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Investing In Friendships Can Help Us Age Well

Having friends is crucial to our happiness - don't let the busyness of life keep you from cultivating friendships

By Sophie Okolo

"Adult friendships are hard," I told my new friend Carrie on one of our several walks this past month. Carrie and I met when we were both looking for new rental accommodations, and while we did not end up living together, our love for long walks, second careers and desire for community connected us in new ways. We are always laughing together and truly enjoy each other's company.

Friends greeting each other at the door. Next Avenue
Friendship is a superpower that has been radically overlooked in our era, but making friends is a skill no one teaches us, leading many to leave it to chance.  |  Credit: Getty

So why is it hard to make friends as an adult? Studies show that good friends are crucial to our happiness and well-being. And yet, friendlessness in the United States has quadrupled since 1990. 

Friendlessness in the United States has quadrupled since 1990.

It's been reported that 52% of us find it hard to make new friends, and the average American has not developed a new friendship in five years. Research has shown why we must invest in this powerful yet neglected treasure: friendships not only help us grow, but they can also help improve our mental health and live longer. 

The effects of friendships, especially in healthy relationships, are vast and why society must emphasize their importance for our survival and the future. Friendships across the lifespan can transform well-being and improve a culture of belonging.

Friendship As Superpower

Friendship is a superpower that has been radically overlooked in our era, but making friends is a skill no one teaches us, leading many to leave it to chance, said Sheridan Voysey, author, speaker, broadcaster and founder of the newly launched Friendship Lab. "We have Sex Education in schools but no Friendship Education. We celebrate Valentine's Day, but not International Friendship Day." 

The need for friends is especially critical for older adults. But what is less well-understood is whether friendships serve as a link between volunteering and depression. A new study published this year explores friendship in later life and how volunteering provides new opportunities to meet people and make friends. 

Researchers also examined the need for growing friendships as a possible intervention strategy for older adults at risk for depression. The study emphasized the role of volunteering in generating and maintaining friends and how participating in social activities can help increase our emotional and mental health.

In addition, friendships are essential as our social network changes in later life whether from losing friends, divorce or the death of a loved one. 

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Having quality relationships can help address the loneliness epidemic, which researchers have called wholly unprecedented.

Participating in social activities can help increase our emotional and mental health.

Research has shown the COVID-19 pandemic revealed just how critical our need for friendship is, especially as more and more people live alone. Among older adults, about one-third of Americans over 65 also now live alone — and half of those over 85 do. But living in isolation is not the only cause of loneliness. 

An older adult, for example, can be surrounded by people and still feel very lonely. Hence, we need to invest in creating more connected lives because a lack of social connections has a greater risk of mortality and underlying morbidity.

Often friendship is misunderstood as just one thing. There are layers and types of connection that we all long for in our lives; intimate friends, acquaintances, work friends, seasonal friends, etc. 

For example, a person can have a close friend yet feel disconnected from their workplace community because they lack work friends. Recognizing friendship as a foundational relationship is the key to understanding why we must invest in good friendships.

Busy Lives Affect Friendships

Our culture focuses on romance, sexual relationships and the ability to get a partner, so friendship gets ignored. But it does not stop there. Research also consistently finds the main culprit for the lack of friendships is busyness, thereby creating a double whammy. In my case, I only see my friends occasionally. 

Teresa Ambosia of Nola, Italy, has the same issue. "Any time I call friends or people to go out, they say they are busy or have their own lives," says Ambosia, who recently lost her job. "The reality is people make no time for friendships. If you ask people if they prefer a partner over friends, they will say they would rather stick to a partner, and if they do not have a partner, they are too focused on their careers. The older I get, the harder it is to make friends." 

Investing in quality relationships can be critical during hard times and when it comes to improving resilience, well-being and quality of life.

When I reflect on Ambosio's words, I cannot help but feel validated in how I have often viewed the changing nature of friendships. For instance, trauma, race and different views are just a few reasons that can affect any friendship. Race, especially, is one that researchers are still exploring because little is known about friendship, which enhances emotional well-being in the context of race and age. 

But a recent study showed no significant differences by race or age in the frequency of friend encounters, so it is critical to see the humanity in others, take that first step when ready and ultimately hope for a new experience.

Adult friendship faces many barriers today, yet none of these barriers are insurmountable. We only need to be intentional. Investing in quality relationships can be critical during hard times and when it comes to improving resilience, well-being and quality of life.

As I look back on my new friendship with Carrie, I cannot help but wonder why it was seamless for us to connect. I have been told I am a people person and easily make friends, but it is not always this way with others. 

It is easy to say Carrie and I have similar interests, but we did not know that at first. We also come from two cultures regarding ethnicity, race and country. But it takes consistency, initiative and a desire to learn more about each other. Once we know something new, that's another block added to our friendship maze. 

That could be the secret ingredient to creating a more socially connected life. As acclaimed American essayist Ralph Waldo Emerson once said: "The only way to have a friend is to be one." 

Sophie Okolo is a Forbes Contributor, Columbia University Age Boom Academy Fellow, and TEDMED Research Scholar. She is the founder and host of Global Health Aging, a creative consultancy and award-nominated resource featuring diverse opinions, news stories, and innovative research about longevity and healthy aging. Read More
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