We spend a lot of time teaching children the importance of making friends. But we never outgrow the need for good companionship ourselves. In fact, friendship may be even more important for adults than for kids. Kids get the benefits of birthday invitations and a chance to learn social skills; adults may actually live longer, healthier, more fulfilling lives. Studies have found that friendships and other forms of strong social support can protect adults against depression and heart disease -- as if having someone to help you move furniture or pick you up at the airport weren't reward enough.
As important as adult friendships can be, new ones aren't always easy to start, and they can be even harder to keep. When you're busy with work and family, when you move from town to town or job to job, and when old acquaintances get wrapped up in lives of their own, keeping established friendships alive can be a challenge, too.
Staying in touch
If you feel as though old friends are slipping away, you should find a way to stay connected. Be systematic about it: Write a list of everyone you want to keep in touch with and make the commitment to email, call, or visit each of them soon. Ideally, you should be doing something more than reminding them of your existence. Make a plan to do something fun together, even if it's just playing a game of Scrabble online. Activities are a glue for friendship. If your friends live nearby, throw a dinner party, get some couples (or singles) together for a hike, or catch a movie together. Sending handwritten birthday cards can be a pleasant, nonintrusive way to remind people that you care. If you have friends and relatives who live close by, try making one weekend night a regular time to get together for dinner. Not everyone will be able to make it, but it would be great for the people you love to have that time with you to count on.
On the other hand, sometimes friendships fade because of too much attention, rather than too little. Some people drive friends away by "processing" their problems with them endlessly. When you realize you're calling your friends at all hours of the day or monopolizing their time, it's a signal to back off a little and give them some space. Friendships work best with some breathing room. If you have trouble being alone, find some things you love to do that can keep you busy. Not only will you develop new interests, you'll bring more to the table when you make new friends.
It sounds simple, but one key way to nurture a friendship is to listen when your friend is talking, especially when you listen actively and ask follow-up questions. We've all known people who seem to be stuck in "broadcast" mode -- they only want to talk about their own lives and activities and don't seem interested in anyone else. People like that aren't much fun to be around.
Try to really tune in to what your friend is saying without thinking about what your response is going to be. And it's a good idea not to offer advice unless someone asks for it. If your friend has a problem, you don't have to fix it -- just letting her talk about it without expressing judgment or criticism can be helpful.
Online social networks such as MySpace or Facebook aren't just for teenagers. Many adults have discovered that such sites are a great way to exchange messages, share photos, find lost friends, and generally keep in touch with people all over the country or all over the world. A 2008 survey from the Pew Charitable Trust found that among those who use the Internet, 57 percent of adults age 25 to 34 and 30 percent of adults age 35 to 44 have a profile on a social networking site. About 7 percent of people over 65 have joined the MySpace and Facebook generation, too.
For older people who have trouble visiting friends, social networks on the Internet can be a buffer against loneliness and depression. Younger people on Facebook or MySpace often collect hundreds of "friends," one clear sign that online friendships aren't always as deep or involved as the face-to-face variety. Social networking on the Internet can be a quick and easy way to meet others in the cyberworld, but avoid sharing personal information online with people you don't know well or whom you are not already friends with in the "real world."
Expanding your options
While you're doing what you can to maintain your current friendships, why not expand your options? Chances are, there are some interesting people all around you. They live in your neighborhood and frequent your favorite coffee shop -- unlike your widely scattered friends from high school or college. People you already see almost every day might turn into friends if you take the time to get to know them. Introduce yourself, find out what they like to do for fun, and see what happens.
Meeting future friends is a lot like searching for a potential date. You have to leave your house and find people who might share your interests. Consider joining a local club, taking dance classes, or participating in a reading group or neighborhood organization. Go hiking with the local Sierra Club or join a racquetball league at your gym. Sing in a choral group or join the PTA. Volunteer work of all types, from building houses to reading to kids, can be a great way to meet like-minded people who might be friendship-caliber.
There's a bonus to staying active and involved in your community. Not only will you have a chance to make friends, you'll have less trouble keeping them. It's simply easier to carry on conversations and engage with other people if you have an active, interesting life. Think about the type of person you'd like to be friends with -- someone with lots to talk about, someone who knows how to have fun, someone who truly enjoys the company of others. If you can be that person yourself, friendship is bound to follow.
Mental Health America. Building social support: It's good for your health.
Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Making and keeping friends: A Self-help Guide.
University of Alabama Birmingham Center for Aging. Technology can be key to helping older adults stay connected, healthy, vital.
Pew Research Center. Social networks grow: Friending mom and dad. 2009.