The Guardian published an article a few years ago which I have since spent a great deal of time turning over in my head. In the piece, nurses who work in palliative care (hospice for us Americans) talk about what kind of regrets their patients display, over and over again, at the end of their lives.
All of the usual things were there. Regrets about sunny days spent working, missed romantic opportunities, and goals left unachieved were all mentioned. However, the one that always stuck with me the most, is what the dying had to say about their friendships. The majority of the moribund had deep regrets about relationships with their friends which they had let weaken and fade away over the course of their lives. It seemed that they had spent years massively undervaluing the importance of these connections, and as they lay dying in their beds, friends from years past were what came into their weakening minds.
A lot of times it was too late. That’s because losing a friendship is a very easy thing to do. And most aren’t shattered by some misspoken insult, seduced sister or dramatic difference in political views. Most of them die in the way that houseplant on your windowsill did: forgotten, neglected, ample time and opportunity to be saved by one ounce of life-giving effort. Does it seem an overwrought metaphor?
Perhaps, but it is true that friendship doesn’t seem to mean as much to people as they grow up, get jobs and find husbands and wives. People grow apart for a variety of reasons, but inertia tends to be the number one symptom, a standstill brought on by the responsibilities and assorted burdens of being an adult.
It is nearly inevitable, and by no means a flaw in character, that your connection to friends will wane as you age. The point is to reflect on these relationships and how important they are for your well-being. In fact, strong connections to others are a primary indicator of happiness according to those who study human fulfillment.
But we don’t need any scientists to tell us what we already know and feel deeply— that close, long term friends fill a spot in us that nothing else can.
The Human Animal philosophy encourages people to place their time and effort on things that will fulfill the animal brain in order to make it more happy, productive and successful. If we look at friendship as a kind of drug or medicine, a neurochemical reaction that tickles a deeply buried place in the human mind, we may realize that we have been neglecting ourselves, and not to mention the other people who are probably busy with their own lives, but who need your friendship just as much.
But friendship, particularly if you are over thirty, requires hard work, thoughtfulness, time and even money. You will spend a lot more traveling to meet your friends, having dinner out with them, hanging out at the bar on Sunday to watch a football game, than you will sitting at home on your computer.
But whereas we as a society put a lot of value on someone who is dedicated to his job, his wife, his community, we place little emphasis on someone who focuses on his friends. What do you mean Bob took a week off to go to Mexico with his college buddies? Doesn’t he know he is a grown man?
The work we put into our friendships is among the most important we do in our lives. Not only do these relationships strengthen us as people, but they can also confer serious benefit to our more intimate relationship with our significant others. Our culture promotes a sort of “pairing off” once we get into our thirties, in which your girlfriend, boyfriend or spouse become much of your social world. We often get to the point where we may go weeks speaking only to people at work and our partners. There is a sense of comfort in having that person, and I don’t mean to undermine the importance of romantic relationships. Whether or not lifetime monogamy can be part of the human animal philosophy will be discussed alongside other topics.
What I will say is that you are doing your romantic partnership a disservice by relying on it too heavily to fill the very human need for companionship that we all have. Far too many people make the mistake of thinking they should wholly dedicate themselves to their spouse, eschewing all other connections, only to realize later that they have regrets.
So call that long lost friend, phone that college buddy, spend time with someone you haven’t caught up with in a while. Not only will you get a nice boost to your natural happiness chemicals, but you can one day go to your death bed perhaps with an ounce less regret.