While lockdown prevented us from seeing our friends in person, it would have been even more difficult to navigate the past few months without the support of our friends on the other end of a Zoom call, or over a WhatsApp message. Friends who know you inside out, who will be there for you when life is doing its worst, benefit your health in so many ways – and those gains start in childhood. A study at Concordia University, Canada, found that having a friend around buffers negative experiences. Researchers concluded that when school children were alone during a negative event, such as getting into trouble with a teacher, the stress hormone cortisol rocketed and self-worth dipped. However, if a friend was present, the impact on cortisol and self-worth was reduced.
Friendships also have implications for our longevity. Research published in the Journal Of Epidemiology & Community Health looked at the data of around 1500 people aged 70+, and found that those with the strongest social networks were 22% more likely to live longer over the next decade than those with the fewest friends.
‘Good friendships have enormous potential to boost everything from our mood to our physical health,’ says psychologist Suzy Reading. ‘That sense of connection to, and belonging with, others is a basic human need and essential to our wellbeing. Without it, we leave ourselves open to greater risk of depression and stress.’
Do your friends fit?
However, as any woman juggling career, relationship and family will know, it can be easy to leave meeting up with friends on the back burner – especially in the midst of a global pandemic. ‘Circumstances change as we move through the decades and this can challenge friendships,’ says Reading. The intense bonds of our teens and early 20s are challenged by navigating marriage, motherhood and mortgages in our 30s. The key to maintaining those bonds with your tribe? Don’t feel that you have to live up to a Hollywood version of the perfect friendship. ‘It doesn’t take much to stay connected,’ says Reading. ‘If you’re busy, send a text to say you’re thinking of them, or send a photo saying, “This is what I did this morning, I’d love to have shared it with you.” It’s about finding creative ways to keep the connection.’
What also impacts on friendship is when our life moves at a different speed to those of our pals. ‘I see this all the time with my clients,’ says psychotherapist Hilda Burke. ‘The lifestyle choices we make in our 30s – whether we settle into a long-term relationship, having children or not – tend to come home to roost in our 40s.’ With the most recent Office for National Statistics figures showing that childlessness is on the rise – one fifth of women are childless by the age of 45, compared with one in nine women born in 1940 – and numerous studies confirming declining rates of marriage, we are now very likely to have single and/or childless friends. Or, indeed, we may be that friend ourselves.
So how best can you stay connected as lockdown eases, when friend wants to spend Friday night at home, while the other wants to go to a cocktail bar? ‘It’s important that you both realign your expectations,’ says Burke. ‘Acknowledge that your friendship isn’t going to be the same as it was 10 or 20 years ago, and give each other space to grow and be who you want to be.’ If you’re the coupled-up friend, it’s tempting to think you can get all your emotional support from your partner, but experts agree that friends offer something unique. ‘They are often better placed than your partner to give advice,’ says Reading. ‘Your partner’s judgement can be skewed because your decisions directly affect them. Friends, on the other hand, can offer a more balanced view.’
Quality trumps quantity
Another bonus of growing older is realising you don’t have to be buddies with everyone. In fact, it’s far better to focus on fewer friends than to spread yourself too thinly and studies show we become pickier about who’s in our social circle as we age. Stanford University psychologists looked at interviews conducted over 34 years with men and women at various ages, and found that by our 30s, we let go of less meaningful relationships in favour of a select group.
So how do you work out who is worth your efforts? ‘The best way to gauge a friendship is by asking yourself whether they make you feel brilliant, or drained?’ says Burke. ‘It’s impossible to keep every friendship going that you’ve accumulated over the years. You need to check whether your friends still fit.’
Reading believes there are five types of friend every woman needs in her life. ‘You need an advocate who will be your cheerleader, plus a devil’s advocate who challenges you and stops you running on autopilot. You need a listener, someone to whom you can lay bare your hopes, dreams and fears, without being judged. A work friend who will understand your career triumphs and niggles, as well as the lifelong buddy to whom you don’t need to explain anything, they just “get” you,’ she says. ‘You might get a few of those functions in one friend, or have different friends for each of them. Also, think about whose team you’re on and what purpose you serve, because friendship isn’t only about what you’re taking, it’s about what you’re offering, too.’
Ultimately, friendship is about kindness, love, laughter and support. It’s a ‘How are you?’ text when life is rough. It’s remembering their birthday without the help of Facebook. It’s meeting up after months of separation in lockdown and picking right back up from where you left off.
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