Friends are a treasure. In an uncertain world, they provide a comforting sense of stability and connection. We laugh together and cry together, sharing our good times and supporting each other through the bad. Yet a defining feature of friendship is that it’s voluntary. We’re not wedded together by law, or through blood, or via monthly payments into our bank accounts. It is a relationship of great freedom, one that we retain only because we want to.
But the downside of all this freedom, this lack of formal commitment, is that friendship often falls by the wayside. Our adult lives can become a monsoon of obligations, from children, to partners, to ailing parents, to work hours that trespass on our free time. A study of young adults’ social networks by researchers at the University of Oxford found that those in a romantic relationship had, on average, two fewer close social ties, including friends. Those with kids had lost out even more. Friendships crumble, not because of any deliberate decision to let them go, but because we have other priorities, ones that aren’t quite as voluntary. The title of the Oxford paper summed up things well: ‘Romance and Reproduction Are Socially Costly’.
Such is the pace and busyness of many people’s adult lives that they can lose contact with their friends at a rapid rate. For instance, a study by the Dutch sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst found that, over a period of seven years, people had lost touch with half of their closest friends, on average. What’s especially alarming is that many of us seem to be losing friends faster than we can replace them. A meta-analysis by researchers in Germany published in 2013 combined data from 177,635 participants across 277 studies, concluding that friendship networks had been shrinking for the preceding 35 years. For example, in studies conducted between 1980 and 1985, participants reportedly had four more friends on average, compared with the participants who’d taken part in studies between 2000 and 2005.
If we’re not careful, we risk living out our adulthoods friendless. This is a situation that’s worth avoiding. Friends are not only a great source of fun and meaning in life, but studies suggest that, without them, we’re also at greater risk of feeling more depressed. It’s telling that in their study ‘Very Happy People’ (2002), the American psychologists Ed Diener and Martin Seligman found that a key difference between the most unhappy and most happy people was how socially connected they were. Friends give us so much, which is why we need to invest in making them. Here’s how. [ … ]