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A FEW GOOD FRIENDS

What’s better to have:  a few good friends or a whole lot of acquaintances?

The answer’s fairly clear, a few good friends that you can count on when the chips are down is more valuable to you than a gaggle of socialites – or, indeed, ‘social lightweights’.

If research is anything to go by, we men spend a lot time actively chasing popularity in the most inane, lightweight place of all:  social media.

Of course, having thousands of connections on LinkedIn can work wonders for lead generation and so to conversion.  Similarly, hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook and followers on Twitter and Instagram can open pools of fun and even some clandestine frolics … but let’s get this straight:  ‘friends’ – in the true sense of the word – they are not.

These are not the people who are going to come to your aid when you need them to.  When I was at my lowest, despairing from loneliness far away in a foreign country, it wasn’t a Facebook ‘friend’ who leapt on a plane and came to my aid.  It was my real, flesh and blood pal, Alex, who’s always far funnier and endearing in the flesh than in his status updates.

Do you have an ‘Alex’ in your life?  Do you know whom you could call and rely upon to be there in the flesh for you when your back’s against the wall?

Really?

It may be that you used to be sure of who your real friends were.  When we’re young and thrown into social groups that demand our physical presence it’s easier – quite natural to make friends face-to-face and deepen those friendships over time through shared adventures.

As we get older, many of those very friendships quietly dissolve as we spend less time nurturing them.  We get distracted by new, unshared circumstances:  our job, our partners, our kids, our interests.  The infrastructure that we had to get together with our friends regularly falls away – and who has the time to work at creating new ways of meeting up, especially if we live in different countries?

Before you know it, your oldest friends have become your oldest acquaintances.  You might assume that they still hold the same role in your life – but do they really?

If you’re honest, you’ll have to admit that you have fewer true friends that you know you can count on now in middle age than you did when you were in your early twenties.

THE TRUTH ABOUT SOCIAL MEDIA ‘FRIENDS’

Social media has a lot to answer for.  When you look at other men’s profiles and see the thousands of ‘friends’ that they have, it’s easy to feel like ‘Billy No Mates’ in contrast.

According to research carried out by Oxford University, it’s impossible for the average person to be able to sustain relationships with many more than one hundred and fifty acquaintances.  It became known as “Dunbar’s Number”, as Professor Robin Dunbar and his team found that the average Facebook user has one hundred and fifty-five friends (slightly more for women than men) but would turn to only four in a time of crisis.

So, what’s the point of social media, then?  Some would argue that there isn’t one, perhaps … apart from lead generation and other people’s pretty pictures, that is.

The darker side of the effect of social media has been well-documented.  There’s only so many times you can look at your ‘friends’’ gorgeous holiday snaps, wild parties, unrealistically flattering selfies and gorgeous girlfriends without your feeling miffed.

How come this bugger’s life has turned out so perfectly?  He was such a dork at school!  According to all of his updates he’s having the time of his life – every day, all year round.

Of course, it’s all a mirage.  He’s not having a better life than you or I in reality, but if you are feeling low, unable to think of someone that you can turn to and chat with about your life that seems to be fading to grey, watching this ‘friend’ and his online antics is going to make you feel lonely.

And Loneliness is more of a dork than that bloke ever was.

THE BIGGEST KILLER

The results are in.  Mental health issues afflict one in four of us in the UK at some point in our lives.  Given that many men prefer not to confess to feeling what they perceive to be ‘weak’ or ‘vulnerable’ through loneliness, anxiety or pain, we can assume that that number is much higher in reality.

Did you know that suicide is the highest killer of men in this country below the age of fifty?

I very nearly became one of those that make up the stats.

As I say, without the force of Nature that is Alex, I wouldn’t be here now. I needed a friend – a real one.  You do, too – we all do.

So how do we men make new, real friends?

HOW MEN CAN MAKE REAL FRIENDS

As an adult male, your time is splintered by work and family commitments.  If you’re an entrepreneur with several businesses that keep you running in ever-decreasing circles, it’s all you can do to squeeze it all into your waking hours.

There’s only so much you can bear of it on your own.  If you don’t learn to prioritise sharing your thoughts and feelings with somebody else, you’ll start to suffer the consequences.  Are you feeling anxious and stressed, as though you’re barely keeping up in your own race?

If so, nip this in the bud and find your ‘Alex’.  While you’re at it, you’ll become an ‘Alex’ for somebody else, too.  Recognise your need to prioritise your friendships and make room for it in your schedule – even if it feels forced and awkward at first.  There are three main things that you can do to help your social life:

1)    CREATE STRUCTURE FOR FRIENDSHIP TO GROW

Men differ to women in that we seldom make friends or share deep feelings over a spontaneous chat.  We like to share activities with each other – that’s how we bond.

It’s all a bit ancestral – and makes sense when you think about it.  Our ancestors would hunt together, make the kill and share the spoils, relying on each other for protection and support as they did so.

An experience like that which works towards a shared outcome creates deep bonds of trust and friendship.  Similarly, we bond naturally when we play sport together, share a hobby or go on an adventurous trip together.

Look for clubs, sports venues and networking events near you so that you can make new connections organically in this way rather than focusing on online connections far away.

If the first connections you make don’t feel like your type, don’t give up early; as you get to widen this neighbouring circle, you’ll develop new contacts through them.

2)    SAY “YES” MORE

Are you in the habit of turning down invitations to join others for a social get together?  If you can’t remember the last time you had an invitation, then you made a habit of it so long ago that people stopped inviting you.

It’s not too late to turn that around.  Put the word out … it doesn’t have to feel awkward.  If you’d like to start playing football again a full thirty years since you last pulled on a pair of boots, ask the next guy you hear mentioning his club where he plays.  That will lead to the natural question – “Hey, are you interested?  D’you play?”

The same applies to music concerts, theatre and clubs – if you’re interested, show it.  Ask the question and open yourself to saying ‘yes’ more.

3)    THINK OF YOURSELF AS A SOCIABLE PERSON

Hiding away at home to get your work done is all very well, but by going out and changing your workspace into a public one every now and then is a great idea.  Create a local work hangout close to home with your laptop – find a bustling little area with a some good coffee shops, find your favourite and make it your spot a few times a week.

Going out alone to go ‘people watching’ is good for you; it feeds your natural human need for community, and as you’re watching them, a few will be watching you, too.  That’s okay.  Unless you’re picking your nose, they’ll like what they see.

Before long, you’ll recognise a few of them as regulars; then, you’ll be able to start small conversations at first that can grow over time.

You’ll soon develop an ability to interact with others on your solo excursions.  As you gain in confidence socially like this, your subconscious mind will get the message that you are, indeed, a sociable person – able to make easy conversation with strangers and so to grow new friendships.

A FRIEND IN NEED

Of course, there’s that old expression that says,

“Make new friends but keep the old; These are silver, those are gold.”

There are bound to be one or two old friends with whom you’ve lost touch that could be keen to reconnect.  Professor Dunbar (remember that Oxford University study?) says that true friendships can only be sustained with those whose ‘whites of the eyes’ you see regularly – meaning face to face rather than online or over a phone.

Spend time physically with those that you click with and learn to listen more – take trips with them, have new experiences with your chosen few.  It might take some effort at first – it’s a new habit you’re forming, remember – but it will foster trust on both sides.

Soon, not only will you have a true friend that you can count on if you find yourself in dark times, but so will they.

 

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