The Lost Art of Hanging Out

In a hyper-scheduled world, is it possible to be friends without a calendar invite?

hanging out

When did hanging out with friends get so complicated? Illustration by Pat Fennessy

I miss my best friends. That’s the thought that popped into my head a few months ago as I left work. So I sent out a group text suggesting dinner. Everyone was in. And with the dexterity of NASA scientists planning a rocket launch, we determined a date and place that worked for all of us — a Wednesday, six weeks away.

So it goes for most of my social life these days. Specific people, at pre-set times: my yoga pals at the power-flow class on Sundays in Fairmount; the college crew at arranged birthday dinners; running-group friends at seasonal East Passyunk bar crawls.

When my dinner finally rolls around, I’m tempted to flake in favor of staying in to watch Friends with a bottle of wine; it’s been over a month, and I’ve lost the enthusiasm I had in the moment. But I pull it together and go. If I don’t, when will I see them again?

The truth is, just the scheduling preamble is enough to make one never suggest a hang-out session again. We’re so busy these days that the process has become as enjoyable as making a dentist appointment. “I have a friend who makes a calendar invite for everything we do: a movie, drinks, a board-game night — plus there will be a flurry of messages scheduling each,” says a pal who lives in Grad Hospital. “The planning alone is exhausting.”

Despite this, I do somehow manage to spend a lot of time with friends all over Philly — but not much of it seems quality. We meet up and have our drinks or dinner or agreed-upon activity, then say our goodbyes until we do it all over again. And it’s a bummer, because just hanging out, spontaneous social time revolving around nothing in particular, is where friendships deepen, where lasting memories are made, and where one can be authentic rather than “on.” Maybe that’s why people really hold onto their childhood and college friends. Those friendships are founded on see-where-the-day-takes-you time.

“Scheduling leisure activities makes sense on the surface,” says Sandy Capaldi, associate director of Penn’s Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. “But those activities may inherently feel different due to the act of scheduling them. Research has found that scheduled leisure time tends to feel more like ‘work’ or an obligation to be fulfilled.”

All of this has left me not only annoyed, but lonesome. Dozens of studies have shown that strong social connections are as important to long-term well-being as adequate sleep or a healthy diet. If friendship feels like work, we stop reaping its benefits.

Now, all of this might just be a part of getting older. More responsibilities (weekend gig work, home repairs, kids) eat up free time. But that hasn’t always been the case. I remember my mom’s friends randomly dropping by for coffee when I was young. Now, if someone were to knock on my door before texting to see if I was free, I would probably hide in the kitchen and pretend I wasn’t home.

Since I started writing this, though, I’ve been trying to break my scheduling habit. To my surprise, I had a lazy pizza dinner in East Falls with friends last Thursday after a simple “Drinks tomorrow?” text. And here’s what I proposed during that dinner: We regularly schedule “free time” on our calendars and see where the nights take us.

Published as “The Lost Art of Hanging Out” in the December 2019 issue of Philadelphia magazine.