By Karen Oslund, Executive Director
The beginning of a new year is a time when many people resolve to make positive changes in their health, so there will be plenty of articles to read this month about how to eat better, exercise more, and quit smoking. We absolutely should eat better, exercise more, and quit smoking! But this month I want to talk about one way we can improve our emotional, mental, and spiritual well-being, and that is, cultivating strong friendships and a supportive social network.
An article published online in Perspectives in Psychological Science in March 2015 reported on the impact of social isolation and mortality. To sum it up, loneliness is bad for our health. This study found a higher mortality rate among people who were both subjectively and objectively socially isolated, meaning that even if folks did not describe themselves as lonely, the effects on mortality were just as bad.
Making and keeping friends is a life-long project. When I was a girl scout, we had a song that went, “make new friends, but keep the old; one is silver and the other gold.” I am happy to say that one friend I made in scouts is still a good friend. I come from a long, proud dynasty of introverts. When the weekend comes, I want to read, sew, and take walks in the woods—often by myself. I have never in my life asked, “where’s the party?” But, I do have a few good friends, I cherish them, and I make an effort to get together with them over the weekend for tea or a walk. It is interesting that I am more likely to say I had a “good” weekend if I got to see a friend.
As I get older, it becomes clearer to me just how important friends are, while at the same time, how much harder it is to make new ones. I have 197 Facebook “friends” but only two or three of those folks are close enough in both proximity and intimacy that I would call them and ask for a ride to the doctor or some soup if I were sick. My best friends are friends I met in high school, college, and during the years I was raising my children. As a new empty-nester, I look at my husband, my very best friend, and feel extremely fortunate to be in an enduring marriage. For most, the high-stress, frantic years of working to get established professionally while at the same time raising children are years that socializing with friends takes a backseat to paying the bills and cleaning up the spills. In my experience, children grow up, leave home, come back again, then finally leave, we think, for good; and when they do, finding that it is just the two of you in your home again, just like when you started, is a wonderful thing. Emerging from the child-rearing years with some good friends is a worthy goal.
I have two practical suggestions for making friends and they both go back to the Girl Scout song. First, make new friends. Do not exclude people as prospective friends because of a difference in age or background. Anyone you have enjoyed a conversation with at a meeting, work, church, the gym, or your neighborhood, is a potential friend. It takes two people to have a friendship, and every person you meet needs and wants friends, too. I have been envious of friends who are in long-established book groups, which involve a tight-knit cluster of people who enjoy having a meal, perhaps drinking some wine, and discussing a book they have all read. Every book group in existence was started by someone who wanted to be in a book group. Start your own book group (or walking group or dog club) by asking a few people you know, but who are not your friends (yet) if they would like to be in one.
Second, “keep the old.” Stay close to the friends you have. Reach out to people you have not seen in awhile. It is natural, but unfortunate, that friends drift apart when life gets busy, times get tough, or a misunderstanding or unkind word fractures what was a strong bond. Apologize. Maintaining friendships throughout life is the best way to arrive in our later years with a circle of friends to enjoy and support each other.
When life gets tough, it is good to have friends. When life is wonderful, it is good to have friends, too. At the Cancer Resource Centers of Mendocino County, we see hundreds of clients each year who are in some stage of their cancer journey. Some people have excellent support systems with many family members and friends by their side. Some do not. The best time to build a social network of good friends who will help you when you need them, or just keep you company, is right now. One place to start is by asking, “who needs my help now, and what could I do for them?”
The Cancer Resource Centers’ 2018 Cancer Awareness and prevention series is sponsored by CRC in collaboration with the Mendocino County Health and Human Services Agency. The information presented is for educational purposes and is not intended to replace the advice of your health care provider. We encourage you to discuss any questions or concerns you may have with your health care provider.