I grew up in an environment I’m not sure still exists today. Maybe it was because of the small towns and rural areas in which we lived or maybe it had something to do with the fact that my father was pastor of the largest, sometimes only church in the area, largest only determined by relative size—120 people was a huge and unusual event. My brother and I were taught to treat everyone we encountered as friends. There were no exceptions, despite the fact we quickly realized that our parents didn’t hold themselves to the same standards. We had an obligation to make friends with everyone. Period.
For many years, I assumed that everyone had the same mandate. This was more than being polite, mind you. Saying hi, smiling, waving if you were too far away to speak without yelling, all of those behaviors were for anyone we might recognize, and a smile was always appropriate even when passing a stranger. Being a friend meant actually caring about who people were, what they enjoyed, what interests we might have in common, and spending time together.
By the time we reached high school, though, that illusion of being friends with everyone began to dissolve as I realized that, despite my attitude, not everyone wanted to be friends back. In fact, there were a lot of people who didn’t want to be friends at all. I was the preacher’s kid, too well behaved, too involved in music, and too naive regarding sex and other common topics that I had been shielded from. There was plenty of reasons to not like who I was as a teenager, and being the obstinate person I am, I doubled down on those traits rather than trying to resolve them.
Then, eventually, along comes social media and the term “friend” gets a new definition, one that doesn’t actually require interaction or shared values, or like interests, or much of anything else. With the advent of social media, friends didn’t have to be people we know at all. In fact, there are a lot of people on most friends’ lists who have never met, never will meet, and have never as much as messaged each other.
When asked now if someone is a friend, we have to clarify whether yes, we know that person, or no, they’re only friends on Facebook or Twitter or some other site. I have friends on Facebook who I find interesting but don’t expect our paths to ever cross. I try to keep up with people who were classmates in school, especially those who were friends at one point or another, but with many of those I know I could never continue anything more than a superficial relationship now. The same applies to extended family members, cousins, and such. I feel an obligation to care about how their lives are going, the ups and downs and changes, but rarely am I compelled to interact with any of them.
Are any of us true friends? By most general definitions, no, we’re not. We don’t have that kind of relationship. Friendship doesn’t always require direct interaction, but it does require an understanding that, even when we’re silent, I still like you and I still care. And as I get older, the number of people on that list, the number of people I want on that list, grows smaller and smaller.
The Disappointing State Of Maturity
The changing state of friendship is not something rooted in deep science. There are too many variables, too many differing conditions, to foster any kind of reasonable scientific study as to whether there is a biological or neurological reason for reducing the number of friends we have as we age. There are plenty of practical and psychological reasons, though, and those are rather obvious if one gives the matter a moment’s thought:
- Changing jobs
- Getting married
- Having children
- Religious commitments
- Long-term health issues
- Work obligations
- Changing interests
- New hobbies
- Reliable transportation
- Living arrangements
- Mental health
All of those reasons, and more can lead us to change who we call friends, who we spend our leisure time with, who we message in the middle of the night, whose shoulder we cry on, and who we’ll drop everything to help.
All of these are part of that thing we call growing up. We mature. We accept new and different responsibilities across different aspects of our lives and as we do, our time, our interests, and the impact of life on our mental health force us to reconsider who we need and want in our lives. Sometimes that means putting some friendships on hold, not talking as often, not meeting up for coffee, but still caring. Other times, it means severing ties completely and moving on.
These changes are impossible to avoid. They’re going to happen and, for the most part, there’s not a lot we can do about it. And most of those changes we accept with a mix of resignation and anxiousness as we move from one phase of our lives to another. We know that as we leave one situation behind, another stands in front of us offering new opportunities.
But then, we reach this stage where there is more behind us than there is in front of us and we look back, considering who we’ve known, the relationships we’ve had, the laughs, the deep conversations, and we begin to miss those moments—not necessarily the people, but the moments that cause us to smile and fondly remember. We may even try to recapture some of those friendships, but it can be devastating when you reach out to someone with whom you spent significant amounts of time and their response is, “I’m sorry, who are you?”
Why Can’t We Be Friends?
The hard-hitting truth of the matter is that not everyone can be a friend. While there’s little science regarding what causes changes in friends, there’s a lot of neuroscience covering what causes us to create friendships in the first place. The end result is that there are some people who fail to stimulate the proper portion of your brain and without that stimulation, we’re not likely to regard them in a friendly manner at all.
Now, some clarification is necessary here because the relationship between neuroscience and social activity is tenuous in places. What stimulates our desire for a sexual partner, for example, comes from a different part of our brain than what stimulates our likelihood of meeting someone for coffee or a drink after work. There is also a need to appreciate that science doesn’t dictate one’s specific actions, merely inclination toward certain actions. You still make your own choices and suffer your own consequences.
That being said, most friendships are established along the lines of shared values, and, especially given the circumstances of the past four to six years, a lot of the values we consider important fall within the designation of conservative versus liberal. Again, a couple of clarifications need to be made. Conservatism, philosophically, fails to separate ideal from practical, values experience over reason and challenges the changes of modern societal thought. Liberalism, by contrast, attempts to encompass more of everything, more open values, more accepting of reasoned theory, and accepts pluralities as a normal part of life.
The study of why those differences exist is relatively new, but looking at published studies from 2011, 2013, and 2020, the consensus is that conservatism and liberalism come from different parts of the brain. The presence of grey matter is the determining factor. For conservatives, there is more grey matter in the right amygdala, fueling decisions based primarily, though not exclusively on emotion, with emphasis on managing fear and sensitivity to disgust. For liberals, that greater share of grey matter is found in the anterior cingulate cortex, creating value systems that are more open to uncertainty, tolerant of conflicts, and changing views founded on advancing study and science.
That the two areas of stimuli are located in very different areas of the brain helps us understand the deep divide that exists between the two areas of thought. Add environmental and societal influences on top of the neurological inclinations and it’s easier to see why some friendships are more difficult to achieve if they’re possible at all. Factor in various biases, some of which may have genetic links, and it becomes somewhat miraculous that we find people with whom we can be long-lasting friends.
Yet, while our brains respond sometimes aggressively to situational stimuli, we are still inclined to develop friendships, if not for matters of survival as was true of our ancestors, then to fulfill the philosophical and emotional desire to not feel alone in an anxiety-inducing world. After all, we have determined and convinced ourselves that nothing is as bad as being alone. We’ve written songs about it. One, in our many opinions, is the loneliest number. We want friends.
Stimulate Me, Please
If we follow the science far enough and extrapolate a sufficient number of related assumptions from accumulative studies, we come to a conclusion that we are more likely to be friends with the people who provide our brains with the greatest amount of positive stimulation in those areas to which we are most sensitive. People who stimulate those same areas in a negative manner are those we prefer to avoid. Not many of us enjoy prolonged negative mental stimulation.
What’s more, negative mental or neurological stimulation can have a negative effect on our physical health. Negative stimulation, on almost any level, increases our stress levels, triggering a rise in blood pressure and cardiac disease. That’s why being around some people can trigger headaches or nausea. People who fail to stimulate our brains in a positive manner can make us physically ill, creating additional challenges to developing or maintaining any kind of friendship.
Positive stimulation, however, whether physical, emotional, intellectual, or neurological, creates in us a fondness for the person(s) providing that stimulation. Our brains can’t get enough of them. We find ourselves wanting to be around them, to meet up for even a brief encounter, because their presence stimulates higher levels of dopamine and makes us feel better. Tickle our right amygdala or anterior cingulate, and we’re likely to be best buds for a very long time.
For me, intellectual stimulation is what gets me going faster than anything. I have one friend who, from the moment we first met roughly 13 or 14 years ago, consistently gives my cerebrum a hard kick. The first time we met, we sat at a coffee shop talking, largely uninterrupted, for over eight hours. Any time we’re together, the conversation flows freely and at considerable length because finding people who stimulate us in a way that provides such intense non-physical pleasure is rare.
More recently, I’ve found a developing relationship with someone who directly challenges how I think, never telling me that I’m wrong on any subject, but with a constant admonition to drill down, dig deeper, and define my thoughts more precisely. This individual lives a few hours away and so our ability to meet in person is extremely limited. Yet, the nature of stimulation they provide is just as pleasurable as though we were having an in-person conversation.
For each of us, it is that highest level of stimulation that fuels our friendships. This doesn’t mean that we have to engage in lengthy conversations or share exciting events. Some people provide a silent level of stimulation simply by being present at the moment we need a sympathetic soul present. If a person can’t provide a sufficient level of stimulation, what’s the point in having them around?
How Much Stimulation Do We Need?
Having done all this reading and research this week, I have come to a conclusion that I’ve not seen voiced in any of the relevant literature. I am of the opinion that the primary reason we hold fewer relationships close as we age is that our need for stimulation on all the various levels declines as we get older. When we’re younger, our desire for external stimulation is almost constant and we chew through that stimulation as though it were an endless supply of chocolate. We can’t provide for ourselves all we need, so having large numbers of friends is necessary.
As we age, however, we become better equipped to provide what we need for ourselves. Our desire to look to others for stimulation begins to wane. We are less likely to fill our time with attending concerts when we are sufficiently satisfied listening to our favorite music at home, where we’re comfortable. We are less inclined to try new restaurants in large groups if we are adequately stimulated by what we can prepare for ourselves, or what a partner prepares for us. Even conversations succumb to the company of a good book with greater frequency.
Where this leaves me, particularly, is with the realization that perhaps I need to completely drop that now-ancient expectation that I have to be everyone’s friend. While it hasn’t been dominant for dozens of years, I’ve let it still linger in the back of my mind and influence my emotions at times when I’ve either felt guilty for not being especially fond of someone or needy because I’m not surrounded by as many people as I once was.
Instead, I’ve reached a point where my friendships can be limited to those who provide the necessary external stimulation I need without impeding upon the personal stimulation I’ve developed for myself, and vice versa. After all, friendship has to work both ways and if I’m not providing you the stimuli you need, then perhaps you do best to look elsewhere. Just tossing that out there for consideration.If we have sufficient levels of compatibility, then yes, I would enjoy being your friend. However, I no longer feel that I have to be your friend, and you’re under no obligation to be mine. We are free to limit ourselves to those friendships that do genuine good for us both, and that is enough.