No buddy knows how it turns out: Life Hacks by Charles Assisi
There are no rules or formal structures that govern friendships. It’s time to rethink how we imagine these bonds as enriching our lives.
Friendships are like blue chip stocks. Invest in the right ones and the returns can be exponentially high. But most people either don’t stay invested—or cannot stay invested. Then, there is something else that is unique to friendships that is very unlike other relationships. Friendships are voluntary relationships. And friends are people you choose to invest into. Some evolve. Some fall. Some are forgotten. Some don’t feel like what they used to be. And then, at some point, as the exigencies of life take over, many of us forget what it is like to forge new friendships.
Anecdotal evidence suggests that for all their bluster about success, when asked, most middle-aged people in their late 40s and early 50s admit to being deeply lonely. They have trouble developing new friendships or, for that matter, nurturing existing ones. May I submit, a mid-life crisis is too cliché a phrase to describe this phenomenon?
If evidence is needed, when peer-reviewed literature on the theme across domains such as psychology, sociology and gerontology is studied, it becomes evident that as people grow into adulthood, their social networks shrink, because the numbers of their friends have shrunk over time. The reasons for this decline differ between genders.
The studies suggest that men have difficulty maintaining friendships due to career demands —more hours at work, and often relocations. There are family responsibilities, and societal norms that discourage men from displaying emotional vulnerability and intimacy. Additionally, men may be more likely to define their friendships in terms of shared activities rather than emotional support, which make it harder for them to maintain relationships when they can no longer engage in those activities.
For women, the decline in friendships may be more related to life transitions such as marriage, motherhood, and career changes. This can limit the time and energy they have available to invest in friendships. Women may also be more likely to define their friendships in terms of emotional support and intimacy, which may make it harder for them to maintain those relationships when they are unable to invest the time and energy to keep it going.
This takes us back to the beginning: What makes it difficult then for people to form new friendships?
Consider what we call a friendship. What is it supposed to mean? There are no rules or formal structures that govern friendships. There are formal boundaries and routines that define romantic relationships, marriage, or, for that matter, even being friends at the workplace. If someone chooses not to engage beyond a certain point, flags go up right away.
But when it comes to informal friendships that otherwise run deep, not speaking for months is assumed to be perfectly normal. The other exigencies of life taking precedence is thought of as kosher.
While most people take it for granted, is this good? The evidence doesn’t stack up. In fact, a seminal study that goes back to 1979 showed that the risk of death doubled over nine years for people with fewer social ties. Moral: If you wish to live longer, have more friends.
But sustaining old friends and creating new relationships is hard work. I speak with a degree of embarrassment. Old friends are taken for granted. When calls are placed, it is inevitably to ask for something. And when it comes to new relationships, I wonder how long ago it was that I forged something of consequence.
I am not the only one who feels conflicted about these questions. Many others feel the same way too. Perhaps, it’s time to rethink how we imagine friendships, and institutionalise the relationship. Like romances. Like families. If that adds years and quality to our life, there is a case for it.
(Charles Assisi is co-founder at Founding Fuel & co-author of The Aadhaar Effect)