A recent Yes! magazine feature on 2018’s top scientific insights about living a meaningful life reports on a study by researcher Jeffery Hall (U. Kansas) examining the process of building friendships. In terms of sheer interaction time, the study indicates that we make friends much quicker when we’re younger than when we’re older:
This year, University of Kansas researcher Jeffrey A. Hall helped demystify the process of friendship-building in a study published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. It’s the first to explore how many hours it takes for an acquaintance to become a friend.
Hall surveyed 112 college students every three weeks during their first nine weeks at a Midwestern university. He also gave a one-time questionnaire to 355 American adults who had moved to a new city in the past six months. In these surveys, the newcomers picked a friend or two and reported how much time they spent together and how close the friendship became.
With this data, Hall was able to approximate how many hours it took for different levels of friendship to emerge:
- It took students 43 hours and adults 94 hours to turn acquaintances into casual friends.
- Students needed 57 hours to transition from casual friends to friends. Adults needed, on average, 164 hours.
- For students, friends became good or best friends after about 119 hours. Adults needed an added 100 hours to make that happen.
I think I get it
When I briefly moved this blog to the TinyLetter platform in 2017, I wrote about friendships, and I’m going to incorporate some of that commentary here. First off, Dr. Hall’s research study appears to complement a 2012 New York Times piece that I cited, in which author Alex Williams examines the challenges of making friends from age 30 onward:
In your 30s and 40s, plenty of new people enter your life, through work, children’s play dates and, of course, Facebook. But actual close friends — the kind you make in college, the kind you call in a crisis — those are in shorter supply.
…As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.
Of course, as these authors and researchers would no doubt agree, the processes of making and growing friendships are about much more than time and proximity. Shared experiences, values, and personality matches are just as important. Strong connections via the latter can create deep bonds in a relatively short amount of time.
That said, as a baseline matter, the findings that close friendships may be easier to create when we are younger resonates with me. Especially compared to college, law school, and my early years of legal practice as a Legal Aid lawyer, making new, close friendships as I entered into my mid-30s proved to be a challenge. It didn’t help that during that time, I had uprooted myself from New York City (my dearly adopted home of 12 years) to Boston to take a law school teaching job. Now, Boston is a beautiful city with many positive qualities, but in keeping with the town’s long-held reputation for parochialism, the locals weren’t exactly rolling out the Welcome Wagon for newcomers like me. And I just happened to be joining an institution that embodied a lot of that insularity. Those early years in Boston were awfully lonely.
During the past decade or so, however, I have found that making new friends is easier. They live in the Boston area, elsewhere in the U.S., and around the world. It took me until well into my 50s to get to this place. In particular, I have discovered, and in some instances helped to create, multiple communities of good, grounded people — tribes, if you will — that have fostered genuine friendships, while strengthening many friendships of longer vintage. During this time, and fueled by these good people, I have grown as a person.
All the lonely people
It’s worth our time and effort to pay attention to friendships, because we are also in the midst of what many observers and researchers are calling an epidemic of loneliness, especially among those later in life. (Just search “loneliness epidemic” and you’ll see what I mean.) The presence or absence of good friendships in our lives is not the only major factor in determining loneliness, but it’s a big part of the equation.
And if we add to the mix the challenges of forging new friendships as we get older, then the findings about loneliness and aging present yet another dimension: One of the obvious antidotes to loneliness — creating new, genuine friendships — does not come as easily as we age.
So, while it’s hardly a quick fix, we benefit individually and collectively by valuing friendships and the care and feeding of friendships. Individual tastes and preferences may vary, and I’ll toss in the introvert vs. extrovert factor as well when it comes to the role that friendships play in our lives. But suffice it to say that having good friends in our lives is part of living well and healthy.
I won’t claim to be an expert on the making and nurturing of friendships, but I’m pretty confident in offering this cluster of observations, drawing upon what I wrote in 2017:
1. To make and keep a good friend, you have to be a good friend. People may differ on what being a good friend means, but a good friendship goes both ways under any definition.
2. Especially when one friend is in great need, a supreme test of that friendship is how the other responds. A great friendship survives, perhaps even grows out of, this adversity.
3. Older friendships may ripen and mature. Shared memories from back in the day can be great (those old stories are the best, aren’t they?), but those friendships may deepen beyond the snapshots of days gone by — and ideally they will do so.
4. Shared, immersed interests and experiences are a great source of new friendships in adulthood. They can create positive, supportive, and lasting emotional connections.
5. Friendships can come from anywhere, including online interactions. For example, I find that Facebook at middle age has proven to be a source of genuine connections with folks from many different walks of life. Online communications are also a great way of maintaining and growing existing friendships separated by distance.
6. A diversity of friends makes our lives richer. I don’t mean diversity in so-called politically correct terms, but rather friends drawn naturally from different walks of life. For me, shared core values are important, but this still leaves abundant room for differences in lifestyles, ages/generations, political and social beliefs, and overall backgrounds.
7. Family members can become friends, and friends can become extended family members. It’s the quality of the relationship that matters, not necessarily bloodlines.
8. Love in many different manifestations can be a by-product of friendship. This includes familial, romantic, or simply a bond that deepens.
9. Friendships can form out of positive experiences, shared challenges, or adversity. What counts is the character of the relationships.
10. Friendships, like any other relationship, are not necessarily forever. People change, stuff happens. Search “ending a friendship” and you’ll see that a lot of people have thought about this.
11. That said, some friendships are forever. We should treasure them. Getting older is a mixed bag, but one of the best things about it is calling people your lifelong friends and knowing that it’s true.
12. I’m going a tad off-topic here, but a treasured animal can be a friend, too. If you doubt me, then I can refer you to dozens of folks who will attest that their dogs, cats, and other dear critters breathe life into the term “animal companion.”
13. In terms of our closer friendships, it’s mostly about quality, not quantity. If we’re fortunate, that circle can be a source of mutual fellowship and support over the long haul.
14. Shared values can matter to a lot of us in maintaining friendships. I don’t mean that we all need to agree on everything. Rather, I’m referring to core values about life and how we should treat one another.