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THE BALANCED LIFE | Close friendships more important than ever

T he invitation came by email, short and to the point. “Tomorrow is John’s 80th birthday & we’re headed to Station 1 (Lyle, John, me). If you’re available we’ll be going up Rockway from 8th St around 10:00.” Message received.
From left: Lyle Turner, Howard Graham, John Lye, Brian, and John Swart. MIKE MENICANIN

The invitation came by email, short and to the point. “Tomorrow is John’s 80th birthday & we’re headed to Station 1 (Lyle, John, me). If you’re available we’ll be going up Rockway from 8th St around 10:00.”

Message received. John Lye, a long-time cycling friend, was celebrating his 80th birthday. His buddies Howard and Lyle were going to ride with him to Grimsby for lunch, and if any of us wanted to join in, we could meet them with our bikes at Rockway and surprise John.

With thoughts of Paul Nemy’s evocative Column Six tribute, in last week’s Voice, to his longtime cycling friend Larry Pelt still top-of-mind, my response was a no-brainer.

“I’m in, see you at 10:00,” was my equally concise reply.

When Howard, Lyle and John crested the hill at Rockway, faces lit up and broad smiles broke out all around as Mike, Brian and I wished a surprised John a happy birthday. Ours is a group of long-time cycling friends. Covid and all the personal stuff we refer to as “life getting in the way” has made our rides together less frequent over the last couple years, but within a hundred metres cycling west along Regional Road 69 we’d formed up two-by-two, riding close together and chatting away. Our 80-year-old birthday boy led the group, as he always has.

“How you doing?”

“What’s new?”

“Been riding much?”

These innocuous questions familiar to both acquaintances and friends began the conversations. The answers honest, thoughtful and open, stoked with laughter or genuine compassion as necessary, identified us as friends rather than acquaintances.

The effortless pleasure and comfort that just a few hours spent with good friends can furnish is truly invigorating, and the benefits to our wellbeing are significant.

Longtime friends give us a sense of belonging and being valued. They make us feel socially secure and provide emotional support, all of which significantly reduce the stress in our lives, which is a good thing. Prolonged stress can contribute to anxiety, poor immune health, insomnia, high blood pressure, diabetes, and heart problems.

Close friendships help shape our lives. Good friends provide us with trust, respect, forgiveness when warranted and constructive criticism when required, all of which boost our confidence, improve resilience and give us the strength to face adversity.

Longtime friends keep us grounded. Those that have been with us for years know who we really are, which allows us to drop appearances and facades. There are few things more comfortable than being with someone who knows our warts and all yet still accepts us for who we are.

Friends can influence each other’s lifestyle choices in a more positive and enduring manner than mere peer pressure, which causes us to adopt deliberate behaviour to fit in with a group. The behaviour of friends we respect and share values with can influence how we spend our leisure time, how we view diet and physical activity, how we spend our money, how much charitable work we do, and the optimism with which we greet each morning.

Longtime friends understand how to make us feel good. They’ve been with us as we reacted to all sorts of situations, and know what makes us laugh, smile or breathe a sigh of relief.

Conversely, a lack of friends and social connectedness can be calamitous to our mental and physical health.

Cigna, and American health and insurance provider which generates an annual Loneliness Index, claims that in 2020 some 61 percent of Americans surveyed reported they were lonely. Statistics Canada suggests we’re doing better here in the Great White North, but the trend is similar. A 2021 report entitled, “Canadian Social Survey: Loneliness in Canada,” found that ten percent of Canadians said they always or often felt lonely, and 30 percent reported sometimes feeling lonely. The survey also revealed that those who identified as being frequently lonely also reported poorer mental health and lower levels of overall life satisfaction than those who were lonely less often.

Lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder

A meta-analysis study conducted by Brigham Young University in 2015 dramatically confirmed this when it found, “Lack of social connection heightens health risks as much as smoking 15 cigarettes a day or having alcohol use disorder. Loneliness and social isolation are twice as harmful to physical and mental health as obesity.”

Cigna’s findings suggest a lack of close friendships may even impact us financially. Lonely workers are twice as likely to miss work due to illness and five times more likely to miss work due to stress. They consider quitting their jobs twice as often as non-lonely employees and are less engaged and less productive.

Finding and making lasting friends takes work. One doesn’t find close friends, we make them. Young couples, families and those working are often busy with kids, mortgages and jobs. Seniors frequently withdraw from social connections as mobility and health issues increase.

Doing the things we enjoy in a social setting may be all it takes to begin a friendship. Crafting, hiking, book clubs, yoga, whatever your interest, participating with others can open doors to friendship through common ground and interests.

Reach out to those you want to get to know better. Keep it casual and don’t be afraid of rejection if you take the initiative. Be the first to invite a potential friend to attend an event together, suggest lunch to discuss an issue from work or the club, or go for a bike ride. Any excuse that allows people to get to know each other better may be the beginning of an enduring friendship.

Volunteer and join community groups. Strong connections can be made while working together with someone to improve your community or the lives of others.

Choose quality over quantity. Many of us are too busy to muster the emotional energy required to maintain a large group of close friends, so prioritize your time. A diverse network is good, but nurturing a few close, meaningful relationships may ensure stronger friendships when you need one.

Use social media with discretion. Research indicates online networking doesn’t necessarily increase offline relationships, and the danger to friendships of accidentally sharing inappropriate personal data are well known.

Having a good friend means being a good friend. True friendship requires give and take, being the supporter as well as the supportee, and nurturing. You will build intimacy and deepen connections with friends by sharing personal experiences and concerns that make your friend feel trusted and special. We need to stay positive, be consistent, and share our vulnerabilities if we expect others to do the same.

Be a good listener, and ask about your friend’s life with genuine interest and empathy. If you offer help or comfort, be available to deliver it when required. Reliability and trustworthiness will strengthen any friendship.

We expected that even at 80 years old, Birthday John would still lead the pack for this 100-kilometre ride, and climb the escarpment with the same gusto as always. We didn’t expect Lyle to sing a ridiculous impromptu version of Groucho Marx’ Lydia the Tattooed Lady at lunch, proving there’s no shame amongst friends. (Marx, the ‘50s TV innuendo king, outdid himself with the lyrics of this one.)

And so it went. We shared historic anecdotes, recent events and future plans without inhibition. With each pedal stroke of this birthday ride I realized how much I have come to appreciate these longtime friends, and that it’s never too late to develop new friendships and reconnect with old friends.