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The joy of new friends

By Linda Bernstein for Next Avenue

I used to think that by the time your kids flew the nest, major opportunities for meeting new people you really like winged their way out the window as well. I expected that by the time I hit 50, I’d be singing about old acquaintances all the time, not just humming a nostalgic auld lang syne chorus on New Year’s Eve.

Sure colleges had "parent" committees, but rarely were there face-to-face meetings, given that those parents were flung all over the country. And the only "new" people in the professional arena tended to be, well, more my kids' age than my own.

Experts seem to propound this worldview. In a New York Times article,“Friends of a Certain Age: Why Is It Hard to Make Friends Over 30?” Laura L. Carstensen, director of theStanford Center on Longevityin California, argued that as people move toward midlife, they interact with fewer people. Hence, they make fewer friends.

Friends Keep Popping Up All Over

Well, Dr. Carstensen, here I am, old enough that people offer me their seat on the bus — and I’m meeting people I like all over the place. My social life is jacked up. Really. The other day my friend Yona came over for lunch. I know Yona through Diane, another recent friend I met through my friend Susan, who was once my boss. This morning Diane told me a silly joke that gave me a laugh exactly when I needed one. Yona recently offered needed emotional support when I made a "career" decision that some would have dubbed "unwise" but I felt relieved me of an unwanted burden. As the song says, “That’s what friends are for” — they make you laugh, and they have your back.

Then there’s my relatively new friend Amy. I sat next to her at a conference a year and a half ago, and she immediately started introducing me to everyone she knew there (a lot more people than I did), included me in her lunch plans, and has become a generous colleague and one of the people I love spending time with. The thing about Amy is that she’s not quite young enough to be my daughter, but almost. (If, like Loretta Lynn, I had been married off as a teen, she would be.)

Sure, there’s a bit of a generation gap between us: She has school-age kids, and mine are solidly in their 20s. But my “grandma” and “mom” poles seem to be demagnetized when she tells stories about her boys. I am amused or bemused — a friend response. When I worry out loud about my young adult offspring, she doesn’t overempathize with them; it’s me she relates to and cares about.

This is another surprise: New friends can be quite younger — and older — than I am. When you're 30, a 10-year age difference seems a chasm. It is, after all, one-third of your life. Now that I'm over 50, 40 seems not so far back; 65 not so far ahead. Ann, whom I met running around the reservoir in New York's Central Park, has grandchildren not so much younger than my kids, but she can run at my pace and keep up a conversation, largely recounting the previous night's comedic monologues. (Which means I have developed the capacity to laugh and run at the same time.)

These new friends aren’t only of the female persuasion — though I believe that if you’re married and a new male friend isn’t part of a “friendship couple,” it may be harder for the two of you to hang out. Yet I can spend hours on Skype with Maxwell, who lives on the West Coast, without making my husband jealous because (a) Maxwell is all of 40, married to a dynamite woman and clearly not interested in me in “that way,” and (b) we talk about things like html code and subjects way too tech-geeky to enthrall the philosophy professor I married.

When Maxwell was in town recently and we met for a drink, my husband begged off, knowing he would be bored, bored, bored and confident that nothing would happen IRL.

Five Ways to Make New Friends

“All well and good, Linda,” you might be thinking, “but just how do you bring people into your life when, as the experts point out, your opportunities for social interactions are shrinking?”

Answer: Just cast your net—the wider the better. Here’s how I found new friends. And I should mention that I’m actually pretty shy, not a natural extrovert, so you can’t use that as an excuse.

1. Take classes. I am the type who looovvvees school. Still, continuing education classes aren’t quite “school” for those who didn’t like the classroom setting growing up. Mostly you sit around with other adults learning something interesting. You don’t have to do homework unless you want to. (But that’s the great thing: You’ll probably want to).

If there are any colleges or university extensions near you, do a Google search to see what’s on offer. Community centers, Ys and religious institutions also frequently host discussion groups and courses. Another place with new friendship possibilities, and don’t laugh: Weight Watchers meetings. In person. (Yes, those still happen.) Or spend a day with Habitat for Humanity or another volunteer organization. You’ll be exchanging phone numbers by cocktail hour.

2. Join Facebook and LinkedIn. I know: You already did. But are you using them to the max? Facebook is where you can find friends from high school and college with whom you’ve lost touch. Then, though comments, you meet their friends, whom you soon find yourself conversing. I have become friends, and now met in real life, the mother of a young woman about my daughter's age whom I met through work and who "friended" me on Facebook.

Twitter is a wonderful place to discover people you’d never meet otherwise (and sometimes probably will never see face-to-face because they live in, like, New Zealand).

A great thing that has come out of all these online networks is what Twitter folks call the "Tweet Up," but more generally could be simply dubbed a "get-together." People who live nearby but have so far only met online plan a get-together for coffee or a drink. Many times you’ll find yourself trying to pin many new faces to names. Other times it’s just you and one other person grabbing a cup of coffee. Once you’re face-to-face with an online friend, I’ve found, if you take a shine to each other, you’ll start conversing through email and even take it to the phone. If not too much travel is involved, you’ll find yourself seeing your new friends regularly.

What can be really fun is literally going the extra mile. A whole bunch of people I know online who live in the Southwest are converging on Phoenix next Saturday .… just because. Oh, and when you get social, you’ll also get to know friends-of-friends, which is more than a Facebook privacy setting. It’s in-real-life people added to your non-virtual social life.

3. Work out at the gym. True, it’s not easy having a conversation while you’re puffing away on the treadmill or swinging those kettle balls. But what I've found is that there are certain people you see time after time, especially if you take classes. First you start smiling at each other, then you say hi. Finally you have a real conversation in the locker room. Next thing you know, you’re grabbing a post-workout coffee with your new gym buddy.

4. Rediscover old friends. Not just online, either. There’s a woman who lives nearby whom I have kinda-sorta known for years. We were both active in our kids’ PTA and spent time together back then. But you know how things go. The kids grew up, and our contacts dwindled to saying “hi” at the supermarket.

Last summer we ran into each other on the block, and she suggested, totally impromptu, that I come and hang in her backyard. We sat around for hours — first bonding over an intense discussion of cleaning products. From there we went on to our kids, our husbands, Broadway shows and, finally, our hopes and dreams. We simply and magically clicked.

Not too long ago I also connected with a woman I knew in college but we had totally lost touch. While talking at a party we discovered we’ve lived almost parallel lives since graduation. We know the same people, live close by, have children the same age. We even have the same make and model piano! To my good fortune, this re-acquaintance has become a good friend.

I remember having the thought when I was about 18 that as you got older, the people you met would be more interesting because they'd have so many more stories (i.e., experiences) to share. This indeed has proved true. Also, now that we're more comfortable in our own skins and past the age when we feel the need to impress, bonding comes more naturally. We might have more baggage, but it's easier to unpack.

5. Participate in Meet Ups. Just Google it. All over the world professional groups schedule meetings for casual conversation and networking. Sometimes a member gives a presentation; other times it's just drinks. Either way, discard your cloak-of-shyness and get out there. I know people who have garnered clients and secured job interviews at these kinds of gatherings. I recently found someone who told me that she'd look into some little quirky problems I'm having with my website — for free. Also Google "BNI" (Business Networking International) to find a nearby group (which you'll have to apply to join) or "Professional Networks."

Live Long and Prosper

Having great people to hang out with isn’t the only benefit to making friends as we get older. Social interactions actually help us live longer, say Brigham Young University professors Julianne Holt-Lunstad and Timothy Smith. “When someone is connected to a group and feels responsibility for other people, that sense of purpose and meaning translates to taking better care of themselves and taking fewer risks," Holt-Lunstad explained. Watching out for our own well-being adds years to our lives. (Well, duh.)

This research and the joy my new friends bring reminds me of a camp song I learned long ago: “Make new friends, but keep the old. One is silver and the other gold.” Except what I’m finding is that new friends and old friends are both gold.

Copyright© 2014 Next Avenue, a division of Twin Cities Public Television, Inc.

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