By Edd Staton, InternationalLiving.com
I was catching up with a high school friend over Skype recently. During our conversation, he shared his amazement that my wife Cynthia and I enjoy what he called our "crazy social life." He said, "It seems like you two are always busy having fun with friends."
Cathedral Rooftop in Cuenca, Ecuador
I replied that, since I'd "walked in his moccasins," I understood his feelings. "Let me ask you," I said. "I know you recently moved, so how many of your new neighbors have you met?"
"None," he answered.
"Okay, you lived in your previous house for several years. How many friends did you have there?"
"Only one -- our next door neighbor."
"Would I be correct in guessing that the driving force of your friendship was proximity more than actual shared values?"
"I hadn't really thought about it until you asked. But I'd have to say yes."
What my friend shared was no surprise. Cynthia and I had an eerily similar life in Las Vegas before moving to Cuenca, Ecuador, in 2010. Our daily existence revolved around getting ready to go to work, going back and forth to our jobs, and toiling away for too many hours. After a quick dinner and a little TV or internet, we were off to bed before doing it all over again.
"Spare time" on the weekends was usually consumed with chores and errands and a restaurant meal if we were lucky. In our exhausting pursuit of the "American Dream," the idea of developing meaningful relationships was never part of the equation. We couldn't imagine having the time or energy to do it.
Tomebamba River in Cuenca, Ecuador
When we were considering early retirement, Cynthia and I created a checklist of requirements if we decided to relocate overseas. A lower cost of living, temperate climate, excellent medical care, and proximity to our family were all on it.
"Having more friends" was not on that list. Our social life was so lame that the thought honestly never even occurred to us. And yet the "family" of close friends, both expat and local, we have developed here in Cuenca over the last six years is certainly the biggest surprise--and perhaps the most significant aspect of our expat life.
Another welcome surprise was how easily we formed these new friendships. You meet someone, perhaps while you're strolling around town. (It's perfectly acceptable to walk up to a foreigner you haven't met and introduce yourself.) The next thing you know, you're invited to a party, where you meet other people who introduce you to their acquaintances. Before long, your social calendar is overflowing.
A week or so after we arrived in Cuenca, through just such an invitation, we found ourselves at a going-away party for people we didn't even know. On top of that, we didn't know any of the guests, either. Yet somehow we ended up standing in the living room, chatting with two couples from our hometown of Atlanta-and through conversation I learned that one of the guys went to a rival high school and we played basketball against each other!
Rooftop View of Cuenca, Ecuador
Back in the States, most of us have attended that cocktail party or neighborhood cul-de-sac cookout where, drinks in hand, someone starts a conversation with, "So, what do you do?" Sadly, within U.S. society, your job is often considered the defining characteristic of your identity.
I can't recall a single instance in which I have been asked that question in Cuenca. Our experience has taught us that expats prefer getting to know each other as people rather than as job descriptions. We seem to understand that former occupations may not reveal much worth knowing.
And we do get to know each other. Lunches can turn into three-hour gabfests; evening get-togethers often start early and end late. Having time and freedom allows us to discover the joy of connecting with our fellow human beings on a deep and meaningful level.
It turns out that these social connections can profoundly affect your health, happiness, and even longevity. Numerous studies show that social relationships are as important to health as better-known risk factors like smoking, lack of exercise, and obesity.
Researchers from Brigham Young University reviewed the results of 142 studies involving over 300,000 participants. They found that those with strong ties to family and friends had a 50% lower risk of dying over a given period of time than people with few social contacts.
In a culture that places a premium on hard work, success, and financial prosperity, it's not surprising that "having more friends" is pushed to the bottom of our to-do lists. It's all too easy to get caught up in the rat race of valuing material things over other people.
That whole mindset gets turned on its head in many expat environments. And from my experience, that's a beautiful thing.
But I encourage you not to wait for your future expat life to begin enriching your social fabric. Pick up the phone and call that relative or friend you haven't spoken to in forever. Send someone an e-card to let them know you're thinking about them. Or go wild and mail a handwritten note.
Not only will you make someone's day. You'll also put a smile on your own face and add immensely to your quality of life. And maybe even add a few years to your life in the process.
This article comes to us courtesy of InternationalLiving.com, the world's leading authority on how to live, work, invest, travel, and retire better overseas.