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Remember how easy it was to make friends as a kid? You’d see someone your age across the playground jumping rope or kicking a soccer ball, shoot them a toothy grin and, next minute, it’s like you’ve been besties your whole life.
No doubt about it: friendships are incredibly important and have the ability to bring so much joy into our lives. But as we get older, form romantic partnerships, have children, move to new suburbs – or even cities and countries – maintaining old friendships and forming new ones can become harder.
“As we get older, we get more set in our ways, meaning our schedules tend to compress and we are less likely to try new things and meet new people,” explains psychologist Leanne Hall.
We often stick to ‘situational friends’ – those convenient buddies who we see every day at work, the school drop-off or the gym.
“These relationships don’t require much effort, hence we feel safer because, when you invest very little, you don’t have much to lose if the friendship ends,” Leanne explains.
Friends play a huge role in our wellbeing. Having strong connections can boost our sense of belonging, purpose and happiness, reduce stress and improve our sense of self-worth and confidence. Friends can also be an invaluable support resource during times of turbulence or tragedy.
Our mates can even help improve our physical health. Studies suggest adults with a strong social support network have a reduced risk of health problems such as depression, high blood pressure and an unhealthy body mass index (BMI) – and older adults who engage in a vibrant social life may live longer than those with fewer connections.
With so many clear benefits to having buddies, it’s worth thinking about how to develop friendships as we get older – particularly the ones that are worth nurturing.
“Meaningful friendships are the ones where you can always pick up where you left off,” says Leanne. “Deeper and more meaningful connections are also about allowing vulnerability – you don’t have to pretend and you can show your emotions and know your friend will be supportive. This builds trust, which is a key component of a meaningful relationship.”
If you’re wondering how to make good friendships or how to keep friendships strong, Leanne says you need to put in effort.
“Be interested in what they like and dislike,” she says. “Make time for them – for example, call or see them rather than texting all the time. Follow up with them if you know they have something coming up such as a job interview, a special event or a medical appointment.”
Here are some other tips that might help new bonds shift from superficial to meaningful:
Friendships are built over time, so take it slow. Pushing for intimacy by sharing confidential info too soon with a new friend can make some people uncomfortable and may push them away.
Remember, we’re all different! Someone doesn’t have to share your beliefs and behaviours to become a close pal – and limiting yourself to only those who do could see you missing out on a great friendship.
Ask questions to keep conversation flowing and show your interest. Show you can be a trustworthy friend and a positive presence in their life. This means limiting nasty talk or gossiping about others!
Move your focus from inwards to other people, as well as interests and activities. Concentrating on your own feelings and fears makes it harder to connect with others.
Remember, we’re all different! Someone doesn’t have to share your beliefs to become a close pal
Once a great friendship is in place, it’s essential to nurture it or it could fade away.
“Do things for your friend that make them feel good – and share your vulnerable side,” suggests Leanne.
Remember to be generous with your time and attention. “Make them feel like a priority and try new experiences together – take a painting class together or go rock climbing,” she suggests.
Be compassionate, keep their confidences, try to control any jealousy (remember, they’re allowed to have other friends – these could even become your buddies one day, too!). And above all, don’t take your mates for granted.
If you’re currently feeling lonely, we’ve outlined a few tips that can help. Find out more in our article about how loneliness affects your body (and what to do about it!).