When Did You Last See Your Friends?
The surprising thing that will keep women healthy.
I adore my friends but admit that I haven’t always been the best of friends. During busy and stressful times, I tend to focus my family over my friendships, which isn’t deliberate. A career combined with the responsibilities for my family. I am not the only member of the sandwich generation who prioritizes family by default.
I have hundreds of friends on social media, but how many close friends can I call on in a crisis? I learned the answer last spring when my husband had a medical emergency: five. That number is more important than the number of people who like my posts on social media.
It’s time for countless other women and me to get off of autopilot. We need to focus on our friendships. There are too many benefits to our physical and mental health to ignore. Plus, our friends will reap the same benefits.
Want to make friends? Women need these three things.
It helps first to understand the three conditions required to make close friends. The factors apply to women and men of all ages.
The first is proximity. It was easy to make friends during high school when I saw the same people in class or after school activities every day. In college, my friendships developed even faster because my friends lived down the hall of my dorm. My mother-in-law still gets together and travels with her tight-knit group every year over 40 years after they graduated from college.
Repeated, unplanned interactions.
Proximity leads to repeated, unplanned interactions, the second condition for forming close friends. Think of the TV show Friends where the gang knew to gather together at the local coffee shop, Central Perk.
My parents met their closest and oldest friends when they moved from the United States to Australia. They took a two-week-long boat journey across the Pacific Ocean from San Francisco to Sydney. They lived in the same Australia city during the early years of their friendship. The majority of the years, they’ve maintained their friendship despite living far apart. They now get to see this couple they met on the boat at least once a year.
My in-laws moved into a retirement community a few years ago to downsize and to be closer to our family. The fast friendships they have formed in this community remind me of a college dorm. This is because they see each in the halls, in the dining room, and in clubs or activities they do together.
Let down our guards.
We also need a setting that encourages us to let our guard down and confide in each other. This condition did not require proximity and repeated unplanned interactions, but they sure do help. My husband, who is also my best friend, and I had only a brief period of proximity when we worked at the same place. We confided in each other by letter for a year early in our relationship and later by lengthy phone calls.
Why women find it hard to make and keep friends.
It is harder to make friends as an adult.
We cannot walk up to someone on the playground and ask them to play. The three conditions of friendship are not always present. For example, let’s say you have a neighbor who you think could be a good friend. Due to a busy schedule and a long winter where most people stay indoors, you don’t see them often to have casual interactions. You might become friendly acquaintances, but without the chance to let your guard down a true friendship is less likely. Also, if you are a highly intelligent woman, you may be more discerning about who to let into your circle of friends.
Challenges of maintaining friendships.
The other challenge is maintaining our friendships as adults. I know some people who have stayed near the Minnesota hometown where I grew up. They remain friends and get together with people they have known since childhood. I don’t regret leaving, but I am sometimes jealous of those friendships.
Since I graduated from high school, I have lived in seven cities in three countries and two states. My friends are dispersed around the world and around the United States. Many of my long-term friends are far away, and it takes a concerted effort to maintain our connection. I admire Oprah Winfrey and Gayle King for maintaining their close friendship for years despite the distance and busy careers.
If we neglect our friendships, they will fade away. Sometimes priorities shift and friendships will naturally take their course. But how often do friendships we hoped would always be there die due to neglect? We need to take the time to do the things that really matter.
The overlooked elixir for women’s mental and physical health.
In Life Reimagined: The Science, Art and Opportunity of Midlife, author Barbara Bradley Hagerty compares friendships to Swiss Army knives. “Friends are kind of the Swiss Army knife of relationships: They do everything, boosting your health, lengthening your life, preserving your memory, helping your career, gentling the aging process.” Our friendships can help us to tolerate pain, lower the chances of heart disease, and increase the production of oxytocin.
Rebecca Adams, a sociologist at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro, told Hagerty the same. “It is much more important to have robust friendships than it is for them to have close family relationships.” Researchers at Michigan State University came to the same conclusion.
Friends help to counter the effects of loneliness. Loneliness is a silent killer as bad for us as obesity or smoking cigarettes. Lonely people have increased risks of stroke, coronary disease, high blood pressure, clinical dementia, and depression. UCLA has developed a loneliness scale to measure levels of loneliness. In short, social isolation is a public health crisis.
What can we do?
First, let’s talk about our existing girlfriends who live near us. I have had the most success by having standing dates so I don’t have to think about when I’ll see the friend next. For example, I attended a monthly happy hour for recent graduates of my alma mater. Book clubs have also worked well for me. Tennis team practices or attending the same tennis class has also worked for me. When my son was a baby, I had a standing walking date with a few moms and our babies. I also like that I get to pursue my interests and see my friends at the same time.
Friends that live further away are more challenging. I like to talk on the phone or by video call. I wish this happened every month, but it tends to occur every few months. I also try to see them when I travel to a location near them. College reunions every five years also give me a great excuse to see my friends and meet new ones. Southern Living Magazine published an article about how taking a trip with your girlfriends is good for your health. I like this idea.
Call your friends as if your life depended on it.
What friends do you need to call to schedule a get-together? Do you want to go on a girls trip? If you are short on local friends, where can you find something that interests you where you can meet someone.