Got time for Friends?

Sure, you’re busy. But are you paying attention to what’s really important? Why finding—and keeping—friends is the key to a happy life.

| September/October 2001

The 19 kinds of friends
-Jeremiah Creedon

Just Friends
-Pagan Kennedy, Ms.

Only Reconnect
-Jon Spayde

Got time for friends?
-Andy Steiner

Discuss friendship in the Relationship forum in Café Utne'
I t’s not the last time my daughter will make me look foolish, but it was one of the first. Maybe it was silly to take a toddler to an art opening, but there we were, the effervescent Astrid and her uptight mama. As I hovered near her, hoping to intercept toppling objets d’art, Astrid spotted Claire across the room. Maybe their attraction was predestined, since Claire and Astrid, 18 and 16 months respectively, were the only under-three-footers in what to them must have looked like a sea of kneecaps. Still, Astrid’s eyes lit up when she saw young Claire, and she turned on the charm, hopping and squealing and running in some strange kiddie ritual. Claire squealed back, Astrid flashed her tummy, and that was it: They were fast friends. It wasn’t so easy for Claire’s mother and me. When our kids started making nice, we smiled politely, and as the junior friendship heated up, we attempted shy (on my part at least) and distracted attempts at conversation. "How old is she?" I asked. "What’s her name?" she countered. I’d like to say that today Claire’s mommy is a good friend, but that’s not the case. We continued to exchange pleasantries while our daughters pranced around together, but when our partners appeared, we picked up our squirmy squirts and said good-bye. We haven’t seen each other since. Too bad, because I could have used a new friend. Who couldn’t?
"We cannot tell the precise moment when friendship is formed. As in filling a vessel drop by drop, there is at last a drop which makes it run over; so in a series of kindnesses there is at last one which makes the heart run over."
- Samuel Johnson
I n college, and for several years after, I was immersed in a warm circle of friends, the kind of exciting and exotic people I’d spent my small-town youth dreaming about. These friends came to my college from around the world, and after graduation, many of them stayed. We had a great time. We went to movies—and for a bit created our own monthly film group. We gathered at each other’s apartments to cook big dinners and stay up late, sharing our opinions on music, sex, and dreams. We even took a few trips together—to a friend’s wedding in the mountains of Colorado and to a cabin on the edge of a loon-covered lake. But time passes, and as these friends moved on, got married, or found great jobs, my gang of compatriots began to dwindle. Now many of them have moved to other states—other countries, even. Though a precious core group still lives within shouting distance, I worry that grown-up life will soon scatter them all and I’ll be left, lonely and missing them. So it goes for many of us as we leave our youth behind and face "real" life. While generations of young adults have probably felt the same way, the yearning for close friends takes on a greater sense of urgency now as modern life makes our lives busier and more fragmented. "It’s not that it’s so hard to make friends when you’re older," says sociologist Jan Yager, author of Friendshifts, "but making friends—and finding time to maintain and nurture old friendships as well as new ones—is just one of the many concerns that occupy your time."
"Be a friend to thyself, and others will befriend thee."
- English Proverb
A strid’s encounter with Claire (and my parallel one with her mother) cast a spotlight on one reality: Kids see potential friends everywhere. Adults, on the other hand, have a harder time of it, especially as we (and our potential friends) enter the realm of romantic commitments, full-time jobs, motherhood and fatherhood. While we may wish to add to our collection of friends, we feel too busy, too consumed by other obligations, too caught up in everyday bustle to make time to help a friendship blossom and grow. And we may be following subtle clues from the culture-at-large telling us that, once school is over or we near 30, friendship ought to take a back seat to more pressing concerns. Despite the central role that idealized gangs of pals play on sitcoms, our primary sources of information—self-help books, magazines, and personal interest TV shows—rarely talk about how to get—or keep—friends. Instead they barrage us with detailed advice on how to attract a lover, get ahead in a career, rekindle a marriage, or keep peace in the family. Friendships, unlike these other kinds of relationships, are supposed to just happen, with little effort on your part. But what if they don’t? "Friends can get relegated to secondary status," says Aurora Sherman, assistant professor of psychology at Brandeis University. "Even if you don’t have children or a partner or aging parents, the pressures of adult responsibility can force people to place friendship in the background." Children’s full-scale focus on friendship may have to do with more than just their carefree attitude about life. Sherman cites the research theorizing that kids’ interest in making friends serves a larger developmental purpose. "A young person’s primary motivation for social interaction is to get information and to learn about the world," Sherman explains. "When you’re a kid, practically everybody that you meet has the potential to help you learn about something that you didn’t know." Grown-ups already know most things (or at least they think they do), so as you get older, you may feel less of a drive to make new friends.
"All I can do is to urge you to put friendship ahead of all other human concerns, for there is nothing suited to man's nature, noting that can mean so much to him, whether in good times or in bad... I am inclined to think that with the exception of wisdom, the gods have given nothing finer to men than this"
- Marcus Tullius
So, if you’re someone who embraces the goal of lifelong learning, it’s important not to write off friendship as a thing of the past. Meeting new people is a lot less work than going back to college for another degree, and more fun, too. Want to learn yoga or steep yourself in South Am-erican culture? How about sharpening your skills as an entrepreneur or activist? Think outside the classroom by finding someone eager to show what they know. An added benefit is that you, too, can share your passion about knitting or bocce ball or radical history. If the people you currently hang out with don’t know much about the things you want to know, maybe it’s time to break into some new circles. The tangible rewards of friendship go far beyond exchanges of information. In 1970 Lenny Dee left New York and moved across the country to Portland, Oregon, where he knew barely a soul. "The first week I was there I met probably half the people who became my lifelong friends," says Dee. "It was like I walked through this magic door and a whole world opened up for me." Within a day of his arrival, he had moved into a house that was an epicenter of the city’s alternative culture. He could barely step out of the house without running into one of his new friends. "At one point in my life all of the people I knew were footloose and fancy free," Dee says, "but over the years that changed. A certain segment of my friends in Portland became more settled while I remained less settled. People got families and jobs, and they started disappearing. Now you have to make an appointment to get together." Still, Dee has been vigilant in nurturing old friendships; people all across the country can count on a birthday phone call from Portland. "I have always thought you could invest your energies in making money or making friends," Dee says, "and they achieve much the same ends—security, new experiences, personal options, travel, and so forth. I have always found it more fulfilling to make friends." And Dee’s life has been shaped in many ways by the enduring connections he’s maintained, including a key position at the start-up of a now successful educational software company and a recent vacation in Corsica at the summer home of an old Portland friend who now lives in Paris. A slew of recent research supports Dee’s example that friends make life complete.
"The proper office of a friend is to side with you when you are in the wrong. Nearly anybody will side with you when you are in the right"
- Mark Twain
"As hard as it is with everyone so busy and consumed with the day-to-day workings of their lives, it’s important to understand that making and maintaining friendships is really pivotal to social, emotional, and physical well-being," says Yager. She ticks off research that touts the value of building strong nonfamilial bonds, including: an in-depth study of thousands of Northern California residents that revealed that having ties to at least one close friend extends a person’s life, and another study of 257 human resource managers that discovered adults who have friends at work report not only higher productivity but also higher workplace satisfaction. For New York psychotherapist Kathlyn Conway, a three-time cancer survivor and author of the memoir An Ordinary Life, friends provided an anchor during times when she felt her life was drifting off course.
Three is the magic number When it comes to making friends, there’s much we can learn from kids about flashing a wide grin and harboring a playful spirit. But Stanford University psychology professor Laura Carstensen emphasizes that an important lesson also comes from the over-65 set. In studying senior citizens’ social networks, she has found that "it is the quality of their relationships that matters—not the quantity. In our work we find that three is the critical friend number. If you have three people in your life that you can really count on, then you are doing as well as someone who has 10 friends. Or 20, for that matter. If you have fewer than three friends, then you could be a little precarious." So sit down, get out a piece of paper, and start listing your friends. Got three folks you’re always excited about seeing and feel certain you can trust? Then put down the pencil. Who says you can’t put a number on success?
—Andy Steiner
"I had friends I could talk to at any time," Conway says of her 1993 battle with breast cancer. "If I was upset, it was easy for me to call someone and expect them to listen—no matter what." And when the busy mother of two needed physical help, friends came to her aid. "One friend went to the hospital after my mastectomy and helped me wash my hair," Conway recalled in an article she wrote for the women’s cancer magazine Mamm. "Another, who herself had had breast cancer, visited and stealthily, humorously, kindly opened her blouse to show me her implanted breast in order to reassure me. Yet another left her very busy job in the middle of the week to go shopping with me for a wig." One time when adults tend to make new friends is during major life changes, like a move, a new job, or the birth of a child. Ellen Goodman and Patricia O’Brien, authors of I Know Just What You Mean, a book chronicling their quarter-century friendship, met in 1973 when both were completing Neiman fellowships at Harvard. At the time, Goodman, now a nationally syndicated newspaper columnist, and O’Brien, a novelist and former editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times, were both newly divorced mothers in their 30s. "We were both broke and busy and we were not at all alike—at least on the surface," Goodman recalls, "but we bonded, maybe out of some sense of great urgency, and during that year we spent an enormous amount of time in Harvard Square, drinking coffee and talking. We missed a lot of classes, but those times together were some of the best seminars either of us ever attended." "Life shifts—like a divorce or an illness or another unexpected change—can occur at any time, and when that happens, there’s always this powerful draw to another person who’s going through the same thing," O’Brien says. "For Ellen and me there was this wonderful opportunity to talk to another woman who was hitting the same bumps in the road as we were. We could talk for hours and always understand what the other person was saying." After the short spell at Harvard, they never again lived in the same place but kept the friendship going with letters, phone calls, and frequent visits. A while back—inspired by my daughter’s happy, open face and ready giggle—I resolved that making new friends might be just the cure for the post-baby blahs I was experiencing. So I set my sights on one particular woman. Even though I have wonderful old friends, people I wouldn’t trade for a billion dollars, this particular woman caught my eye. She seemed smart and funny. We were both writers. I’d heard that she lived in my neighborhood. Then, the kicker: Someone we both knew suggested that we would hit it off. So I called her—out of the blue—and invited her to coffee. Sure, she said. So we met.
"When you know who his friend is, you know who he is"
- Senegal proverb
Just the other day, this woman told me that at the time she wondered about my motivation, this strange, nervously enthusiastic young woman who peppered her with questions about writing and reading and her impressions of the university we’d both attended, she as an undergraduate, I as a master’s student. Still, a few weeks later she took me up on my invitation to go for a walk, and our conversation soon became natural and fun. Suddenly, she became my new friend. Astrid, riding in her stroller, witnessed it all. Besides babbling and napping, she was watching closely as my new friend and I laughed and told the stories of our lives. Taking a risk and extending yourself is one way to form a bond with someone. We weren’t squealing or flashing our tummies, but it was close.

Andy Steiner, mother of gregarious Astrid, is a senior editor of Utne Reader.

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