Lately here at Martin Oaks Cemetery and Crematory in Lewisville, Texas (a northern suburb of Dallas, Texas), it seems that we have been cremating or burying way too many old friends. It is an expected consequence of our aging that those around us start passing on — but this reality provides little in the way of comfort.
Paul Simon, perhaps the greatest lyricist of his generation, wrote in his song Old Friends: “time it was and what a time it was…a time of innocence, a time of confidences…preserve your memories, they are all that’s left you.”
In a poetic way, the Simon song addresses the nature of a long-term friendship, as well as the importance of remembering it.
Has anyone adequately explained what causes two people to form and maintain a deep friendship — and why some friendships burn out over time, while others last?
There’s a fair amount of research conducted social support, a lot of theories advanced, but poets and songwriters like Simon seem to hit closer to the truth.
Freud talked about the significance of someone close to you knowing your whole story; C.S. Lewis pointed out that while friendship has no real survival value, it gives value to survival. A lot of wisdom in both of these comments.
Looking through the research, it’s easy to see the beneficial aspects of friendship – the research also underscores the theme that it’s not the number of friends you have, but the quality of those relationships.
Lower blood pressure, less obesity, better hormone function, stronger immune systems, less depression, all of these have been documented to tie into the felicitous effects of friendships.
The Mental Health Foundation cites studies that document the rate and severity of mental illness can clearly be linked to one’s ability to maintain social relationships with others: smaller social circles, smaller social networks, lack of bonding on a meaningful level with others all show up as traits of those suffering from serious emotional infirmities. Increased chances for substance abuse have similarly been shown to occur in these isolated individuals.
Other physical problems also associated with the lack of special support systems: more accidents, more likely to have heart disease, more anxiety, and higher suicide rates.
Chris Woolston, in writing about the health benefits of friendship, correctly notes that these relationships are lifesavers — without them and the cooperation/companionship they foster, we would still be in the Stone Age. He spotlights a report in Current Opinion in Psychiatry which suggests that giving our social support to a friend is as important to our health as receiving support from a friend.
Strong and long friendships become more important as you age, even in some instances equaling or surpassing family bonds.
In an article published in the Journal of Gerontology, authors Oliver Huxhold, Martina Miche, and Benjamin Schuz came to the conclusion that friends become more important to your well-being as you get older, acting as a “buffer against the negative effects” of advanced aging.
Qualities that distinguish old friends include prioritizing them in your life, accepting them as they are (and over time, the people they become), a willingness to make adjustments in situations of conflict, and a mutual level of high self-disclosure.
Most of the authorities that we have read emphasize one other dynamic: you can’t make “new old friends” quickly. Relationships that are truly meaningful don’t develop overnight. Rushing into any relationship is usually a bad idea — friendship is no different. Shared experiences, both of a positive and negative nature, which occur in the context of many years, form a solid foundation.
One last note: in an era of “cyber friends,” the research we have read indicates that there is no substitute for face-to-face interaction. Social media can keep you in touch, but personal contact is the real glue.
As Stephen Sondheim says, “here’s to us old friends. Who is like us? Damn few.”