Friends enlarge our lives, as we enlarge theirs. There is nothing like goodwill and affection, extended and received, to boost our spirits and encourage us forward.
Yet later life often seems marked with decreasing friendships even beyond those claimed by death or incapacity—why? Can the losses be prevented? A few practical observations about friendship may help.
We live longer when we have good friends, according to BBC News in 2005. The article reports on an Australian study with data going back to 1992. It showed that people with more friends and acquaintances were more likely to live longer. No such result attended close relations with family—a longer life was associated only with friends.
The New York Times in 2009 echoed the BBC and added results from other researchers, including results from a University of Virginia study showing that friends caused people to make more optimistic forecasts about overcoming an obstacle.
The website Living to 100 offers a life-expectancy calculator. Users are first asked their birthday, sex, and general location, then are led to a series of personal questions. The second question reads:
“How many new relationships/friendships have you developed over the last 12 months? (Relationship defined as contact with someone regularly—a minimum of once a week)”
In specifying weekly contact, the site implies a reasonably finite capacity for friendships, yet the question emphasizes making new relationships. Implicit in the question must be a realization that people regularly lose friends.
Mid-life as a Model of Late Life
In middle life, friendships often develop at work and also through family. At work, people joke, tell stories, help each other in projects, and offer empathy about life’s problems. With families, people make adult friends through spouses and their children’s activities. Hobbies and organizations, like fishing or church, offer other avenues for friendships. It is common for an adult married couple to have a full roster of friends with little special effort.
As people retire and children mature, two important sources of friendships dry up. Most retirees learn quickly that the old career fades fast, along with work relationships. Similarly, most parents leave scouting and other child activities as soon as their own children mature.
I know one retired man in his 60s, in good general health, who confesses to mostly watching television. He has no hobbies and just stays home.
The pattern of middle-life outlined above suggests two important traits about friendship:
- Friendships are specialized or functional
They revolve around our interests and activities such as work, spouses, children, hobbies, and organizations. Golfing, hunting, walking, biking, fishing, dining out, reading, gardening, quilting, among others offer excellent opportunities for friends.
- Friendships often fade away
Death of course closes all, but even during life, people change interests, move away, or fail to resolve differences. Perhaps a fellow loses a hunting property or gains a new one, and it is inconvenient for a former hunting friend. Perhaps a quilting group meets frequently at a local quilt shop, then the shop closes. Perhaps an argument opens differences that are never forgiven.
Gaining New Friends
Those traits indicate two guides for gaining friends in later life: (1) people need to engage in activities or join groups; and (2) once engaged, they need to attend to the attributes of friendship, like goodwill and affection.
We should expect such new friends to be associated primarily with the activity or group. We will likely be disappointed if we expect most friendships to be deep, enduring relationships lasting years and years. That is not common.
Friendships are vital to our happiness and longevity. Because friendships are usually specialized and time limited, it’s vital to make new friends throughout life. The only real way is to engage in activities with other people, and extend to them our best attributes: goodwill, affection, and maybe a little humor.