“With self-reflection and increased wisdom comes the realization that we really should maximize the amount of good relationships we have and not spend so much time on the ones that aren’t good.” —Andrea Bonior, Ph.D
Few things in life have as big an impact on our happiness as good times spent with friends. And numerous studies show that close relationships with friends — but not necessarily with family — are vital to our physical health, too, with loneliness linked to reduced life expectancy and a host of health issues.
But what if the number of people you count as friends is shrinking, or you find yourself wanting to spend less time socializing — is that just a normal part of aging?
When a recent study showed that as monkeys grow older, the patterns of their friendships change, we decided to investigate.
Changing Patterns of Friendship
Our primate cousins, it turns out, grow pickier about which monkeys to count as “friends” as they age and invest less time in hanging out socially. The study’s researchers point out that humans also become choosier about how we spend our time and with whom.
We asked Geoffrey Greif, Ph.D., a professor at University of Maryland’s School of Social Work and the author of two books on friendship, to tell us more.
“People begin to value their time more as they age,” he said. “But people also have more time, so there are two conflicting vectors. If I don’t have much time, I’m certainly going to want to shepherd it well and spend it with my closest friends. But, if I’m retired and sitting around the house looking for things to do, or people to be with, I may be less selective.”
Complicating that further, it turns out, is that the differences between men’s and women’s relationships may affect how we view friendships as we grow older.
Grief’s book “Buddy System,” which is is based on his research with more than 300 men and 100 women, found that across their lifespans, men’s friendships tend to be “shoulder-to-shoulder encounters” — men might watch a game together and catch up during commercials — while women generally construct friendships around face-to-face encounters. Because women share more emotional content in person, these friendships require more maintenance. Demanding relationships that aren’t fulfilling can take a hit as we age.
If our tendency as aging humans is to weed out friendships that aren’t emotionally fulfilling because we know time is running out, what about the Barbary macaques that the monkey researchers studied? After all, they’re not counting down the years.
“Older monkeys might spend less time socializing because they find social interactions increasingly stressful and therefore avoid them,” the study lead, Julia Fischer, suggests. The same, she says, may be true for humans.
Licensed clinical psychologist Dr. Andrea Bonior, a professor of psychology at Georgetown University who writes the Washington Posts’s Baggage Check column and is the author of “The Friendship Fix,” says that as we age, we don’t need to waste our time on friendships that cause us stress or make us feel badly.
“With self-reflection and increased wisdom comes the realization that we really should maximize the amount of good relationships we have and not spend so much time on the ones that aren’t good,” she says.
Most people have friends who are life-stage specific — friends made at college, through our children’s activities or at work. Once children are grown or we retire, some of these friendships endure, but many do not. And that’s okay, because it would be overwhelming to continue relationships with every friend we ever make. But while some friendships fade out naturally as we experience the life transitions of our later years — retirement, losing a spouse, developing health problems — we also tend to tell ourselves, ‘I deserve to have friendships that are fulfilling, that sustain me, and not waste my time,’ Bonior says.
The result: Fewer friends and, as a result, less time spent with friends.
It’s natural, but if we don’t make new friends, it can be a problem.
Friends With Health Benefits
We’re social creatures. We’ve lived in groups since the beginning of civilization — tribes, clans, villages, towns and cities. Friends meet our need for a support system beyond what our families provide. Even better, we get to choose our friends. They’re not defined by blood ties or neighborly proximity. Our friend circles are unique to us.
As C.S Lewis said: “Friendship is born at that moment when one person says to another, ‘What! You too? I thought I was the only one.'”
True friendship offers a unique feeling of connection that protects us from stress. Studies have shown that social ties reduce our risk of disease by lowering blood pressure, heart rate and cholesterol. University of Chicago professor and neuroscientist John Cacioppo studies loneliness as a health risk. His findings show that loneliness is associated with the progression of Alzheimer’s disease, obesity and lower immunity.
The Nurses’ Health Study from Harvard Medical School found that the more friends women had, the less likely they were to develop physical problems as they aged. The results were so significant, the researchers concluded that not having close friends is as detrimental to our health as smoking or obesity.
Recently, researchers who followed nearly 1,500 older people for ten years found those with a large network of friends outlived those with fewer friends by more than 20 percent.
In that study, close relationships with family had almost no effect on longevity.
Making New Friends
We asked our experts to share their best tips for making new friends later in life. Both recommend getting involved in activities you enjoy and not only staying open to making new friends as you participate, but also being yourself.
Greif says we need to believe we can make new close friends at any age. “As our oldest friends either move far away or die, if you believe you can’t have close friends that you meet when you’re 50, 60, 70 or 80, you’re going to be more isolated.”
But it’s not so easy. Making new friends in later life can be intimidating. People think, “Oh I don’t have that many friends! Something’s wrong with me,” Bonior says. Her advice: Don’t over-personalize it. View making new friends as a concrete goal.
“It’s very funny,” Bonior says, “Because with romantic relationships we would never expect to partner for life with the first person we ever went out on a date with. But if a friendship doesn’t get off the ground, we automatically wonder what we did wrong. We think, maybe it wasn’t a good match. You have to put forth the effort continually, remembering it’s a numbers game.”
How about Facebook? Older adults are now the fastest growing demographic segment on the social network, and it can make finding and reconnecting with friends we’ve lost touch with and getting to know new ones much easier.
Bonior says Facebook is a double-edged sword. “I think for older people, especially if there are issues with mobility or health, then it’s a godsend to be able to still feel connected and engaged when maybe you’re not getting many in-person visitors.” But, for some people, Facebook is taking the place of real social engagements. “Is it a nice supplement, or have you stopped going to brunch or book club?” Observe how you feel about yourself after being online. “Some folks get trapped in a cycle of constantly looking at Facebook, looking at Facebook, looking at Facebook, and still are feeling empty afterward.”
A Friends Survey
I asked my Facebook friends whether they think friendships change over time. Here are some of their answers — and interestingly, only women replied:
“My first inclination is to say, “Definitely!” — but then I say, “Sort of.” Now that I’m retired, my best friends are those who are active, like I am, and like DOING things and creating new experiences.” —Susan
“I’ve been semi-retired for two years now. My existing friendships have just gotten better since then. With age comes wisdom, and we can usually just cut to the heart of any issue rather quickly without engaging in a lot of small talk. I also renewed an old friendship from college via Facebook and I’m so glad I made the effort. We had drifted apart due to our busy lives and a little distance geographically, but the heart of our friendship still remains.” —Cathy
“My friendships mean a lot more to me now than they ever did when I was younger. I have more time to develop a closer relationship with those friends.” —Sandie
“I don’t think you can ever have the same relationships with newer friends as you do with the friends you grew up with. So in that respect, I do think they are different. I have lived alone for most of my adult life and made friends mostly at work. Now that I am older, and still living alone, I don’t really feel a need to make new friends. I enjoy my alone time and I have friends to hang out with whenever I want to. I talk to my neighbors and people I meet at classes I take, but I don’t encourage any kind of real friendship.” —Bonnie
Have your friendships changed with age? What are your best tips for making new friends?