January 14, 2021

The Pendulum of Life

Ecclesiastes 3 (from the Hebrew Bible)

1    There is a time for everything,
    and a season for every activity under the heavens:

    a time to be born and a time to die,
    a time to plant and a time to uproot,
    a time to kill and a time to heal,
    a time to tear down and a time to build,
    a time to weep and a time to laugh,
    a time to mourn and a time to dance,
    a time to scatter stones and a time to gather them,
    a time to embrace and a time to refrain from embracing,
    a time to search and a time to give up,
    a time to keep and a time to throw away,
    a time to tear and a time to mend,
    a time to be silent and a time to speak,
    a time to love and a time to hate,
    a time for war and a time for peace.

One way of interpreting this portion of wisdom literature is that at different times, the pendulum of life swings between opposites. To be wise is to live fully whatever time it is.

Some have taught that a basic truth is the inevitable suffering in all human life. This is not the view of modern life, at least in privileged cultures. The right to pursue happiness has become the right to happiness.

For many, suffering is an interruption in life, rather than an inevitability. In this mindset, suffering is something to be avoided, certainly, but also something that suspends normalcy until it passes. Ecclesiastes suggests wherever the pendulum is, that is still normal life.  Wisdom is learning to live fully, no matter what the time.

Ecclesiastes reminds us that the pendulum swings, believe it or not, ready or not. 

  1. In the list of Ecclesiastes, which times have been the most difficult to live through without losing your balance?
  2. What great value have you found in hard times? In other people? In yourself? In the important aspects of life?
  3. How does advancing age affect your perception of life’s balance between good times and difficult times?

January 7, 2021

­­Fulfillment

Three authors with well-earned popularity come from different perspectives to make a point about fulfillment in your life.

David Keirsey says that fulfillment and satisfaction look different for people of different temperaments.  People look for experiences that suit their own values. (Please Understand Me II)

Zalman Schacter-Shalomi says that as we age, it is important to harvest our lives, that is, to gather in and feed upon and benefit from the lives we’ve lived. (From AGE-ING to SAGE-ING)

Ira Progoff says : “As we look carefully at our lives, the past experiences gradually fit into place, times of exaltation and times of despair, moments of hope and anger, crises and crossroads, partial failures and successes….We gradually discover that our life has been going somewhere, however blind we have been to its direction and however unhelpful to it (our conscious selves) may have been.  We find that a connective thread has been forming beneath the surface of our lives, carrying the meaning that has been trying to establish itself in our existence.  It is the continuity of our lives.” (At a Journal Workshop)

It’s an appropriate time to mentally step back from the constant steam of life in order to notice and appreciate what has gone well.  The purpose in doing this is two-fold: First, to simply enjoy a bit of harvest, to take it in, savor it, and be strengthened by it.   Secondly, to say to ourselves, “Hmm, if that has worked well; I can do some more of that.”

Thought-Starter Questions for Sharing

Relationships – What has worked well with regard to people you’ve chosen to…

  1. Be close to
  2. Be faithful to
  3. Confide in
  4. Listen to
  5. Learn from
  6. Avoid
  7. Give up on
  8. Protect yourself from

Leisure, Fun

  1. How do you think about playing?
  2. What kind of play has been most satisfying?
  3. What have you learned about teams?
  4. What new enjoyments have you found?
  5. How has play affected your feelings about yourself and other people?
  6. What activity has been the most pure pleasure?
  7. What do you do now that is purely for pleasure?

Inner Life – What has gone well in…

  1. Your personal growth?
  2. Your increased understanding?
  3. Your emotional stability?
  4. Your comfort with yourself?

December 31, 2020

Skills for Emotional Well-Being

In a recently published paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison introduced a new framework for emotional well-being. It focuses on specific skills that can be learned. The framework is based on scientific evidence that suggests well-being can be cultivated through practice in daily life.

The framework is comprised of four areas that have been studied in the lab and have been shown to improve with training:

  • Awareness, or attentiveness to your environment and internal cues such as bodily sensations, thoughts and feelings;
  • Connection, or appreciation, kindness and compassion;
  • Insight, which refers to fostering curiosity and self-knowledge;
  • Purpose, understanding your values and motivations.

Awareness — and in particular meta-awareness (being aware that you’re aware) — appears to decrease stress, increase positive emotions, and can be strengthened through mental training practices like meditation. Awareness helps curb some of the harmful effects of distraction, which is shown to impair cognitive function and increase stress-related responses in the body related to inflammation and aging.

“The faculty of bringing back a wandering attention, over and over again, is the very root of judgment, character, and will.” (William James, American psychologist)

Connections with individuals and groups create physical, mental, and emotional responses that can enhance life. Through connections, you can learn by watching others.  Seeing demonstrations can create willingness to try new approaches to varied aspects of everyday life.. It is possible to achieve things in the company of others that you cannot do alone. 

Insight is being curious about your own preconceived thoughts and opinions. Your brain is not set. You can question your own assumptions and biases, and this has tremendous potential to heal the division and “othering” that creates tension in society. Insight can be widened by exposing yourself to information that you had previously ignored.  A reliable source of increased self-awareness is structured journaling or guided autobiography writing. 

Dr. David Burns, a renowned researcher and teacher, said: “You can change the way you think about things, and you can also change your basic values and beliefs.  And when you do, you will often experience profound and lasting changes in your mood, outlook, and productivity.” (Feeling Good, 1980)

Purpose in life is a personally meaningful aim that you can apply to daily life. Having purpose seems to have positive effect not only on your mental health, but even your physical health. Studies have shown that some of the natural hormones that affect positive feelings are increased by engaging in purposeful activities.

Thought-Starters for Sharing

  1. What activities sharpen your awareness and attention?
  2. What attitudes make it easier for you to pay full attention to what is going on around you?
  3. What positive effects (physical, mental, emotional) have you noticed when you connect with people?
  4. What have you tried because you saw someone else do something?
  5. What mindset have you tried to adopt because you saw someone else’s different perspective?
  6. What new insights have you learned lately?
  7. What new mental activities have you tried lately?
  8. What is something you strongly care about?
  9. How can you advocate for, or participate in, or learn more about your strong interest?
  10.  

December 24, 2020

Good Will

In the second chapter of Luke, the Biblical Christmas story mentions two elements that seem particularly scarce in our own era.  One is in verse 10: And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. (KJV)  In verse 14Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. (KJV)  The story sounds like finding good will is the source of the joy.

I think we could find agreement across all kinds of political and personal divisions if we said that there is a scarcity of good will that creates widespread joy. 

Where to find it?  According to Charles Truax and Robert Carkhuff, it is not a secret. 

It has long been recognized that the beneficial effects of any interchange are enhanced by such qualities as accurate and sensitive awareness of other’s feelings, deep concern for the other’s welfare without attempts to control him/her, and openness about one’s own reactions to the person. (Toward Effective Counseling and Psychotherapy, 1967).

To put it succinctly, good will is wherever we find accurate empathy, non-possessive warmth, and genuineness. 

The conclusion of Truax and Carkhuff’s important book was that whatever kind of interaction was attempted, if these three elements were present, the result would beneficial for the long-term. I think it is faithful to both sources to say that it would result in what the ancient stories call joyful good will.

We know, then, what we are looking for.  Where can we find it?

You can begin with your own experience.  In 1990 the director of The Gestalt Institute of Memphis exposed me to what she called the rule of thirds.  She said that all of the people we encounter, whether in our own family or social groups or work environment, fit into one of three categories.  For the purpose of the lesson the categories are called “thirds,” though they are not necessarily numerically equal. It is a simple tool for thinking about the different ways that people relate to us. 

The rule suggests that the three categories are: people who are for you, people who are neutral (fair weather friends), and people who are against you.

Good will is found in the “for you” third.  You have people in your life who are for you no matter what.  They celebrate your victories without envy. They are genuinely sorry for your defeats. They share resources. They stick with you. They are honest about themselves and you. They delight in you now, rather than waiting until you have corrected imperfections and achieved success.  They smile reflexively when you enter the room.  Your failures do not alienate them because they are attracted to your essence, your presence, not your superior performance.  Merely being around these people makes you feel at your best, as if they are giving you energy.  Some of them may be in your family, others among fellow workers, and others you have met in churches or in the neighborhood. They embody the traits identified by Truax and Carkhuff: accurate empathy, non-possessive warmth, and genuineness. They bring the joy of good will.

You can expand your search by applying these standards beyond your own third.  Where do you cross paths with people and institutions that actually take into account your situation and well-being? Where do you encounter people and institutions that show interest in helping without controlling you? Where to you cross paths with people and institutions who are honest and transparent in all dealings with you?

The story line of the Christmas stories had elements of good, not so good, and downright terrible.  The categories we still deal with.  Joy comes as we hunt for good will and find it. Even if it is nearly always a small fraction of all that is.

Thought-Starter Questions for Sharing

  1. Who are some people who have understood you accurately?
  2. What institutions/organizations have been willing to deal with you according to your specific needs?
  3. Who are some people who maintained good will in spite your different perspectives?
  4. What institutions/organizations have treated you fairly and kindly in difficult times?
  5. Who are some people whom you trust to be honest with you?
  6. What institutions/organizations do you trust because of their past interactions with you?

December 17, 2020

Christmas Mindset

The Christmas season is a tapestry of feelings, memories, and reactions.  It has been woven over your lifetime.  It comes out of its storage place each year and wraps you round, ready or not.

One strand is the atmosphere created in your family of origin. As a child, it was simply there – beyond your ability to clearly define, even if you had thought to try.

Another strand is the atmosphere created in your adult life, which includes changes embedded in and caused by different stages of life.

Another strand is the religious stories told, both those absorbed and those rejected. 

Another strand is the cultural overlay – decorations, gift obligations and expectations, excitement and disappointment and aftermath.

All these and more are woven together to form your unique Christmas tapestry.  Let us look and share. Sometimes the sharing brings a new level of appreciation, or release, or peace, or joy.

Thought Starters for Sharing

  1. How would you describe the family atmosphere of Christmas in your childhood?
  2. How would you describe the family atmosphere of Christmas your adult family units?
  3. What spiritual or religious feelings did you have about Christmas in your early life?
  4. What spiritual or religious feelings about Christmas are significant now?
  5. What gift giving or receiving memories have lasting significance?
  6. What negative reactions do you have this time of year? How are these reactions affected by this stage of life?
  7. What positive reactions do you have this time of year? How are these reactions affected by this stage of life?

December 10, 2020

STILLNESS

Newspaper columnist Charles Blow wrote about the experience of attending his older brother’s funeral in Louisiana.  He was moved by the sensitivity of friends who came to comfort his mother.  One relative came to drop off food, but didn’t want to stay long and crowd the immediate family. As she put it, “We’ll be here when the stillness comes.”

It seems that the comforter knew about something that we don’t often think about.  That is, until it comes.  The stillness.

What could she have meant?  Those who have been hit by severe tragedy know that in the immediate aftermath there is likely to be a flurry of activity.  Facing the facts, answering questions, making arrangements, taking care of legal and business matters that won’t wait, showing up for events and ceremonies, meeting well-wishers, making necessary adjustments. Then comes the stillness. 

What can lead to stillness?

  1. Death of a highly valued person
  2. Loss of health
  3. Loss of activity that was the major source of meaning (job, child, reputation, freedom …)
  4. Errors in judgement that lead to unintended, perhaps irreversible consequences
  5. Stages of life that have meager appeal
  6. Long life (moving beyond stages of life that were satisfying, outliving people whose value has been irreplaceable, waning interest and curiosity about life)

An experience of this sort unmakes our world. It draws sharp lines marked “before” and “after”. The “before“ demarcates the comfortable world, the self that we knew. The ‘after’ is the devastation of a broken life-world that remains. (Anna Gotlibis, The Moral Psychology of Sadness, 2018.)

What happens in the stillness?

Aloneness. The flurry settles, sometimes disturbingly quickly.  All the things that pushed in and demanded attention – either finished or delayed.  All who asked questions and offered words of varying comfort – silent. All who brought food and offered to do mundane tasks – gone. Treasured is that person who moves through our fog and finds us.

Cessation of familiar routines, rituals, habits that have bestowed security. (Children listen to the same stories repeatedly because they enjoy the feeling of control in knowing the plot and the ending.) We savor continuity. Brains are inherently conservative and want to keep doing what has worked in the past.

Stillness that is sameness. Fear that I will always be who I have been; loss of hope that I can change enough to make an important difference.

Stillness that is solitude rather than loneliness. Relief from busyness that defined me. Space for newness. Who am I anyway?  Can I enjoy times of play and calm? Can I experience moments of insight? Can I find validation from within rather than from acting out the role expected of me? Can I finding meaning within joyful moments?

Stillness as a pause before a new start. We face the difficult process of world-repair through the restoration of meaning – through our work, our relationships, and through engaging with suffering itself. The earth-shattering experience is not a virus to be medicated away, nor a tale to be forgotten, nor a deep sadness to be replaced with reckless optimism. It can be a catalyst for different stories about who we are, what we value, and how we might live in the “after”. (Anna Gotlibis, The Moral Psychology of Sadness,  2018)

Thought Starter Questions for Sharing

  1. What kinds of stillness have you experienced following extremely disruptive crisis?
  2. What did the stillness reveal to you about you?
  3. What did the stillness reveal about other people?
  4. How did you deal with the stillness?
  5. What new stories about the various layers of self and world have you fashioned?
  6. What resources were most helpful?

December 3, 2020

Emotional Inflammation

Ideas from the book Emotional Inflammation: Discover Your Triggers and Reclaim Your Equilibrium During Anxious Times (2020), by Lise Van Susteren and Stacey Colino.

These days it’s common to feel anxious, outraged, stressed out, fearful about the future, hyper-reactive, agitated, or otherwise on edge. It’s a state that Dr. Lise Van Susteren, a psychiatrist in Washington, DC., has dubbed “emotional inflammation.”  She says it is a phenomenon that’s similar to post-traumatic stress stemming from simply living in today’s tumultuous world.

At the most fundamental level, inflammation is a defense mechanism that occurs when the body recognizes problems and attempts to heal them. Although we tend to think inflammation has a physical cause, it can also have an emotional cause.

Emotional manifestations can make us feel hot, irritated, uncomfortable, and can even be painful. It can make moving through everyday life more difficult and leave us feeling tired or depleted.

A substantial body of scientific evidence now links negative emotions to the kind of chronic, invisible, systemic (or internal) inflammation that’s associated with life-threatening illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and certain forms of cancer.

A recent study revealed that adults who experienced considerable anger over the course of a week had higher blood levels of interleukin-6 (IL-6), a marker of chronic low-grade inflammation. Another study found a strong association between depression and higher IL-6 levels.

A 2018 study found that several anxiety disorders, including panic disorder, are associated with increased levels of C-reactive protein, another biomarker of chronic inflammation.

The fact that our emotions are highly inflamed these days is indisputable – and this reality is harmful for our bodies and minds.

As uncomfortable as emotional inflammation can feel, it’s a natural or appropriate response to the conditions we’ve been living with in recently. However, that doesn’t mean you have to be at its mercy.  Being in a constant state of agitation can have insidious ripple effects on your physical, psychological, and spiritual wellbeing. The key is to help yourself recover from emotional inflammation, just as you would if you suffered physical inflammation after spraining your ankle or bruising your knee.

Strategies for Taking Care of Yourself

  1. Care for your body
    • Get enough good-quality sleep
    • Steady your body’s circadian rhythms by dimming artificial lights and setting curfews on digital devices
    • Eat healthily
    • Exercise regularly
    • Regularly decompress from stress (with meditation or even deep breathing exercises)
  2. Recognize your feelings – At various times during the day, it helps to pause and ask yourself: how am I feeling? What words describe my current mood or state of mind? What have I dreamt about that has stuck with me? What am I thinking about or worrying about excessively? If you have trouble identifying these feelings in your mind, it can help to engage in expressive writing with pen and paper or on your computer.
  3. Reality-check your thoughts – To prevent your thoughts from spiraling out of control into worst-case scenarios or what-if propositions, use critical thinking skills to evaluate them. Ask yourself: what evidence suggests this thought is true? Are there other ways I could look at the situation? This is what’s called “cognitive reframing,” which helps change the way you think, feel, and behave If you find this difficult to do, you can talk with a friend who has skills at being reasonable and analytical.
  4. Limit media exposure – When we’re subjected to a continuous influx of disturbing or alarming news, that information overload can easily upset our emotional equilibrium. A survey by the American Psychological Association involving adults in the US showed that fifty-six per cent of people surveyed reported that following the news closely caused them stress. A group of psychologists warned that repeated media exposure to news could present a risk of psychological distress, including increased anxiety and heightened stress responses that could lead to symptoms that are similar to post-traumatic stress.
  5. Connect with nature and awe – The scientific literature is filled with studies illustrating how experiencing or viewing scenes from nature relieves stress and physical pain, enhances attention and cognition, and provides other mind-body benefits.  So, take a walk in a park, the woods, a garden, or near a body of water.  Soak in the sights, sounds, and smells of plants and trees, wildlife and other natural elements. Tune into the power of awe by gazing at the stars and planets at night, and appreciate the sense of wonder at being a part of something larger than yourself.
  6. Become an agent of change – Taking any action to help make the world a more humane and equitable place can have a profound effect on your sense of empowerment and wellbeing. Make an effort to shift from inaction to action, from bystander to upstander (by recognizing that something is wrong and speaking up, or standing up to work to make it right). You can do this in many different ways, both large and small – by financially supporting or volunteering for a cause you believe in, writing letters to elected officials about an important issue, working on a get-out-the-vote campaign, doing things to reduce your carbon footprint, and so much more.

     Instead of simply feeling vulnerable and unsteady, you can redirect the energy behind your outrage, fear, or despair.  You can take action that will change the conditions that fuel your worries. Seizing that opportunity is the hidden gift in emotional inflammation. It’s yours for the taking.

Thought-Starters for Sharing

  1. What signs have you noticed that you have enough agitation to make you uncomfortable?
  2. How much is related in some way to advancing age?
  3. Where in your body can you notice tension?
  4. What habits have you developed that benefit your body?
  5. What are some of the feelings you have in a typical day? Bad feelings? Good feelings?
  6. When have you spent time focusing/worrying about matters that you don’t know much about?
  7. Whose conversations give you different perspectives?
  8. How much time do you spend each day on watching/listening to news programs?
  9. What activities in nature affect you positively? How often do you do them?
  10. What actions make you feel useful?
  11. What kind of power do you have?

November 19, 2020

INTUITIVE VALUES

The 2020 election confirms that there are profound differences of opinion about multiple issues.  The book by Jonathan Haidt, The Righteous Mind: Why Good People Are Divided by Politics and Religion is a serious attempt by a social psychologist to identify the values that are expressed in political and religious affiliation.

He identifies six moral foundations that describe how the human mind is organized. He says that Intuitions come first, strategic reasoning second. Moral intuitions arise automatically and almost instantaneously, long before moral reasoning has a chance to get started, and those first intuitions tend to drive our later reasoning. This approach proposes that the moral foundations are innate.

Two important points about these six moral foundations.  First, they are often in conflict with one another.  The tension then is which prevails in specific situations.  Second, they are often defined in different ways by different people.  So, even though the specific foundation is the same, the different definitions will result in reactions that are in direct conflict.

  1. Care/Harm Foundation

This instinct makes us sensitive to signs of suffering and need; it makes us despise cruelty and want to care for those who are suffering. For some, this foundation is triggered by the plight of any kind of victim, and especially for those who exhibit some degree of blamelessness.  For some, the trigger is more or less limited for those who belong to or who’ve sacrificed for an in-group.

2.   Fairness/Cheating Foundation

This instinct is to cooperate with those who have been nice to us and shun those who took advantage of us. We feel pleasure, liking, and friendship when people show signs that they can be trusted to reciprocate. We feel anger, contempt, and even sometimes disgust when people try to cheat us or take advantage of us.  Everyone cares about fairness, but there are two major kinds. For some, fairness often implies equality of benefits and opportunity.  For some, it means proportionality—people should be rewarded in proportion to what they contribute, even if that guarantees unequal outcomes.

3. Loyalty/Betrayal Foundation

This instinct is a reaction to one who is a team player and or one who is a traitor, particularly when your team is fighting with other teams. This is about insiders versus outsiders, us versus them. The love of loyal insiders is matched by a corresponding hatred of traitors, who are usually considered to be far worse than enemies.

4. Authority/Subversion Foundation

This instinct is about respect is deserved by parents, teachers, and others in positions of authority; the urge to respect hierarchical relationships. Without agreement on rank and a certain respect for authority there can be no great sensitivity to social rules. Human authority is not just raw power backed by the threat of force. Human authorities take on responsibility for maintaining order and justice. In recognizing rank, we acknowledge that people have asymmetric positions in a linear hierarchy in which subordinates defer, respect, and (perhaps) obey, while superiors take precedence and take pastoral responsibility for subordinates. If authority is in part about protecting order and fending off chaos, then everyone has a stake in supporting the existing order and in holding people accountable for fulfilling the obligations of their station. Current triggers also include acts that are seen to subvert the traditions, institutions, or values that are perceived to provide stability.

5. Sanctity/Degradation Foundation

This is the instinct to be aware of smells, sights, or other sensory patterns that predict the presence of dangerous pathogens in objects or people.  This foundation makes it easy for us to regard some things as “untouchable,” both in a bad way (because something is so dirty or polluted we want to stay away) and in a good way (because something is so hallowed, so sacred, that we want to protect it from desecration). The sense of disgust is the flip side of considering some things sacred.  The belief in sacredness helps bind individuals into moral communities. People feel that some things, actions, and people are noble, pure, and elevated; others are base, polluted, and degraded. Repugnance revolts against the excesses of human willfulness, warning us not to transgress what is unspeakably profound.  Shallow are the souls that have forgotten how to shudder.

6. Liberty/Oppression Foundation

This foundation is about the feelings of resistance and resentment people feel toward who dominate us and restrict our liberty. Its intuitions are often in tension with those of the authority foundation. The hatred of bullies and dominators motivates people to come together, in solidarity, to oppose or take down the oppressor.

Thought Starters for Sharing

  1. Which of the moral foundations cause the most noticeable emotional reaction for you?
  2. Which foundations, though important, seem less so that others on the list?
  3. As you’ve aged, how have your priorities with regard to the moral foundations changed?
  4. Which moral foundations do you worry about being supported by institutions and individuals?

November 5, 2020

Ideology and Loneliness

Ideology is described as a coherent system of ideas that relies on a few basic assumptions about reality that may or may not have any factual basis. Through this system, ideas become coherent repeated patterns through the subjective ongoing choices that people make. These ideas serve as the seed from which further thought grows. Believers in ideology range from passive acceptance through fervent advocacy to true belief.

There are different kinds of ideologies. Political ideologies have definite ideas about how society should be organized and the most appropriate way to achieve the goal. A social ideology is the shared ideas of a group, the intention and driving mindset about social interactions. Epistemological ideologies have different assumptions about what knowledge is and how it can be discerned. Ethical ideologies are formed around the degree to which they subscribe to universal moral principles as compared to flexibility in dealing with life situations.

In her book The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951), Hannah Arendt identified an important effect of ideologies: they create separation which leads to loneliness. The separation is caused by living in an environment of fearfulness.  She said that when we do not believe that communication can be authentic, people become secretive and duplicitous in order to maintain a degree of safety.  This results in extreme loneliness.

The way we think about the world affects the relationships we have with others and ourselves. By injecting a secret meaning into every event and experience, ideological movements are forced to change reality to match their claims once they come to power. This means that a person can no longer trust the reality of one’s own lived experiences in the world. Instead, one is taught to distrust oneself and others, and to always rely upon the ideology of the movement, which must be right. (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951)

In order to make individuals susceptible to ideology, you must first ruin their relationship to themselves and others by making them skeptical and cynical, so that they can no longer rely upon their own judgment. (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951)

Ideological thinking turns us away from the world of lived experience, starves the imagination, denies plurality, and destroys the space between people that allows them to relate to one another in meaningful ways. And once ideological thinking has taken root, experience and reality no longer bear upon thinking. Instead, experience conforms to ideology in thinking. Loneliness arises when thought is divorced from reality, when the common world has been replaced by the tyranny of ideological demands. (Hannah Arendt, The Origins of Totalitarianism, 1951)

Thought-Starters for Sharing

  1. How has aging affected your comfort level in the groups with which you identify?
  2. When was a time that your evolving thoughts deviated from those of the groups with which you had identified?
  3. What groups have you belonged to that had very strong belief systems? Family? Social clubs? Religious organizations? Political parties? Corporations? Career field?
  4. How have you experienced separation as a result of belief systems?
  5. When was a time that your honest expressions caused you difficulty?
  6. What were the points that caused the greatest degree of separation?
  7. What benefits are there in being in groups that share only your own beliefs?
  8. Could “orthodoxy” be another name for “ideology”?
  9. When was a time when you felt lonely because of fearfulness about how your thinking would be perceived?

October 29, 2020

Making Good Friends

Authors: Lawrence Robinson, Anne Artley, Melinda Smith, M.A., and Jeanne Segal, Ph.D. Last updated: June 2019.

Why are friends so important?

Our society tends to place an emphasis on romantic relationships. We think that just finding that right person will make us happy and fulfilled. But some research shows that friends may actually be even more important to our psychological welfare. Friends bring more happiness into our lives than virtually anything else.

Friendships have a huge impact on your mental health and happiness. Good friends relieve stress, provide comfort and joy, and prevent loneliness and isolation. Developing close friendships can also have a powerful impact on your physical health. Lack of social connection may pose as much of a risk as smoking, drinking too much, or leading a sedentary lifestyle. Friends are even tied to longevity. One Swedish study found that, along with physical activity, maintaining a rich network of friends can add significant years to your life.

But close friendships don’t just happen. Many of us struggle to meet people and develop quality connections. Whatever your age or circumstances, though, it’s never too late to make new friends, reconnect with old ones, and greatly improve your social life, emotional health, and overall well-being.

Know what to look for in a friend

A friend is someone you trust and with whom you share a deep level of understanding and communication. A good friend will:

  • Show a genuine interest in what’s going on in your life, what you have to say, and how you think and feel.
  • Accept you for who you are
  • Listen to you attentively without judging you, telling you how to think or feel, or trying to change the subject.
  • Feel comfortable sharing things about themselves with you

As friendship works both ways, a friend is also someone you feel comfortable supporting and accepting, and someone with whom you share a bond of trust and loyalty.

Focus on the way a friendship feels, not what it looks like

The most important quality in a friendship is the way the relationship makes you feel—not how alike you seem on the surface, or what others think. Ask yourself:

  • Do I feel better after spending time with this person?
  • Am I myself around this person?
  • Do I feel secure, or do I feel like I have to watch what I say and do?
  • Is the person supportive and am I treated with respect?
  • Is this a person I can trust?

The bottom line: if the friendship feels good, it is good. But if a person tries to control you, criticizes you, abuses your generosity, or brings unwanted drama or negative influences into your life, it’s time to re-evaluate the friendship. A good friend does not require you to compromise your values, always agree with them, or disregard your own needs.

Tips for being more friendly and social (even if you’re shy)

If you are introverted or shy, it can feel uncomfortable to put yourself out there socially. But you don’t have to be naturally outgoing or the life of the party to make new friends.

  • Focus on others, not yourself. The key to connecting to other people is by showing interest in them. When you’re truly interested in someone else’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, and opinions, it shows—and they’ll like you for it. You’ll make far more friends by showing your interest rather than trying to get people interested in you. If you’re not genuinely curious about the other person, then stop trying to connect.
  • Pay attention. Switch off your smart phone, avoid other distractions, and make an effort to truly listen to the other person. By paying close attention to what they say, do, and how they interact, you’ll quickly get to know them. Small efforts go a long way, such as remembering someone’s preferences, the stories they’ve told you, and what’s going on in their life.
  • Self-disclosure: the key to turning acquaintances into friends
  • We all have acquaintances—people we exchange small talk with as we go about our day or trade jokes or insights with online. While these relationships can fulfill you in their own right, what if you want to turn a casual acquaintance into a true friend?
  • Friendship is characterized by intimacy. True friends know about each other’s values, struggles, goals, and interests. If you’d like to transition from acquaintances to friends, open up to the other person.
  • You don’t have to reveal your most closely-held secret. Start small by sharing something a little bit more personal than you would normally and see how the other person responds. Do they seem interested? Do they reciprocate by disclosing something about themselves?

Evaluating interest

Friendship takes two, so it’s important to evaluate whether the other person is looking for new friends.

  • Do they ask you questions about you, as if they’d like to get to know you better?
  • Do they tell you things about themselves beyond surface small talk?
  • Do they give you their full attention when you see them?
  • Does the other person seem interested in exchanging contact information or making specific plans to get together?

If you can’t answer “yes” to these questions, the person may not be the best candidate for friendship now, even if they genuinely like you. There are many possible reasons why not, so don’t take it personally!

Tips for strengthening acquaintances

  • Lots of other people feel just as uncomfortable about reaching out and making new friends as you do. Be the one to break the ice. Your neighbor or colleague will thank you later.
  • Bringing up old times makes for an easy conversation starter. Some associations also sponsor community service events or workshops where you can meet more people.
  • Track down old friends via social media sites. Make the effort to reconnect and then turn your “online” friends into “real-world” friends by meeting up for coffee instead of chatting on Facebook or Twitter.
  • Put it on your calendar. Schedule time for your friends just as you would for errands. Make it automatic with a weekly or monthly standing appointment. Or simply make sure that you never leave a get-together without setting the next date.
  • Group it. If you truly don’t have time for multiple one-on-one sessions with friends, set up a group get-together. It’s a good way to introduce your friends to each other. Of course, you’ll need to consider if everyone’s compatible first.
  • Be the friend that you would like to have. Treat your friend just as you want them to treat you. Be reliable, thoughtful, trustworthy, and willing to share yourself and your time.
  • Be a good listener. Be prepared to listen to and support friends just as you want them to listen to and support you.
  • Give your friend space. Don’t be too clingy or needy. Everyone needs space to be alone or spend time with other people as well.
  • Don’t set too many rules and expectations. Instead, allow your friendship to evolve naturally. You’re both unique individuals so your friendship probably won’t develop exactly as you expect.
  • Be forgiving. No one is perfect and every friend will make mistakes. No friendship develops smoothly so when there’s a bump in the road, try to find a way to overcome the problem and move on. It will often deepen the bond between you.

Fear of Rejection

It helps to evaluate your attitude. Do you feel as if any rejection will haunt you forever or prove that you’re unlikeable or destined to be friendless? These fears get in the way of making satisfying connections and become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Nobody likes to be rejected, but there are healthy ways to handle it:

  • Just because someone isn’t interested in talking or hanging out doesn’t automatically mean they’re rejecting you as a person. They may be busy, distracted, or have other things going on.
  • If someone does reject you, that doesn’t mean that you’re worthless or unlovable. Maybe they’re having a bad day. Maybe they misread you or misinterpreted what you said. Or maybe they’re just not a nice person!
  • You’re not going to like everyone you meet, and vice versa. Like dating, building a solid network of friends can be a numbers game. If you’re in the habit of regularly exchanging a few words with strangers you meet, rejections are less likely to hurt. There’s always the next person. Focus on the long-term goal of making quality connections, rather than getting hung up on the ones that didn’t pan out.
  • Keep rejection in perspective. It never feels good, but it’s rarely as bad as you imagine. It’s unlikely that others are sitting around talking about it. Instead of beating yourself up, give yourself credit for trying and see what you can learn from the experience.

Thought Starter Questions for Sharing

  1. What qualities have meant most to you in good friends?
  2. What traits or qualities would you like to find in friends going forward?
  3. How did you go about developing a long-term friendship?
  4. How did you go about making a recent new friend?
  5. What helpful information did you find in the tips above?
  6. How can you deal with the fear of rejection?
  7. How can you deal with real rejection?