friends
Mental & Emotional Health

Upgrading Your Friendship Network in Midlife

Many empty nesters have failed to build healthy social networks because they haven’t invested the time. Most middle-class parents have been “intensively involved” in their children’s lives in the last 60 years and continue to laser focus on their young adults, says Annette Lareau, author of Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life. That leaves little time for outside friendships.

Having a healthy network of friends in midlife is crucial. As we age, friendships become more important for our well-being, according to a 2017 study by Michigan State psychology professor William Chopik, who analyzed data from 280,000 people in almost 100 countries. Close friends “can make a world of difference for our health and well-being,” he says. “It’s smart to invest in the friendships that make you happiest.” Of all predictors of well-being in old age, social integration tops the list.

We come to value close relationships like gold. “The uniquely human ability is appreciation of mortality—or limits on life,” says psychologist Laura Carstensen, founding director of Stanford’s Center on Longevity. “We are taking account of how much time we have left.” Older people tend to focus on spending time with those they love. They savor relationships more and don’t feel obligated to spend time with people who are not on the same page. Once the kids go, “they think, ‘I didn’t like Bob that much,’” Carstensen says. And Bob falls off the dance card.

We increasingly prune acquaintances that are meh. We weed friend networks when we are between age 20 and 30 and ramp it up after age 40, Carstensen says. Most relationships on the outer ring of friendship networks disappear, says Rebecca G. Adams, an expert on friendship at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. “Friendship is a voluntary relationship. It’s not like our families that we’re stuck with, not like our neighbors who live next door, not like your spouse who you have to get a legal divorce from. All you have to do to stop a friendship is stop interacting.”

If your friends vex you, it triggers your darkest feelings. In a study of 7,481 older U.S. adults, Chopik found people with annoying friends reported more chronic illnesses. Life is also tougher for humans who are isolated and alone, just as it is for other animals. In the African Savanna, wildebeests seek safety in a pack when a lion comes out of the bush. It’s the one who is alone who is in trouble.

Good friends are often better than family relationships. “We tend to feel better when we interact with friends than with relatives and spouses,” Chopik says. Friends are like “a protective environment,” even more so than good relationships with family. “Friends are family by choice,” he says.

Here’s how to upgrade your friend network for more soul per square inch:

Rekindle relationships with old friends. 

Connecting with old friends brings support in times of transition. Dear friends “protect you from day-to-day disasters,” Adams says. Those who live far away are most likely to last. A long-distance pal “doesn’t anger you by not showing up on time or getting involved in some dispute at the PTA,” Adams says. You might dial up a college friend, organize a dinner party, plan an outing with another couple, or meet for lunch.

Cultivate a diverse circle of new friends.

We bolster well-being when we have a “village” of people around us with varied emotional skills. “People who build rich, broad portfolios of friends tend to have greater well-being,” says Northwestern University psychologist Elaine Cheung. 

A diverse stable of friends provides fun, learning, communing, and connecting. Research into emotionships—relationships that help us manage moods—shows that some are gifted at motivating or calming, others adept at comforting, others excel at celebrating victories. To create the right relationship portfolio, Cheung says to take stock of the “emotional specialties” of who you know and find others to fill vacancies.

Pursue interests to find kindred spirits. 

When you go to venues linked to your passions and values, you find people like you. At yoga, you find those who value fitness and living in the moment. At church, you find those with concerns about the afterlife. At a baseball game, you find people who love the sport. If you form a band or see musicians perform, you find others who share your love for music. In a biking group, you find others who love endurance, speed, and scenic vistas. To find like-minded souls, you might also become involved in a cause that moves you, take a class on a subject you love, volunteer to help others, join Meetup.com, a global network of local communities that connects people to pursue common interests.

biking group

Invest in like-minded acquaintances.

To create close relationships, you must trust others and risk opening up to them, says Margaret Clark, a Yale University professor who studies how people manage emotions. You need to let others know your vulnerabilities and emotions and see how they react. Keep in mind that close relationships are not one-way streets,” Clark says. “Listen and be responsive to the other person too.” 

Judy Holland has been a journalist for more than 30 years, including in the Washington Bureau of Hearst Newspapers as national editor and Capitol Hill correspondent, where she prepared stories for 600 newspapers over The New York Times wire. Her stories have appeared in the Washington Post, Boston Globe, Houston Chronicle, San Francisco Examiner, Tampa Tribune, and Washingtonian magazine. She was president of the Washington Press Club Foundation, a nonprofit celebrating female pioneers in journalism. She lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband John Starr and their Great Dane, whom her three children, Lindsay, Maddie and Jack, left home to fill the empty nest.

Connect with Judy Holland on Twitter @JudyHAuthor, Instagram @judyhollandauthor, Facebook @judyhollandauthor, LinkedIn, YouTube, and visit www.judyhollandauthor.com.

HappiNest: Finding Fulfillment After Your Kids Leave Home is available February 15, 2020 via Amazon and other retail outlets.

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