In his 1986 bestseller Love, Medicine and Miracles, Dr. Bernie Segal asked patients if they wanted to live to be 100. He nudged those who answered “yes” without qualification, suggesting that living that long meant their friends and family might have died. Their response: “Then I’ll make new friends.” Segal took that as a positive sign for their survival.
Segal was right: friends are good for us. Friendship can protect us from isolation and its accompanying depression — even from decreasing motor function. The research is incontrovertible: isolation from social connections has been compared to the danger of smoking 15 cigarettes a day!
We know we are likely to lose friendships from earlier in our lives: friends from childhood, adolescence and college years; neighbors and colleagues; connections from raising our children. These friendships, like all deep relationships, are irreplaceable, but that doesn’t mean we can’t or won’t make precious new friends.
Many older people spend time online, reconnecting with friends from the past and sharing with their virtual communities. While those are good ways to feel connected, they can take up many hours without providing the physical and emotional contacts that sustain us over time. Humans are wired for mutual companionship and affection — the in-person kind.
When I asked my own friends what they looked for in a friend, I heard variations on the theme of acceptance and understanding: “Someone who ‘gets’ me and doesn’t judge me.” “Someone who shares my sense of humor.” “Someone who is self-aware, who has worked to understand themselves and can be honest exploring who they are.” Personally, I look for people who listen well and are curious both about the world and about what can unfold as we get to know each other.
One well-connected friend said that making friends takes focus, attention and energy. She recounts “picking up” a friend whose vibrational energy — her life force — looked interesting to her. Seeking out connections with people different from her, she has friends of different ages and ethnicities, varying spiritual traditions and cultures. “You can’t travel all the time,” she says, “but you can have friends who take you to new places.”
Growing real friendships requires honesty and intimacy, humor and patience, vulnerability and acceptance of ourselves and others. Consider these questions as you become intentional about making new friends: What do you want and need in a friend? What depth of connection do you seek? What do you value in a friend?
Reflect honestly about yourself. What do you bring to the table as a friend? What interests and activities do you want to share? And what constraints exist that will affect the kinds of friends you can make and the mutuality you want to establish?
Most of all, be open to what can unfold. Be willing to be surprised about what you can learn about yourself and another person as you get to know each other. What a gift it is to find a friend with whom to share interests, concern, compassion, and understanding.
Rebecca Crichton is Executive Director of Northwest Center for Creative Aging and presents programs on that topic in the Seattle area. She worked at Boeing for 21 years as a writer, curriculum designer, and leadership development coach. She has master’s degrees in child development and organizational development, and she is a certified coach.