How to Make Strong Friendships in Midlife and Beyond
Recently, while rearranging my bookshelves, I dusted off my high school yearbook. Flipping through the pages, I read all the messages that friends had scrawled in the margins the day before graduation, when we excitedly passed our books around. I swore I’d never forget them all. But now, many decades later, they are largely forgotten or lost.
Our faces! So firm and unlined. Our expressions! Some comfortably smiling, but more commonly staring warily into the camera’s lens with a hint of angst. After all, it was the 70s, and it wasn’t cool to be happy.
But what was cool back then was collecting friends, and promising we’d “always stay in touch,” and that our friendships would “continue throughout the years.” Having a large group of friends meant we were important, wanted, loved. Having many friends was assurance that we were adored (because, usually, we didn’t adore ourselves).
Most of us didn’t stay in touch, and the friendships didn’t continue throughout the years.
Alas, by the time we get to midlife, friendships—not just from high school, but more recent ones, too—tend to dwindle.
Friendships dissolve through death, divorce, moving, sabotage, or competition. We grow apart in miles and also in values and beliefs. (This has been abundantly clear during the tumultuous past few years, when politics have torn friendships—and families—apart.) Priorities change. Growing careers and families demand attention, as spare time diminishes. We begin to realize that some friends are toxic, too much work, or no longer worth any work at all. Sometimes, we willingly weed our garden; other times, friendships wither for seemingly no reason at all, and we find it difficult to pinpoint the specific event that extinguished friendship’s flame.
“When we reach our 50s, we suddenly realize that our list of friends has dwindled to only a few…or is virtually nonexistent,” says Irene Levine, Ph.D., a psychologist and producer of The Friendship Blog, a popular online advice column on friendship.
Many times, that’s okay, because we’ve come to realize it’s the quality not the quantity that counts.
Yet, other times, we feel the desire to fill a gaping hole that remains. But we don’t always know how. Gone is the steady pool of people from which to pick, from the school fundraisers and parenting groups. And as our careers grow and change, we might not have the time or opportunity to make friends at work—and shared interests are what foster strong friendships. “A feeling of loneliness creeps in, and many people long for that special friendship that is comfortable and easy, a friend they can be spontaneous with,” says Levine.
Numerous studies have found a strong link between friendships and better health, happiness, and well‑being. Strong social relationships are a balm for tough times, as well as for everyday life.
It’s never too late to make new—and wonderful—friends. Some of my closest friends are those I’ve made in the last few years. Here, Levine offers some tips for finding meaningful friendships in midlife and beyond.
Pursue Your Interests
Find a hobby or pastime that stirs your passion. Join a gym, take an art course, sign up for dancing lessons, or volunteer. “With contact with the same people week after week, friendships will follow,” Levine says.
Start by Making Acquaintances
Real relationships take time to nurture and grow. Meet people first, then take time to get to know them better. “Don’t expect too much too soon,” says Levine. “Give friendships a chance to blossom by being open and honest.”
Turn Virtual Friendships into Real Ones
Social-media friends can, and do, become face-to-face ones. If you discover someone you’ve connected with lives nearby, or you’re traveling to one another’s hometowns, make plans to meet in person.
You may think your friends need to be similar to you, but some of my best friendships have been with people less expected. “Expand your pool and seek out people who are a bit different in terms of age or lifestyle,” suggests Levine. “Intergenerational friendships yield valuable payoffs on both sides.”
Stay open to finding a new friend wherever you go—whether it’s at the dog park, the nail salon, or your barre class. They don’t have to be in the same age range or have the same life experience as you to be an important person in your life.
Get Out of Your Comfort Zone
Initiate a conversation. Smile at a stranger. Reach out to a new neighbor. You never know where it will lead.
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