Analysis: Humans have a fundamental need to connect with other people, but how we make friends changes across our lifetime

"Friendship is a strong emotional need, in the same way that we have physical needs, like eating and sleeping. There's this idea that humans have a fundamental need to affiliate with other people," says Dr Ann-Marie Creaven, lecturer in psychology at the University of Limerick.

Dogs sniff bottoms, but humans, thankfully, are a little more sophisticated in their pursuit of connection. Let's take a moment to appreciate that good fortune. The natural ebb and flow of friendship can often feel difficult but is an almost universal experience: who among us doesn't have that one friend we hold on to, despite knowing it wouldn’t work if you met today? 

"A lot of people have friends they formed in childhood, because they grew up beside them, because they went to school with them for a long period of time. They know now that if they met that person now they wouldn’t become friends, but they have a shared history together and that can be very hard to let go of," Creaven explains. 

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"Sometimes those friendships are not universally positive, they might be what we call ambivalent friendships. You tend to hang on to them because there are positive qualities there… and because the negative aspect isn’t really strong enough to let that person go. If you haven’t overtly fallen out with someone, you’re not going to cut off a friendship. Some will fade into the background, but there’s often a shared history that will bring you back together at key points in life," she says. 

In hindsight, it can feel like making friends used to be easier and there might be something to that idea, because as children, a lot of our friendships are guided by our broader social environment, which in turn "is really determined by parents and communities," Creaven says. "Children are reliant on parents quite a lot to form their social world. So the choices that parents make will influence their exposure to people they could possibly become friends with." 

"Childhood friendships are about learning and figuring yourself out"

This means children become friends with people they see a lot, be it neighbours or classmates or other children that participate in activities with them. Once we become teenagers, we develop some autonomy and as parents fade into the background, our friendships become less reliant on them. It's a common theme across the lifespan that we form friendships with people who are physically near us and that we can contact repeatedly, she says.

A child's friendship group is defined by shared activities and, over time, by social behaviours as well. Creaven explains, "even 6-year-olds would understand that sharing a secret indicates that the people who are sharing the secret are friends."

Because we're still developing our sense of identity as children and teenagers, the quantity of friends we have during those years is important, "because that helps you develop that sense of identity, a sense of the world, a sense of yourself, and you end up meeting a lot more people," Creaven says. 

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"But by the time you're in your 30s, you’ve developed that sense of identity… you know what other people are like and you’ve established some key friendships. You’re not going to go out and seek more." That’s where the big difference between childhood friendships and adult friendships becomes clear: "The childhood ones are about learning and figuring yourself out, but in adulthood we already know who we are, we don’t need other people to figure ourselves out," she adds. 

This can mean that adult friendship groups are less diverse. Up until our late 20s or 30s, "there’s one theory that suggests we use friendships as a source of information seeking about the world, we find information about the world through meeting other people. So we value having diverse friendships and diverse social groups," Creaven says. 

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"But once we no longer need to meet this need to learn about ourselves and to learn about the world, we start pulling back from meeting a lot of new people and that’s not because we’re withdrawing socially, it’s because we’re interested in focusing on those relationships that are most important to us."

"Our identity is more established and we focus on relationships that meet our emotional needs more, rather than informational needs. Between the 20s and 30s there can be a big shift in quantity versus quality, in terms of importance," she explains. 

Creaven believes we aren’t necessarily aware of this transition. "I don’t think it’s a conscious process, the evidence would suggest that it’s an almost universal process, it’s something we do over time, we pull back from those peripheral networks because they don’t serve functions that are important anymore."

"A child's friendship group is defined by shared activities and social behaviours"

Creaven says that something that really drives friendship over time is similarity. "In childhood, similarities are, well, I like swimming and you like swimming, but when you’re adults it’s, well, I value living a certain type of lifestyle and so do you. Your fundamental values become more important." 

Because quality is so important in the earlier years and quality is important later, if you are choosing to form a friendship in those later years and are actively making efforts to meet that person, it could serve goals that are really important to you at the time, Creaven says. 

"A lot of people say that in their 30s it’s actually quite difficult to make new friends, because people aren’t focused on quantity anymore. If you were to move from one place to another and need to establish a new social circle, that could be quite difficult. But the friends you do make, hopefully, would be of high quality."

Quantity or quality of friendships become relatively more important at different life stages

Earlier this year, the government unveiled plans for a €3 million fund to combat loneliness, described as "the most unrecognised health crisis in a generation" by the loneliness task force. That feeling of a lack of connection - a fundamental, emotional need for humans - can be down to a dissatisfaction with quantity or quality of our social relationships, Creaven says. 

"Quantity or quality become relatively more important at different life stages. So never write off someone having a lot of social contacts at a certain stage, that might be something they need. Similarly somebody who has a couple of close relationships that fulfil their social needs, that's absolutely fine as well."

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Having multiple social groups - school friends, sports teams, work friends and such - can also be beneficial. In retirement, for example, when we lose access to that particular network, being a member of other social groups can buffer from the downsides of the reduced social interaction.

Social media has made it easier than ever to stay in touch with people, however, "we don’t usually invest too much effort in online relationships - except where these are important to us offline," Creaven says. "Now we have this online version of proximity. This proximity in theory should serve to maintain relationships that otherwise might be lost… that can be stressful, too, keeping up with all these notifications to wish someone a happy birthday on Facebook when you would never normally ring them," she says. 

"When quantity isn’t as important, we might be left with some obligations in that regard." 

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ