The gravitational pull of individual friendships can have an enormous cumulative effect on the quality of our lives. Friends can link us to broader social networks, and help enrich our lives. A friend can be the emotional oasis that makes all the difference.
The good news about friendships is that they get better with age, says Karen Fingerman, professor of human development and family science at the University of Texas at Austin: "It almost doesn't matter what relationship you're talking about. They get better when you get older."
Older people are generally more happy and forgiving and less judgmental than younger people. They also are less driven by emotions and hormones and do a better job of controlling their behaviors.
But the number and diversity of friendships tend to naturally decline in later years, and can lead to isolation and adverse effects on health and happiness. Psychologist Laura Carstensen, who directs the Stanford Center on Longevity, says people should consider paying attention to the diversity and ages of people in their circle of friends. This can minimize the impact of having all your friends die off, she says.
Developing and maintaining friendships requires continuous attention too.
"Give-and-take is important," says Rosemary Blieszner, a specialist in aging and adult development at Virginia Tech.
Other elements of solid friendships, Blieszner notes, include paying attention to what's going on in a friend's life, seeking out and participating in shared interests and activities, and being able to confide deeply to a friend.
"People should learn to value relationships," says Toni Antonucci, a professor of psychology at the University of Michigan. "They will make them happier. And with longer life expectancies, they really have to think about the kind of life they want to lead ... we underestimate how important it is in our lives to have relationships."
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