Finding new friends in midlife
Out on a first date once, I knew there wouldn’t be a second when the seemingly nice man opposite me said, ‘I think friends are overrated, don’t you?’… The importance of friendship might seem obvious; indeed Aristotle back in the fourth century BC said: ‘No one would choose to live without friends, even if he had all other goods’, but it wasn’t until the tail end of the 20th century that it became the subject of serious study. Since then research has shown that having good friends has benefits for your brain health, heart health and mood, and could even help you live longer. I think it’s important to be open to the idea of making new friends, even if you’re not actively seeking them, and not to feel we’ve got enough. Friendships ebb and flow, people change jobs, move house, or even die.
Keeping old friends
Most of us became accustomed to less frequent social contact during the pandemic, at least in person. Emails, texts, phone calls, social media and video-calls with good friends are invaluable, but they can’t take the place of in-person interaction. Up to 93 per cent of communication is non-verbal and silences, frozen screens and dodgy sound quality can all interfere.
Professor Robin Dunbar, evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, and author of Friends, has said you need to see your closest friends at least once a week. I’d say many of us would struggle to achieve that, although he does concede that other forms of not-in-person contact can help towards keeping the relationship alive.
During the pandemic we also missed out on those casual, fleeting moments of shared grumbling about the weather, strangers saying, ‘Ooh, I like your shoes,’ or even the exchange of silent glances and raised eyebrows at someone else’s antics. I remember talking about this with my partner during lockdown, and we decided that all these little events topped up your social interaction tank, and it was missing out on these that led to the feelings of, well, maybe not quite loneliness, but definitely a lack of human contact.
In 1973 Mark Granovetter, a sociology professor at Stanford University, coined the term ‘weak ties’ for this type of relationship: those you don’t know well, like neighbours you nod to, colleagues, fellow dog-walkers, members of your ukulele band, stitch and bitch circle or yoga class, even people who wait at the station at the same time. His ground-breaking paper called ‘The strength of weak ties’ revealed how important this type of interaction is for our wellbeing.
Making new friends
Sometimes it’s distance, not disease, that divides us. I’ve recently moved to a new city. Friends and family have visited, and mates came on a day trip. I already know a couple of people here, via my partner, and have socialised with them and some of their friends, and a former colleague lives in the next town, but I feel I need to make new local connections for myself.
Previously I’ve made friends with workmates and housemates, as well as fellow drinkers in my local’s, but now I work from home and live with my partner, so I need to look further afield.
To that end, I’m working ‘not from home’ some of the time, in co-working spaces (and a local Brewhouse pub, which has a bargain £10 workspace deal; other pubs also do this), and although I haven’t quite reached the stage of getting a ‘colleague’ to answer my phone for me, as seen in the BBC2 series Motherland (series 2, episode 6), I’ve certainly had some interesting chats.
Sharing an interest is a tried and tested way of connecting, so I’ve joined a book club, which also has social events, the Ramblers (‘Find new walks, fall in love with the great outdoors and make new friends by joining the Ramblers today.’), I’m volunteering at my local park (visit do-it.org to find volunteering opportunities nearby), and joining a choir. All of these activities will top up my ‘weak ties’ tank, and some of those ties may strengthen in time.
Jeffrey Hall, a communications professor at the University of Kansas, says it takes 50 hours to turn acquaintanceship into friendship, so if you’ll excuse me I’ve got to go and spend some more time with some people…
Adrienne Wyper is a health and lifestyle writer and regular TNMA contributor.