“Friends Are the Leaves of the Tree of Life” —George Meredith

It was so easy to make friends when we were younger. When we were in school, everyone was a potential buddy. We had classes with them or lived in the same campus housing. Later, chasing after toddlers on the playground or watching our kids play sports made us magnets for others who were doing the same things. Spontaneous conversations sprang up with strangers with whom we suddenly had so much in common.

There seemed no end to places we could meet people our own age. As young adults, our circle of friends was large and bustling. We probably didn’t even think about how important friendships were to our happiness and wellbeing. It is only now, in our later years, that we realize how much more difficult it is to connect with new friends and stay in touch with old ones.

Some of our old friends have either drifted away or become ill; perhaps we have drifted away as well without realizing it. Staying in touch with people who are no longer part of our lives takes a lot of energy and motivation. This past year of seclusion due to Covid has only exacerbated the feeling of being cut off from so many people, especially friends. For some, working from home may have been novel and even fun at first, but for those of us who have been doing it for years, it became enforced solitude.

We need friends more than ever now. In fact, we are at risk when our circle becomes smaller. Research from Brigham Young University revealed that having a dwindling social circle or not having enough close friends has a similar risk factor as smoking fifteen cigarettes per day.

“Friends become increasingly important to health and happiness as people age,” according to an article in Personal Relationships. They are so crucial, in fact, that they account for more than 70 percent of our happiness.

A Journal of Health and Social Behavior report published in 2010, notes that having strong social bonds helps us live longer. It boosts our immune system and allows us to enjoy a more meaningful life. Strong friendships can help to reduce stress, chronic pain, the risk of heart disease, and high blood pressure. William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University, analyzed a survey of nearly 7,500 older people in the United States. He found that it wasn’t only important to have friends but that the quality of those friendships mattered just as much.

“The important thing is having people you can rely on, for the good times as well as the bad,” notes Chopik. We not only need friends, we need those friends to be part of our support system. Life is unpredictable, especially as we grow older. When we hit a rough patch, we need those who will understand what we are going through or at least be able to listen to us as we try to explain.