conclusion points to a direct correlation between quality time spent with others and our ultimate longevity.

According to Waldinger, the keyword is quality—spending time with others who truly care about you, and provide a positive influence on your daily activities. And no, Facebook friends don’t count. Neither do LinkedIn connections. We’re talking about a different kind of relationship—something that goes far deeper than a holiday card at Christmas or catching up on your lodge buddy’s accomplishments at the next annual convention in Biloxi.

Why do we need a tribe?

  1. Our days are filled with impersonal contact, superficial conversations, and polite exchanges—momentary brushes with others that are necessary but insignificant. With time at a premium, we’ve mutually agreed to restrict ourselves to purely functional communication—engaging others for a specific purpose, and once that purpose is accomplished, we move on, unaffected and unremembered. Significant relationships help us offset this sense of detached anonymity, restoring our identity, perspective, and appreciation for others.
  2. We need honest feedback. Without objective input and feedback from others, we tend to start believing our own BS. Somebody has to be there to keep us in line, to tell us when our fly is open, or when our direction, thoughts, and actions are leading us down a dangerous road.
  3. We need validation from an authentic source, from people who count. They cheer us on when victory is in sight. They share with us in the celebrations of life, and make us realize that our accomplishments do matter, and our achievements are worth the sacrifice.

What makes a great tribe member?

Common philosophy and beliefs are more important than common interests. You may not enjoy the same movies, music, or sports, but you think the same way when it comes to the basics . . . like ethics, integrity, and the principles of interacting with others. In short, you celebrate similar values.

You may also find you ignore the hollow distractions and faddish social trends in favor of your own shared personal standards.

What are the most common traits of tribe-mates?

  1. You accept each other as you are, yet you both know there is the opportunity for change, growth, and achievement, to become more than you are now.
  2. You are a cheerleader, motivator, mentor, and disciplinarian to your tribe-mates. And you expect the same from them.
  3. You understand the pressures and time restraints of living life to its fullest, and you resist feelings of rejection, jealousy, and doubt when the demands of life require you to replace a personal meeting with a phone call.
  4. You do not judge each other. A strong tribe has never lived in a glass house.
  5. You honor the commitment of non-disclosure. Tribe members must share a confidence of trust, knowing what they reveal to each other will remain just between them. Breaking that trust is to deny their kinship, to say in effect, you are no longer a member of my tribe.

How many does it take to make a tribe?

Remember, we’re talking quality, not quantity. Robert Ringer often talked about trading in a bunch of thorns for one perfect rose. And yes, he was talking about people. His analogy has stayed with me, because at the time I was reading his work, I didn’t know many roses. But I knew a lot of thorns.

According to Ringer, one honest, approachable, and trustworthy person is better than an army of acquaintances who call you “friend” but are nowhere to be found in a crisis. And that points to a vital difference between tribe members and a “so-called” friend . . .

A close friendship implies a fondness, caring, and a sense of longing to be with that person. No, I’m not talking about sex or physical expressions of affection, but rather, the comfortable feeling of satisfaction, joy, or pleasure experienced when in their company. And while you may (and typically will) experience those same feelings when in the company of your tribe, it isn’t a necessary or mandatory component of a tribal relationship. In fact, a good tribe member may make you feel a bit uncomfortable from time to time because they offer and expect absolute honesty—something a lot of friendships can’t tolerate.

The best place to find tribe members?

Tribe members can come from every nook and cranny of our lives, but not surprisingly, there are some sources that are more likely to produce good candidates than others. For example, your workplace may produce co-harts and business associates, but seldom a tribe member. The environment is too structured, too repressive to allow for the uninhibited expression and honesty that is the foundation of tribal communication.

Although there are exceptions, looking to your immediate family as a source of tribemates is usually unproductive. Your family has a specific vision and identity of who you are based on a shared history. But in most cases, who you are now is not who you were then. And seldom are you granted total recognition for who you have become. That’s why your family may not have showered you with accolades for your last promotion, or for starting a new business, or for accomplishing some other life achievement.

In spite of their best intentions, those closest to you may automatically discount your accomplishments with, “Yeah, she’s a vice president now, but she’s still the same little girl who likes ice cream sundaes and watching the ducks at the park. She hasn’t really changed.” But in fact, you’re not that same little girl, and you know it. You have changed. You’ve become someone else, and your family refuses to recognize it. There are lots of reasons behind a family’s discounting of accomplishment, ranging from jealousy and separation anxiety, to the need to preserve the past and your place within it. A biological family serves a purpose in your life, but seldom do its members have the objectively and common life experience to take their place as a member of your tribe.

Start building your tribe by taking inventory of your current relationships.

Do any of them have the potential to become tribal? It’s not unusual to find tribe members in your current social circle. The reason they haven’t shown themselves is due to our tendency to treat our casual friends with careful caution. Afraid of getting too personal, we avoid revealing too much, or offering them the opportunity to do the same.

If you believe you’ve found a likely candidate, keep in mind that this is not the same as asking someone to join a fraternal organization. Approaching the subject with, “Do you want to join my tribe?” may produce polite rejection or tacit suspicion.

Approach the idea a little at a time. Make a point to listen more than you speak, inviting others to talk candidly with your assurance of confidentiality. You can also initiate a more personal conversation by inviting their honest opinion about a personal or work situation, on the condition your disclosure remains confidential. Avoid revealing anything about anyone they know personally, or information that could have negative repercussions if they betray the confidence.

Sound like a test? It is.

And with each new exchange, you’ll sense the formation of a bond—or you won’t. And that’s the key. Go with your gut, but don’t rush it. It’s a process and it takes time to evolve organically.

Those who form a personal tribe often claim the benefits exceed those received from participating in a master-mind group or other business-related idea exchange. Their reasoning is simple: A successful life consists of more than dealing with the challenges of business, and unlike a forum devoted exclusively to commerce and enterprise, a tribe offers an atmosphere where any topic or subject can be discussed without judgment. Tribe members are free to question, comment, and contribute openly, with each member benefiting from the synergy of a shared perspective.

Tribal relationships are not easy and require a commitment of time and responsibility. You must be there for your tribe-mates as you expect them to be there for you. But a strong, caring tribe is the number one defense against loneliness and isolation, both of which are toxic to our health and longevity.

“If you find someone who makes you smile, who checks up on you often to see if you’re okay, who watches out for you and wants the very best for you, don’t let them go. Keep them close and don’t take them for granted. People like that are hard to find.”   Author Unknown