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The Joy (and Benefits) of Renewing Old Friendships

...and why we're able to pick up right where we left off, even decades later.

Source: Altafulla/Shutterstock

If you search online, you'll see articles about the difficulties of making new friends after age 30 or so, and advice about joining groups to help you meet new people.

Many of us struggle with loneliness at different stages in their lives—maybe you've moved to a new area, lost a spouse or parent, or left a sociable job. I used to work in an office with people I'd known for years and conduct phone interviews most of the day. It was fun. Now I'm working at home and much of my research is online.

More of us now work remotely or spend our time on emails, rather than meeting people in person or talking on the phone. As many as 15-30 percent of the people around us chronically feel lonely.

But as I've turned 55, I've noticed a happy tendency I didn't expect—reunions with lost friends from the past.

Don't underestimate the importance of friendship: Philosophers and artists have historically valued friendship as our most prized and significant relationship. “Each friend represents a world in us, a world not born until they arrive, and it is only by this meeting that a new world is born,” said Anais Nin. Such a world can be re-born, as well.

In just a few years, I'm newly in touch with at least six people after years of silence. The old friendship chemistry is there, but deepened by our experiences in between. And I also feel the romance of a new bond.

We shouldn't underestimate the grief of losing a friend. When a friend cuts you off, you are “losing a self,” writes the philosopher Alexander Nehamas in "On Friendship." That self can return, and be harmonized with your other selves.

We may need a catalyst—a death, retirement, or a child reaching a milestone. If you parted with a friend because of anger, you (or they) might now feel more forgiving.

One friend I knew when we were 13 and I spent an intense year before her family moved away. She found me through Facebook when her stepdaughter turned 13, saying she kept remembering herself at that age. She had become a psychologist, and I write about psychology. There was plenty to keep us connected.

Another childhood friend found me in her thirties when she married. I attended the wedding and we've been in touch for the last 20 years.

A friend in her fifties called me out of the blue, crying, when her mother died.

You might think you've lost friends because you've made mistakes, and decide you're a social misfit—boring, too needy, too long-winded, too quiet, too something. We think that we lack the charm or perceptiveness required to attract company.

Rekindling old friendships can help soothe those fears.

Loneliness can make you doubt your social skills, but it's more likely that you're suffering from performance anxiety, some research has concluded. A lost friend may have become anxious, too. Maybe you built up a career while your friend emphasized family. Maybe you're both nervous about being judged. Maybe she's worried she's boring. Maybe you think she sees you as incomplete because you didn't have kids or marry.

Break the impasse. Being able to laugh again with someone who knew you at 12 or 22 can go a long way to help you accept your life.

If you're thinking about reaching out—or someone contacts you—think about the reasons you drifted apart, but don't dwell on conflicts, blaming yourself or your friend.

If you do get together, try to talk through any rough history—eventually. You don't have to do so right away. When you're making an overture to a lost friend, it's fine to start with a casual Facebook message or text, and judge your friend's willingness to open up.

When you talk, you might well find it wasn't about you after all—or that it wasn't about you in the way you think. I'm always amazed at how communication can feel like a miracle, changing my world in an hour. Small things make big differences.

Especially if you're grieving, rekindling old friendships can deepen your sense of personal history. You've lost a daily presence—a mother or husband—and a witness to many years of memories. Your friend may not become a daily presence again. But she can be a witness to the past you shared together, recalling your wedding or your mother's odd collection of bathrobes.

Your health and happiness will both benefit from reconnecting and staying connected. In a review of studies over 34 years, researchers concluded that feeling isolated or lonely upped your chances of dying young by about 30 percent, for both men and women. It also increases your risk for dementia, depression and heart disease.

One of my dear friends, who is nearly 70, often talks about two friends of his, one he'd known since high school, the other since college. I assumed they'd remained in touch for all that time. But when I told him I was thinking of writing this post, he confided to me that both of those friends came back into his life in his mid-50s after a long silence. Those rekindled friendships can really last!

Don't expect too much. You may never spend the time together you once did. But don't expect too little. Love can always surprise you, again.