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Sometimes There's No Friend like an Old Friend

Long-time friends are the comfort food of relationships.

Whether it's a yearly holiday letter, greeting card, or email, the holidays remind us of our long-time relationships. Some people are very fortunate to remain geographically and emotionally close to their "oldest" (or longest) friends. In our very mobile society, however, the odds are that you no longer live in easy traveling distance from the people you were closest to in childhood, adolescence, or even college.

Making new friends is, of course, a talent that comes in very handy in a society based on frequent moves due to job, family, or military assignment. Being reassigned to a new town in which you literally have no one to spend leisure time with can leave the socially reticent with some very long and lonely nights and weekends. Much better to be able to reach out through work, church or temple, the gym, or even the local coffee shop than to keep entirely to yourself. Eventually, if you are successful in the mission of befriending new people, you can build a network of solid relationships that, over time, develop depth and meaning.

Desperate Housewives show value of friends in midlife

How do these recently-forged friendships differ from the ones that go back over the years or decades? The chances are that they will have important distinctions. Songs summarize these features when they contrast the old "gold" friends with the new "silver ones." Simon and Garfunkel, in their late 1960s song "Old Friends," poignantly captured the quality of long-term friendships: "Old friends, memory brushes the same years, silently sharing the same fears." These old friends, at 70, have endured a lifetime of shared experiences that no new friends could replace.

Surprisingly enough, there is very little research on the quality and nature of adult friendships. To be sure, we know that friendships differ in closeness, that reciprocity is important, and that people's friendships often reflect their stage of family life. Other than that, we don't know much about what really goes on within these long-term relationships. You probably know as much from your own experiences in your life, if not more, than does academic psychology.

However, there is one important theory that gives us special insight into the meaning of old friendships and why our oldest friends are our "comfort food." This theory has the tongue-twisting name of "socioemotional selectivity theory" (abbreviated SST). Developed by Stanford psychologist Laura Carstensen, SST bases itself on the idea that people seek at least two functions out of their relationships: informational and affective. The information function refers to the knowledge that we get from other people. If you have an acquaintance who's a foodie, and you're looking for a good restaurant, you'll ask that acquaintance (and not someone else who lacks that knowledge) to give you suggestions for where to celebrate your birthday or even just order take-out.

You don't have to be particularly close to someone to satisfy the information function in a relationship, unless the information you seek is highly personal. Most likely, the people you're close to serve the "emotion" function of friendship. This means that they make you feel good.

SST predicts that when time is running out, you shift in the functions you seek from your friends. When you've got limited time left in a particular situation, you're more likely to seek the friends who satisfy the emotion function of friendships. This is why, as people get older, when they perceive their time to be running out, they prefer relationships that bolster their positive emotions. However, it's not only getting older that leads us to prefer our long-term friends. In any situation that we perceive to be time-limited, we seek out the people who fulfill the emotional function of a relationship. If you knew the world was going to end in five minutes, you'd want to be with the people who matter most to you, not the ones who can give you directions to the nearest Starbucks.

Old friends matter, then, because they fulfill our deepest emotional needs for connecteness. It's not only that we feel more comfortable with them (which we do) but that they know how to make us feel good. At another level, old friends can also validate your sense of self. They accept you for who you are, flaws and all, and reinforce your own identity as a person who matters.

Researchers are taking SST into the lab to test how we process emotional information, and how these processes differ with age. Brandeis University Derek Isaacowitz is conducting eye-tracking studies to study the gaze patterns of older and younger adults to see how they differ in processing emotional stimuli. As a general rule, older adults seem to prefer to "accentuate the positive," meaning that they would rather look at happy than sad faces. Younger adults don't show this tendency and, if anything, seem to feel better when they are exposed to negative facial cues (Isaacowitz & Noh, 2011). These findings imply that older adults know what they have to do to maximize their happiness.

There are definite implications of SST for your friendships. Interacting with your oldest friends can help you feel better, not only by boosting your emotions, but by boosting your self-esteem. To boost your "friends with benefits," try these five tips:

1. Make the effort to stay connected with your long-time friends. In a busy world with the many obligations that people have, it's easy to put off any emails or letters that aren't absolutely necessary. However, make it a practice to check in with the people you've known the longest at least once every month or two.

2. Use social media to find your long-lost best friends. It's so easy now to track people down through Facebook and LinkedIn that, armed with a little bit of knowledge, you can search for the people who meant the most to you when you were younger. This doesn't mean you should stalk your ex, but that you can use social media responsibly to reconnect.

3. Don't feel that you're stuck in the past just because you care the most about your oldest friends. There's no reason to feel guilty if the people you want to spend the most time with are the ones you've known for years. You don't have to exclude new relationships from your friendship menu, but it's normal to prefer to spend time with your oldest and closest friends.

4. Don't force the older people in your life to meet new people if they'd rather not. Remembering that SST says that people prefer their oldest friends, don't feel that your older relatives are living in the past just because they keep up their Wednesday lunches with the gals (or guys) rather than going off to the community center to meet someone new.

5. Work on the relationships you have now. Preserving a long-time relationship takes effort. You may not appreciate how much you're going to miss your college or 20-something friends until they're no longer around. Hang onto those phone numbers, email addresses and other contact information and put some time into keeping those bonds alive.

Like fine wines, old friends really do get better with age. Appreciate the ones you have now because they will be the ones to boost your emotions in the future.

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Please check out my website, where you can get additional information on personality, self-tests, and psychology-related links including the Weekly Focus.

Copyright 2011 Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D.


Isaacowitz, D. M., & Noh, S. (2011). Does looking at the positive mean feeling good? Age and individual differences matter. Social And Personality Psychology Compass, 5(8), 505-517. doi:10.1111/j.1751-9004.2011.00374.x

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