You are not Alone

Making friends isn't always easy, but it's worth the effort. Studies show that a social circle is good for the body as well as the soul.

Updated: Jan 21, 2019 17:29:08 IST
2019-01-21T17:29:08+05:30
You are not Alone

Sharilene Rowland wasn't used to flying solo. She'd married young and had her first child when she was 25. But after she divorced and her two sons decamped from the nest, the 53-year-old caterer discovered that the only real social events she attended were the ones where she was hired to cook the food. She had maintained a few close friendships over the years, but the majority of her pals lived in other cities. Her typical evening went something like this: head home after work, make dinner, and … sit around. "I was in my 50s, single and very lonely," she says.

Unfortunately, Rowland has plenty of company when it comes to the solitary life. Midlife is when strong ties become both most important to our health and most difficult to maintain.

In this age of changing social fabric, loneliness is inevitable. Lost in our screens and bogged down by deadlines, we rarely have real interactions with people. Studies show that nearly 80 per cent of those under 18 years and 40 per cent of those over 65 years feel lonely. "While the internet facilitates a virtual connection, it limits face-to-face interactions with people. Physical presence impacts how we connect with another person. Proxi-mity to another human is essential to feel reassured and comforted," says Dr Senthil Reddi, additional professor, NIMHANS, Bengaluru.

A 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical & Diagnostic Research examined the correlation between loneliness, psychiatric disorders and physical health. It stressed early intervention to prevent sleep disorders, personality disorders, heart disease, diabetes, obesity, hypertension, physiological ageing and Alzheimer's.

No wonder then that a lack of physical proximity is not good for our collective well-being. Studies have shown that friendships can protect older adults from depression, cognitive decline and heart disease. While mature adults have better coping skills, the World Happiness Report 2015 stresses the need for pre-teens and adolescents "to develop emotional buoyancy, coping skills, resilience and the ability to form constructive social relationships". It turns out, people with sturdy interpersonal connections tend to eat and sleep better and exercise more.

Yet, while many adults crave new friendships, building those links can feel daunting. "We're much more self-conscious than children. We're afraid we'll be rejected," says Irene S. Levine, a New York-based clinical psychologist who has written extensively about ageing and friendship.

The process can be especially difficult for men, who are often taught that emotional vulnerability-key in forming close relationships-is a form of weakness. "We're told we're supposed to act in a stereotypically masculine way: not to share our feelings," says Geoffrey Greif, a professor at the University of Maryland School of Social Work, USA.

Robert Johnson, 52, has noticed the pressure on men to act 'masculine'. When the accountant moved to a new city for work, he was single and knew few locals. He was apprehensive about going out to meet new people. "We're not supposed to admit we can be as anxious and nervous as the next person," he says.

Instead of sitting at home, Johnson co-founded a social group that hosts various kinds of outings, such as trivia nights and yoga classes. He has met hundreds of new people, especially women, who regularly outnumber men at the events he organizes.

Over time, Sharilene Rowland has also managed to build an enviable social life. In a typical week, she spends four evenings attending street festivals, wine tastings and more. She has made a number of close friends, and they've become travel buddies, cheerleaders and confidantes. Last year, when Rowland was considering surgery to alleviate back pain, these friends were her sounding boards. Then they kept her company during her recovery. "My friends have made my life more full," she says.

What do experts advise when you feel unsure about reaching out? We've collected seven simple tips:

Resist insecurity. Many of us fall victim to catastrophic thinking before we even leave the house, says Janna Koretz, a Boston-based psychologist who specializes in relationships. "You might say, 'I could say something stupid, and I'll never make any friends,'" she explains.

To overcome self-doubt, Koretz suggests assessing whether your fears are realistic and thinking through how you might recover if you do get tongue-tied. Being prepared will give you a measure of security.

Make the first move. Get over your hesitation and start a conversation-the more you try to socialize, the easier it may become. "Start with getting acquainted to those near you. Try your neighbours," says Reddi. Just say "Hi!" and talk about the weather or the parking situation. Once the ice is broken, there is always scope to discover shared interests, he adds.

Use the Internet. When Vinay Kumar, a marketing professional, moved to California for work, he tried sites like Meetup and Eventbrite, where people connect to participate in local activities. He loved the experience.

Look for sites geared towards adults seeking platonic relationships, such as Meetup.com and Eventbrite.com in your city and The WOW Club-Women on Wanderlust-for ladies who enjoy travelling.

Look for shared interests. This gives you a simple point of connection, Levine says. Join a book club, a biking group or a cooking class. You can find local options

online and through community centres. Pick an activity that involves spending time, week after week, with the same people. Just as scheduled classes made developing friendships easier back in school, Levine says, the continuity increases your chances of forming bonds.

Be a pal. Of course, hang-outs don't automatically lead to lasting friendship. One-on-one time is necessary for a relationship to grow, but asking for it can feel awkward. The solution is easier than it seems: Listen carefully.

If your new acquaintance mentions a love of cycling, suggest going for a ride. If you learn of an impending birthday, follow up with a greeting or a card.

When Rowland wanted to get to know someone she'd met at an event better, she'd offer the person a lift home.

Play host. As Johnson discovered, holding your own get-togethers and gatherings can be the best way to meet new people. You might feel more comfortable on your own turf.

Expand your friend circle. "Often it isn't feasible to maintain close-knit friendships. Adult friendships are different from the ones you had as a child and one person may not be able to meet your needs for various aspects of your life," says Reddi. For instance, someone at work could be your professional cheerleader but may not be privy to your personal life, or someone you met at a hobby class may not be tuned into your professional goals. "Be open to sharing different aspects of your life with different individuals," he adds.

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