While resting and recovering from Covid (honestly, the virus I had at Christmas seemed worse), I started reflecting on friends and friendship. At this moment in time, my definition of friends are the ones who bring you groceries, chocolate and Panadol, walk your dog and check on your well-being every day (thanks, Sandra, Kaz and Dee).
The deal with friendship is the unspoken agreement that one will reciprocate as and when appropriate. Research on this topic tells us that, unsurprisingly, the main reason friendships end is that one friend feels that the other is being selfish; it is a one-way relationship. Other reasons friendships fail come under the heading ‘loyalty/betrayal’. Or it could simply be that your friend moved to another town or city, took up with a new partner after a divorce or bereavement, or has developed opinions and beliefs that conflict with yours.
The latter clearly was the case when people who believed Covid was a real and present danger and lined up for vaccinations, came into conflict with those who denied it existed.
The advent of social media around 2004 has turned the traditional concept of a ‘friend’ on its head. In short, they hijacked the word.
A former colleague/friend whom I had not heard from in a while posted a message on Facebook on Sunday warning friends he had been hacked.
“Ignore any friend requests from me – I’ve got too many friends already LOL.”
Like all of us, I have far more email addresses and mobile numbers stored away than any one person could categorise as ‘friends’. Many of them date from my journalism career, where ‘contacts’ are the key to everything. Over time I reduced my phone contact list from 1100 to around 300.
Despite having a recent clean-out, I still have 400 Facebook friends.
I deleted anyone I had never actually met, suspect accounts (where there appeared to be more than one) and people I’d had no contact with in the past 12 months.
Many of those ‘friended’ me because they read my weekly blogs or because they follow our music. One also tends to accumulate friends who use Facebook and Messenger to find people. The one-off reason for doing so comes and goes but the ‘friend’ remains on the list.
The irony is not lost on me that at least five of my oldest friends do not have a Facebook account and have no intention of starting one. Even when I share cat jokes. Prompted by the topic and these memories, I rang my old Kiwi school friend, who now lives in Sydney. He was his usual cheery self and I pictured his smile and that of his Dad, who he so resembles. This friend was best man at both my weddings, which is not something many people can say.
I told him we both had Covid and after commiserating he said he and his partner are still Covid-free. He attributes this to living something of a monastic life and wearing a mask when he does go places where people mingle.
We exchanged old war stories from school days. We were probably what people call ‘nerds’ now, before the term was invented. We were bookish and, even at a young age, interested in philosophy, psychology and comparative religions. We once got detention for riding a library trolley up and down the corridors (before school started), but that’s another story.
There’s been a lot of research done into the topic of friendship and how it is essential to our health and happiness. As we age, the number of friends in our physical address book dwindles. We lose people to cancer, heart disease and other illnesses. Others develop dementia and forget who we are.
Friends made when our children were growing up tend to fade away as the kids mature and move away to live their own lives. The vast size of the continent we live in contributes to the dissolution of friendships, as people move interstate for work or family reasons. I am probably fortunate to have kept in touch with a small group of men from school days. We are geographically scattered and to be honest do not have much in common these days.
Yet when we spend time together we are transported back to carefree teen years at the beach, drinking from tall necked beer bottles and daring each other to test the treacherous surf.
Clinical psychologist Anastasia Hronis writes that it is hard making new friends at any age, which is one of the reasons for our epidemic of loneliness. Writing in The Conversation, Dr Hronis, of Sydney’s University of Technology, says that for most adults, making new friends is hard work.
“In school, making friends can be as simple as going on the monkey bars together. But as adults, making, developing and maintaining friendships can be much more difficult.
“This matters, because we need friends. And while old friends are golden, nothing stays the same forever. Old friends move away, or have their time taken up by child-rearing or their careers. Without action, loneliness can quietly grow around you.”
The onset of the Covid pandemic produced the perfect storm of conditions for making friendships difficult to maintain.
Dr Hronis cites research that shows 54% of Australians reported a keen sense of loneliness. Before COVID, around a third of Australians reported feeling at least one episode of loneliness.
When researchers in a recent study interviewed adults about making friends,,the most important challenge cited was a lack of trust. People found it harder to put their trust in someone new compared to when they were younger.
If you are an older person starting out in a new town or city, you may find this research dispiriting. US researchers estimated it takes roughly 50 hours of shared contact to move from acquaintances to casual friends. Progressing the contact to close friends can take more than 200 hours.
Dr Hronis says there are many other barriers stopping us from having friendships, including an introverted personality, health barriers and personal insecurities.
“It’s entirely possible to overcome these barriers as adults and build meaningful, long-lasting friendships. We don’t have to accept loneliness as inevitable,” Dr Hronis said.
“If you put in ten minutes a day, you can maintain existing friendships and build new ones. Send a text, forward a meme, add to the group chat or give someone a quick call. Don’t get caught up on how much effort, energy and time goes into building friendships. Ten minutes a day may be all you need.”
Now you know why I got in touch this week! It wasn’t exactly intimations of mortality that brought me to it; the trouble with technology is, it is too easy to dash off a text or an email (that may or may not be read).
Sometimes what we all need most is to hear a familiar and friendly voice at the other end of the phone – with no risk of catching anything.
I’ll leave you with this performance of the best-known song about friendship. We were fortunate indeed to hear Carole King and James Taylor duet her song in 2010, when they performed in Brisbane. The 2010 world tour band included bass player Leland Sklar and drummer Russ Kunkel, both playing in this 1971 video.
Now there’s friendship for you.