Friends are key to a happy life

Saturday December 30 2017

Having people you treasure and share life with contributes to good health.

Having people you treasure and share life with contributes to good health.  ILLUSTRATION | IGAH

By CHRIS HART
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Friends are far more than just someone to talk to. Because having close friends means you’ll also be much happier, healthier, and far less likely to become depressed.

But they have to be the right sort of friends. So try to find a small number of friends you can really trust, rather than a big bunch of drinking buddies.

Who’ll only encourage you to neglect yourself, take risks with your health, and drink too much. Avoid people who’re only ever around when the going’s good. Or people who put you down, and make you feel inadequate.

Films and books often imply that your friends should be just like you. Similar age, background and income. It’s actually better to have a mix. Old friends who’ve shared your dreams and disappointments.

New friends who lead you in fresh directions. Mature friends for wisdom. Younger friends for enthusiasm. Friends whose lives offer you contrasts with your own.

But it’s a sad fact that making friends gets more difficult after you reach 30. Because at school and college, it seems like everything revolves around socialising. But as you get older, it’s harder to develop deep friendships.

HARD TO MAINTAIN PROXIMITY

New people do enter your life, through work, your children’s friends’ parents, the internet. But you probably made all your best friends at school, college, or soon after.

That’s because three things are needed to form close friendships, and they’re harder in mid life: proximity; frequent unplanned interactions; and an environment that encourages you to confide in each other.

Proximity is harder to maintain because work colleagues get reassigned, or move on to new jobs. It’s harder to maintain frequent everyday interactions. No more long afternoons just hanging out.

Workplaces are competitive, so you hide your vulnerabilities from colleagues. Differences in professional status and income complicate matters. And once you’re a couple, making friends with other couples is like matchmaking for two. Do the wives like each other? Do the husbands? Does his wife like her husband? And vice versa?

Your children create a new circle of “children’s parents friends,” but you probably only hang out with them because your children chose each other. And the friendship ends when your children fall out. More friends go as couples divorce.

In college you’d go out for a drink with almost anyone. Now you’re pickier. When you were young, friendship meant you always turned up. Now you have to juggle work, family and other commitments. You only have friends for particular needs. Someone to drink with, someone with a shared interest, a workout friend.

So it’s especially important to nurture your long standing friendships. Because experiencing the timeline of your whole life with friends – from college to weddings to grandchildren – is one of the most life-affirming experiences anyone can have. 

And friendships are important to a happy middle age and beyond. Because men and women who feel lonely, isolated, or left out, are much more likely to have health issues and die young.