Friends are important. They can help us to cope with the difficulties of life and help us celebrate our success. They can be a shoulder to cry on, a sympathetic ear to listen to our moans about the unfairness of life, and someone who gives us a hug and a big smile when we succeed. They can do more than this – friends can help us lead long and happy lives.
The Harvard Study of Adult Development has been following 800 men and women since the 1930’s and has established that one of the most important factors in achieving a long and happy life is maintaining strong social relationships. This means spending quality time with loved ones, making time for friends, and contributing to the community around you. Surprisingly the quality of your social network seems to be a more accurate predictor of how long you will live than the longevity of your parents, the quality of your childhood or the number of stressful events in your life.
So how can we build our social network and have more ‘real’ friends? Many people have lots of acquaintances, but few people they would consider true friends – people they can confide in and show their weaknesses – ‘real friends’ are people we show our ‘real selves’ to.
And that is a clue to what we need to do. Part of building friendship is exposing our weaknesses and uncertainties to others. Many people feel they have to appear confident and successful in order to attract and retain friends – they feel that if they showed the ‘real me’ no one would like them. But think about the people you like – they’ve almost certainly all got weaknesses. When you get to know people’s weaknesses, you feel you are getting to know the real person behind the social mask. This level of intimacy (which has nothing to do with sex) feels good. There may be people you admire and want to be like; people who appear totally confident and on top of things, but chances are you will feel a bit inferior, a bit inhibited with them, as you too try to appear totally confident and in charge of your life. You may find it difficult to become friends with people like this, because you don’t feel able to be yourself.
Showing the real you can seem a risky business, and, yes, you may get hurt, mocked and let down. Even so, being like this means you are more likely to find real friends. Staying shut in is risky too. If people feel you are reserved and uncommunicative, they are less likely to want to be friends with you. Not only is it good for you to be yourself, but also in being yourself you give other people permission to be themselves; this can lead to true and lasting friendships that survive the ups and downs of life.
Making new friends is important. This is particularly true as you get older. Sadly good friends die, and it is easy to feel more and more lonely as the years go by. Your social circle can narrow as you lose people to illness and old age. It may seem daunting to try making new friends as you get older, but it’s worth making the effort. New friends can bring interest and excitement back into our lives. They can introduce us to new hobbies, new people and new places. Other people are also in the same position. Having lost loved ones and friends they need new friends too.
It’s not just older people who need to make new friends. Younger people may have been busy working or raising a family or been in another town or country so lack a local social support network of good friends.
So how do you make new friends? Most people feel nervous and embarrassed at the idea, but the trick is to think about other people, not yourself. There are other people out there who are short of friends. Think about how nervous and embarrassed they are, and think about how happy they would be to have a friend like you. Make the effort; you won’t ‘click’ with everyone, but persist and find the friends you and they deserve. You would make a good friend, wouldn’t you?
Copyright 2014 Jane Thurnell-Read