«Friends are always an inspiration»
Friendships not only enrich our lives, but also keep us healthy. So, why does it tend to get more difficult for us to make new friends as we get older? And what can we do about it? Psychologist Jessica Schnelle offers some answers.
Ms Schnelle, is it just our imagination, or is it true that it gets more difficult to make new friends as adults compared to when we were children?
It’s not just your imagination. When you have children and a job, there’s little time left over for friendships. But there’s another reason why we tend to make fewer friends as we get older: in the field of social psychology, there’s a phenomenon called the mere-exposure effect that says that we tend to subconsciously develop a preference for things that are familiar to us.
What does that mean exactly?
Let’s take your morning commute as an example. We often see the same people on our way to work; they clearly have a similar daily schedule, and so we somehow feel connected to them. Perhaps we might strike up a conversation with one of them. The same thing applies to the stores where we shop or events we attend. These are all analogous everyday situations that encourage openness and help us to come into casual contact with others. If we spend less time out in the world – whether that’s because it’s not possible for societal reasons, like during the pandemic, or because we are spending more time online – we miss out on these contacts and opportunities.
Jessica Schnelle (44) is the Head of the Social Affairs Unit in the Social Affairs and Culture Department of the Federation of Migros Cooperatives. Together with her team, Schnelle, who has a doctorate in Motivational Psychology, is responsible for a variety of activities that promote and strengthen societal cohesion – and is passionate about maintaining her own friendships.
However, digital media can also help us meet new people.
Yes, that’s right. Digital media is a great way to find friends and maintain friendships. Especially across great distances. However, this excludes the possibility for chance acquaintances. Apps use algorithms to determine who we come into contact with. We spend less time practising openness. For example, during my time at university, I met one of my best friends in front of a phone booth while we were both looking for a room in a shared flat. Unfortunately, these kinds of chance encounters are becoming increasingly rare.
How can we at least hold on to the friendships we already have?
The only option is to be an active part of that person’s life. One aspect of friendship is the emotional connection – knowing how your friend is doing and how you can help and support them. This can be difficult if you’re tied up with your job and your family. However, if someone is important to you, you have to be an active part of their life – and you can do this in a variety of ways. By ringing them up from time to time, going out for drinks every now and then, or perhaps going for a hike once a year.
Are old friendships more valuable than new acquaintances?
Not necessarily. Good friendships increase our quality of life regardless of how long we’ve known the person. And they keep us healthy: without friends, your risk of mortality is as high as if you smoked 15 cigarettes a day. Friendships can help slow the progress of dementia. That being said, having friends from your childhood or adolescence is a gift. You have spent time together on class trips and perhaps you know each other’s families and partners. There is so much there to connect you.
Not the club type? Here are three other places to make new friends:
- Professional training courses and classes: if you decide to take a Spanish course, you’re sure to find some kindred spirits. For example, at the Migros Club School.
- Hobbies: if you’ve always been interested in birds, why not go to an informational session at an ornithological society? You can also meet new people at the gym.
- Everyday situations: help someone bag their groceries at the supermarket, compliment someone’s shoes on the train, smile at a mother in the park. In a café, on a walk, in the waiting room at your doctor’s office: wherever there are people, there is an opportunity to make a friend.
Is it a bad idea to only be friends with other parents once you have children?
A certain imbalance is always a bit dangerous, including for people who don’t have children. Friends are always an inspiration, even if they lead very different lives from ours. This is also true when we have different career paths: one might work at a bank, another is an architect, someone else opens a florist’s shop. This is another way that we can grow apart from each other. Empathy is important here as well.
Is the topic of friendships different for fathers and mothers?
If someone works outside of the home, they generally have more freedom and more free time for friendships. In traditional family settings, this is often the man’s role. What’s interesting is that male friendships tend to be based on side-by-side activities – for example, playing a sport together. Women tend to have more intimate conversations and want to talk about feelings, conflicts or problems. However, there are also exceptions to the rule here.
What are the moments of change in our lives when we tend to make new friends?
This is always the case when humans find themselves in unfamiliar territory. We have a need to establish new networks. This can be at university, when moving to a new city, trying out new hobbies or starting a new job. It could even be after the death of a partner.
Tips on how to maintain friendships:
- Send them a quick WhatsApp message asking how their dentist appointment went or if their car is out of the shop. Ring them up, even if you only end up having a quick chat. Simply laughing together for a moment goes a long way.
- Listen, pay attention to your friend, respond to what they’re saying.
- You’ll need to be able to take a break from your family in order to meet friends without being interrupted. For a few hours, a weekend or even a holiday.
- Remain open to other lifestyles: invite a single mum to your birthday party, meet up with the tour guide you met in Egypt or your niece who lives in Biel when you’re in the city.
- No time? Friendships deserve your time! Skip the cleaning and use that time instead to ring up a former colleague. Instead of cooking, meet a friend in the park for a picnic with a pre-made salad from the supermarket. Leave your car at home and carpool with a friend.
Clubs are certainly a great way to meet new people.
Yes. In Switzerland, 61 per cent of people over the age of 15 are actively involved in one or more clubs. A survey carried out by the vitamin B competence centre for associations showed that it really is about friendships. For example, there’s one club that was originally founded for the members to play floorball. Over time, however, the members got too old for this. So, they decided to change the purpose of the club and now they organise an annual neighbourhood event. There is also a club whose sole purpose is to meet up with one another.
What is the best place to make new friends?
In a choir. Singing in and of itself is great for us both physically and mentally. But it also opens our hearts to new contacts. The response that you get in a choir is unparalleled.
How Migros Commitment brings people together:
- Museum in tandem: head to a museum as a pair and tell each other about the stories behind different works of art. Tandem partners are matched up online. The museum will cover the cost of entry.
- Storytelling café: moderated round-table discussions in which participants talk about a certain topic like holidays, shoes or bread.
- Tanzwerk in Zurich: amateur, professional or children’s courses: dance classes in Switzerland bring people together.
- Tavolata: cooking and eating together connects us.
- Dance matinées and cafés in and around Zurich together with the Swiss Alzheimer’s Association. Dancing helps us make friends, and friends help prevent Alzheimer’s.
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