A 2018 survey commissioned by the men’s health charity Movember revealed some staggering statistics. It found that almost a third (27%) of men don’t consider themselves to have any close friendships or friends at all – and that almost half (47%) don’t speak openly with their friends about their problems.
The survey also revealed that, for many men, issues surrounding friendship seem to become more pronounced with age. For example, those aged 55+ reported spending half as much time with friends as 16-24-year-olds – while 22% said they don’t meet their friends at all.
Interestingly, research shows that we all tend to have fewer close friends nowadays than people did a few decades ago. However, the ‘friendship recession’, as it’s been referred to, looks to be affecting men more than women. For instance, this American survey found that, since 1990, the number of men with at least six close friends has fallen by half.
But why is this? And what can we men do to make and maintain friendships throughout our lives? Below, we take a look at why friendships are so important and how we can grow and preserve them.
Why are friendships important?
Lots of us instinctively know why having a supportive friend or two is good for us. It can give us a sense of belonging, boost our confidence and self-esteem, and help us learn and develop. Plus, having someone to confide in or turn to when times get tough can be a huge stress reliever.
But research shows that the positives of high-quality friendships (which, according to this study, are those that involve intimacy, support, and reciprocated affection) run even deeper.
For example, there’s plenty of proof to show that having strong adult friendships can lower our chances of suffering from mental health issues like anxiety and depression. Some studies also show that the higher the quality of our friendships, the more powerfully we feel the benefits.
However, the benefits of friendship don’t stop there. Studies show that socially isolated people are more likely to suffer from a range of health conditions – such as heart disease (29% increased risk) and stroke (32% increased risk). In fact, experts have suggested that loneliness may be as bad for our physical health as things like smoking and obesity.
Why might men have fewer friends than women in later life?
It’s difficult to say exactly why research projects – like the survey from Movember – are reporting that many men don’t have as many high-quality friendships as women. This is especially true when taking into account findings like these findings from YouGov, which suggest that everyone, regardless of gender, finds it equally challenging to make new friends.
So, perhaps what lots of men might find challenging is developing these relationships into close and supportive friendships – and maintaining them.
Robin I. M. Dunbar, a professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford and an expert on friendships, says there are “consistent […] differences” in the way men and women socialise. Research from Dunbar and his colleagues found that women’s friendships are typically based on one-to-one emotional intimacy, while men’s friendships are more casual, centring around activities, events, or clubs.
As someone who considers himself to have close relationships with his friends, I initially felt a bit defensive when reading these results. Though, while they certainly won’t reflect every man’s friendships, I did notice some parallels between Dunbar’s findings and my friendships with other men when having a quick conversation with the Rest Less editorial team.
My three colleagues (all women) explained that they regularly spend hours having one-on-one, in-depth, personal conversations with their friends. In fact, one said, “If we did an activity, I’d feel like we wasted time not catching up.” Hearing this, I wondered how long I’d really be able to have a one-on-one, intimate conversation with my best mate before suggesting a trip to the pub.
This isn’t to say that one style of friendship is better than the other – as closeness comes in many forms – but it might help to explain why many men have fewer friends than women in later life. Plus, these findings won’t be true for everyone as we all socialise differently, regardless of what gender we identify as.
Dunbar’s studies have also found that because of these one-to-one, intimate friendships, women are more likely to maintain connections when life gets busy with careers and families. Meanwhile, men are more likely to let friendships fizzle out.
“[Men’s] friendships are much more casual,” Dunbar told The Herald. “It’s not to say that they don’t have the same elements, they’re just much more casual. If somebody disappears […] or something for six months, it’s just ‘ok, we’ll find somebody else to go drinking with’ and that’s perfectly ok. Boys’ friendships tend not to break up catastrophically.”
But, whether you decide to have close or casual friendships, there are still things we can do to help make and maintain social bonds later in life. Below are a few practical tips that you’ll hopefully find useful.
4 practical tips for making and maintaining friendships in later life
A quick Google search for ‘how to make friends’ or ‘how to maintain friendships’ will reveal a whole host of advice. However, many of the tips you’ll find – such as ‘be more empathetic’ or ‘be open-minded’ – can be a little conceptual and tricky to follow. Plus, many of us will already instinctively know the qualities that make a good friend.
With that said, we’ve pulled together a few practical tips for making and maintaining friendships as we get older, as well as some additional resources you can use to forge connections, or if you’re feeling lonely. Because, as author Jerry Sternin says, “It’s easier to act your way into a new way of thinking, than think your way into a new way of acting.”
1. Make time in your schedule for socialising and protect it
Time spent with friends is often seen as a bonus, rather than a necessity. We think of it as something we might be lucky enough to get around to once everything else in our lives is ticked off – like work, housekeeping, exercise, etc.
However, considering the huge impact friendships can have on our health and wellbeing, perhaps social time should be treated (at the very least) as equally important as everything else in our lives.
So, to help protect your time with your friends, why not mark out a specific few hours a week for general socialising?
We often wait until we have plans before we look for space in our calendar, which is why social arrangements can get pushed to one side. But, by always having time allotted for friendship, we can protect time spent with our mates and reap the benefits that these connections provide.
2. Prioritise your hobbies
As mentioned above, while it’s not necessarily true for everyone, research suggests that men tend to socialise best when engaging in hobbies and activities. Yet, one reason our social circle often shrinks throughout middle age is that we have less and less time for them (perhaps due to commitments like family and work).
So, if you’re looking to make new friendships or preserve old ones, try making time for the pastimes you love, as well as trying new ones. From up-and-coming sports (like padel and pickleball) to arts and crafts and cooking, getting stuck into hobbies you’ve never tried before can introduce you to a wide variety of people, and revitalise connections with old mates.
For some inspiration, why not head over to the hobbies and activities section of our website?
3. Use the internet
There are undoubtedly downsides to the internet and social media, but one of the benefits is that it’s much easier to connect with, and stay connected to, others.
For example, social media platforms like Facebook give us the chance to reach out to old friends. So if there’s someone from your past that you might like to rekindle a friendship with, why not look them up?
And interest-specific groups – like those on Facebook – are also excellent places to get in touch with people who share the same interests and pastimes as you.
You could also try combining the previous tip with this one, and get stuck into some online activities to meet new people or spend quality time with your existing friends. Online games, digital social groups, and virtual events are all great options. You can use the button below to check out the talks, classes, and social groups coming up over on Rest Less Events.
4. Volunteer for a cause you believe in
Volunteering is a great way to make new friends. Not only can it give you the chance to spend time with others, but, by giving your time to a cause you feel passionately about, you might also meet other like-minded people.
Spending time united in the pursuit of a common goal has been proven to enhance social bonding, which makes volunteering the perfect environment to strengthen existing bonds, as well as new ones. So why not get together with a mate and volunteer once a week?
It’s easy to bail on a night at the pub or a trip to the cinema, but a standing commitment to a good cause can make it easier for you both to prioritise quality time together.
To get inspired and search for roles, head on over to the volunteering section on our website.
Some additional resources you might find helpful if you’re struggling with loneliness
- Men’s Shed – a UK-wide charity that offers community spaces ‘sheds’ for men to pursue practical hobbies and practice skills. It turns the solitary notion of a man’s shed on its head, as Men’s Sheds are places that encourage social bonding.
- Red Cross support line – if you’re suffering from persistent feelings of loneliness, you might benefit from calling the Red Cross support line on 0808 196 3651. It’s a free, confidential resource which can give you advice on loneliness and support.
- Samaritans – if you’re struggling with loneliness and feel like you have nowhere to turn, you can call Samaritans on 116 123 24 hours a day, or send them an email at [email protected].
For more useful contacts, take a look at this list from mental health charity Mind.
If, like many of the men surveyed by Movember, you don’t have any (or many) close friends, try not to worry. There are lots of ways you can meet new people, including the steps above and the nine ways discussed in our article here.
And while the prospect of making new friends might seem daunting – especially if you’re relatively introverted – the good news is that you only need one quality connection to reap the benefits of friendship.
As science writer Lydia Denworth explains on the Armchair Expert podcast, the biggest change in terms of health benefits when it comes to friends is from zero to one. This means we don’t need to be social butterflies to reap the positives of friendships, but we should try to make at least one meaningful connection.
For more tips on maintaining healthy relationships, finding purpose and belonging, and more, you can visit the healthy mind section of our website.
Have you made any great new friends in later life? Or do you have any tips for maintaining friendships? We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.