Saturday, February 9, 2019

WEEKEND COLUMN: The essential gifts of friendship

“If you go looking for a friend, you’re going to find they’re very scarce. If you go out to be a friend, you’ll find them everywhere.” ~Zig Ziglar

Cindy La Ferle


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Sometimes I can't imagine what I'd do without the dear friends who keep me glued together, grounded, and (mostly) sane. 

Current medical research supports my theory: Our health literally depends on the company we keep. Having an active social network can lower the risk for depression, enhance our ability to cope with illness, and increase longevity. As reported by AARP, women with large social networks reduce their risk of dementia by 26%. 

By now, you've probably heard about the latest social isolation study released in May by Cigna, the health insurance company. As reported on WebMD, the study revealed that an "epidemic" percentage of Americans describe themselves as lonely -- especially those with extensive social media connections. According to Douglas Nemecek, MD, Cigna's chief medical officer for behavioral health, "loneliness has the same impact on mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, making it even more dangerous than obesity." 
"If you want to start a new friendship or revive an old one, you have to reach out several times." ~Shasta Nelson, Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness
Healthy relationships with family members are also essential to our wellbeing, but experts suggest that key health benefits are gained through active friendships outside our family circle. In this case, social media "friends" don't count unless you're spending time with them -- offline. Sorry, Facebook.

But making new friends while keeping the old can be a challenge for empty nesters, caregivers, retirees, and freelancers who work at home. Gone are the days of commiserating with other parents in the school parking lot, or gathering with coworkers by the coffee maker on weekday mornings. 

"It's a myth that people over 50 don't need or want new friends," notes Lois Joy Johnson in The Women's Wakeup: How to Shake Up Your Looks, Life, and Love After 50. "We've moved away from old ties, are widowed, unemployed, separated or divorced. It's time to make new connections and reboot your social life."

Ironically, while Americans collect countless friends and followers on social networks, many report a lack of depth in their friendships, says Shasta Nelson, author of Frientimacy: How to Deepen Friendships for Lifelong Health and Happiness.

“Between two-thirds and three-fourths of Americans believe there is more loneliness in today’s society than there used to be, and feel they have fewer meaningful relationships than they did five years ago,” Nelson writes. 

So, how and where do we begin to rebuild three-dimensional social circles? 

Taking the initiative isn't easy if you're an introvert, but the rewards are worth it. Look for kindred spirits in your art class, health club, or favorite community group. Make coffee dates. Seek out neighbors you haven't met and start a book club or walking group. Or, like I did, find others who are willing to meet for breakfast weekly at the same restaurant. To paraphrase Nelson: Real friendships take time and effort; they don't magically happen.
"Spending time together is essential. Unless your time together is automatic -- meaning you're both paid to show up at the same job, for instance – there’s no other way to foster a real relationship,” Nelson says. “Growing a friendship requires a lot of initiation. Repeatedly. If you want to start a new friendship or revive an old one, you have to reach out several times." In other words, you won't win friends by waiting for others to call you.

Roll with the changes and ditch the toxins

As we mature, it’s natural to put a premium on loyalty. Old friends who share our interests and values -- not just a common past -- will always hold a special place in our hearts and on our calendars. 
"It's important to nurture a few close friendships to meet our various needs." ~Irene Levine, PhD, Best Friends Forever
Once we hit middle age, however, we're less tolerant of frayed or toxic friendships. As Lois Joy Johnson writes in her guide: "It's your party and you get to choose the guests." Since our emotional health is very dependent on the quality of our relationships, sometimes we need to reconsider the ones that hurt more than help, she says. 

"Buddies you keep around from habit, history, or guilt will emotionally drain your spirit," Johnson explains. "Real friends always celebrate your wins, mourn your losses, pick you up, or at least prop you up when you fall down." If a friendship starts to feel one-sided or uncomfortable, you have a right to make yourself less available or to cut the cord, guilt-free, Johnson advises. Devote your energy instead to reciprocal, mutually satisfying friendships.

According to sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst, most of us reevaluate or replace about half of our friends every seven years, usually due to a change in residence or lifestyle. 

Relationships that are based on proximity -- or a built around a single common interest -- are more likely to fade when the common interest changes. As our kids grow up, for instance, we're not as socially involved with the parents of their schoolmates. Likewise, when we change jobs, we might lose contact with most of our former coworkers. Friends naturally drift apart for a variety of other reasons -- but the happy memories are still treasured. 

Building a tribe of BFFs

From Lucy and Ethel to Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, the “best friend” partnership is often idealized in pop culture. Who doesn't imagine having a BFF who'll always take your desperate calls after midnight, agree with your politics, love your favorite books, bail you out of trouble, and buy you the perfect birthday present every year? 

This fantasy friend only exists on TV dramas and sitcoms. Furthermore, according to Irene Levine, PhD, author of Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup with Your Best Friendit's wiser to build a team of good friends. Having a variety of pals puts less strain on one friendship -- especially if your bestie moves away or the relationship suffers a disappointment or misunderstanding. 

Better yet, having a variety of friends will help broaden your perspective and enrich your social life, Levine adds.

"No person -- whether a friend, spouse or lover -- can fulfill all of an individual's needs for friendship and support," Levine told me. "For example, some friends are great listeners; others are role models who set the bar higher for our career accomplishments; others are kindred spirits with whom we have many shared interests. Thus, it's important to nurture a few close friendships to meet our various needs."

Best of all, having a team of healthy friends guarantees that you'll almost always find someone who has precious time to spend with you.  ~Cindy La Ferle

Part of this article was first published in Michigan Prime magazine, a supplement to The Detroit Free Press. Special thanks to Dr. Irene Levine ("The Friendship Doctor") for her advice and input on this article.

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