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How Friendships Make Your Happier, Healthier

Friendship is a one-size-fits-all way to improve your happiness level in virtually every aspect of life, from physical health to personal enjoyment to sex.
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Two mature women laughing in restaurant
Two mature women laughing in restaurant

This piece is co-authored by Loretta Kaufman and Mary Quigley

That's What Friends are For
In good times, in bad times

That song was first recorded in 1982 but the refrain holds true even more so in the 24/7, social media saturated world.

In an age where friends are often simply regarded as a number to be tallied on Facebook, the value of real, one-on-one friendship has been too often ignored. Is it any surprise then that an AARP survey found that more than one-third of Americans over age 45 admit to feeling lonely at times? While we are sometimes obsessed about relationships with spouses, partners, children, co-workers, we invest little of the same time and energy in the care and nurturing of friendships.

Friendships are critically important to every aspect of our lives, especially as we age and change our work and social lives. Decades of research by academics in fields from gerontology to sociology proves just that.

To take a look at the state of friendship in the United States, we conducted a national survey of 1515 adults--age 50 and older--about the impact of friends on their lives. In our survey with more than 200 questions, we asked people to rate themselves as very happy, moderately happy and unhappy. Our findings:

• Friendship is the single most important factor in determining a person's happiness.
• Those who considered friendship very important were more satisfied in every category from their health, their personal achievements, their safety, their relationships and their lives as a whole.
• For married people, their level of happiness is significantly dependent upon the intensity of their friendships.
• Single people who think of themselves as being extremely happy and who believe friends are important, are happier than married people who do not think friends are very important.
• While two-thirds of our respondents said that friendships are very important, 70 percent admitted that they do not actively seek out new friends. Yet those who do make the time and effort to find new friends are significantly happier.

Who knew that not having friends as you face growing older has such wide-ranging implications? No friends? You are less interested in your health and personal enjoyment and have less fun and more stress. Even more important, recent studies have found that adults should take social relationships as seriously as other risk factors---weight, smoking and exercise---that affect mortality.

For those on their own, finding friends and swimming in a larger social network is imperative. Fewer Americans than ever enjoy the side-by-side comfort and companionship of a spouse or roommate. In Washington, D.C. and New York City, one in two households is occupied by someone living alone.That reflects a nationwide trend that shows that shows almost 30 percent of those over 65 living alone, up from 10 percent in 1950.

Friendship has been understated and unappreciated and understudied. While much attention has been paid to the digitally connected millennials and GenX, it's time to shift attention to Baby Boomers and seniors. We are living longer, downshifting from the career climb, relocating, watching our families grow and move away, drifting away from lifelong partners (literally or figuratively).

We may be aging but a surprising number of Americans still feel young. A Pew survey found that nearly those ages 50 and older say they feel at least 10 years younger than their chronological age. And, the older we get, the younger we feel. Among adults 65 and older, fully 60 percent say they feel younger than their age.

Like all relationships, friendships need fostering. It takes time. It takes thought. With more than 40 percent of 55-year-old men and women still working, there may be little time for friends. Adult children may still be at home, requiring an ongoing work/family juggling act. Adding new friends might seem to be more that most can handle.

The reality is that it's often not easy to make new friends as you get older. While more than two-thirds of our respondents said friendship was very important, 70 percent did not actively seek out new friends.

Why aren't we putting a greater effort into forming and nurturing new friendships? There are a number of possible explanations. Maybe it's because the landscape has dramatically changed since we started on the road to adulthood in our 20s and 30s. For those of us with children, our friends may have been the parents of our kids' friends or PTA parents or neighbors. As comedian Louis C.K. quips about being friends with the parents of our kid's friend, "I didn't choose you. Our children chose each other. Based on no criteria, by the way. They're the same size."

It's likely that during our earlier adult years, our friends were more like us than not; in fact some may have been carbon copies. If you were a Sunday afternoon football fanatic, it's highly unlikely that you befriended a wannabe Thoreau. Or if you were a soccer mom, chances are you were at the field screaming "defense" with a slew of other soccer moms. But here is the good news: When looking for friends today, we don't have to look for our mirror-image. Time after time, we heard that the fifty-pluses want friends with diverse personalities who fulfill different needs. Embrace diversity!

When asked what you do with friends, the responses read like a cruise ship activity schedule. From going to movies together to dining out, from playing cards to shopping, from traveling to theater to sports, spectator or not. Your next foodie friend may not be your shopping stylista. Your next hiking buddy may not be the friend sitting next to you on a plane to Alaska. While our friends may be more diverse than in past decades, our definition of a friend has not drastically changed. Loyal, trustworthy and honest were often used to describe the most coveted qualities in a friend. Someone to look to for support, advice and to help in a time of need. Someone to talk with, share thoughts and someone who listens. Simply said, a friend is someone who is "there for you." That's what we treasured in a friend twenty years ago; that's what we need in our friends today.

While our senior years may present some physical challenges---who doesn't have an aching knee or stiff fingers---surprisingly, helping with personal and physical needs was low on the list of what we want in a friend. As a demographic, we are not that different from the younger Gen X or Y when it comes to friends. We need and want friends to socialize with, to be with at a dinner table, the Grand Canyon and to have fun together. Go for it. Look for new friends, keeping the payoff in mind. Those who actively sought new friends were 10 percent more satisfied with their lives as a whole.

Shelves are lined with relationships books that deal with marriage and children and careers. Sobbing patients sit on psychologist's sofas trying to figure out how to deal with their feelings of dissatisfaction and despair. Who doesn't want to be happier? Friendship is a one-size-fits-all way to improve your happiness level in virtually every aspect of life, from physical health to personal enjoyment to sex.

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