Special qualities make a friendship

There is no one rule to establishing new friendships. Photo: Getty Images
There is no one rule to establishing new friendships. Photo: Getty Images
On Saturday, I completed my 25th revolution around the sun. In other words, I turned 25 years old; a full quarter of a century.

I always experience some sort of existential crisis the night before my birthday. I hate getting older. I hate finding grey hairs and new wrinkles, and I hate the creeping feeling that I haven't accomplished enough in this life of mine.

But my birthday also allows me to reflect on those important things in my life. It forces me to evaluate people, ideals, and experiences I hold dear.

Recently, I was asked to hold a workshop for the new Rhodes scholars on ''meaningful relationships''. At first, I was somewhat perplexed. What did I know about meaningful relationships?

I had never read a guidebook on how to make friends; I had never before been asked to impart my wisdom on the topic, and I certainly had never kept up a proper romantic relationship before.

My approach to friendships as an adult was to barrel full on into them, charming people (or in many cases, repelling them) with exuberant overtures of friendship, spurred on by spontaneous outings, late night kebab-shop visits, gin and tonics, and memes.

But as I grow ever older, I am increasingly realising the importance of these friendships. Over the last year, I have struggled considerably with my mental and physical health.

Oxford can be a remarkably toxic and isolating place, with its heavy pressures, hectic schedules, and near-constant dreariness. I experienced a period of severe and sustained depression, suffered from seasonal affective disorder, and found it incredibly difficult to keep up with my coursework while also juggling a chronic illness.

Indeed, a recent study found that 43% of students at the University of Oxford feel that attending the university has negatively impacted their mental health. Loneliness just exacerbates this misery.

In a way, however, I'm one of the lucky ones - I could count on a solid friendship circle for love and support. I had friends who texted me every day, and would pop over with a hug and homemade meals in Tupperware containers, or a bag of mandarins.

I had friends who would take time out from their busy schedules in the lab to walk around the university parks with me, just quietly enjoying the scenery and watching out for dogs to pet. Others had me over for dinners, taught me how to cook, and helped me edit my disastrous assignments.

Numerous studies have found that investing in close relationships as a young person or adult is associated with better health, happiness and wellbeing. A 2010 report in the Journal of Health and Social Behaviour found that having a strong social network can boost one's immune system, enabling a longer and more fulfilling life. Yet making friends as an adult is not as easy as swapping toys with fellow children in the sandpit, or sharing crisps with mates on the playground.

According to the New York Times, people tend to interact with fewer people as they get older.

Recent figures published by the Office for National Statistics found that 2.4million adult British residents - of all ages - suffer from chronic loneliness. Why is this?

Essentially, it can be hard and often scary to meet the conditions required to form lifelong friendships; proximity, repeated interactions, and the establishment of trust and vulnerability between people. There's no one rule to establishing new friendships, and I don't claim to be an expert in the topic.

But as someone who dearly loves and values the friends I have, I thought I'd share a few tips I've learned over the past year.

Firstly, it's important to realise that most people in new social situations will feel just as nervous and socially inept as you might. Don't be afraid to step outside your comfort zone and make an overture of friendship. It's important to meet people halfway. I'm no longer in school - I cannot count on seeing my new friend in class or at lunch time, on the quad. My friends have their own individual lives and families, and I've learned to work within these parameters, as they have with me.

Most importantly, perhaps, I've realised that it's perfectly all right to have different types of friendships with different people.

I used to walk into new relationships with a number of expectations; a friendship checklist of sorts.

But it's a mistake to expect too much from one person. It is far more healthy and realistic to have a variety of friends, and a variety of relationships.

I have friends I tell everything to, from small mundane annoyances to matters of the heart.

I have friends with whom I do not talk about anything deep or emotional; rather, we watch movies and go for walks, and sit comfortably in each other's silence.

Finally, I have learned not to put time and energy into someone who does not reciprocate, or who leaves me feeling worse than when I encountered them.

Life is simply far too short for unpleasant or toxic relationships. Instead, cultivate those friendships that bring you joy; those relationships of mutual care and understanding.

Remember that it's the strong and solid friendships that matter, not necessarily the light, fleeting acquaintances.

Meaningful relationships require investment, vulnerability, openness and reciprocal care.

There's an oft-quoted Maori proverb that sums up the gist of this article: ''He aha te mea nui o te ao? He tangata, he tangata, he tangata.'' What is the most important thing in the world? It is people, it is people, it is people.

-Jean Balchin, a former English student at the University of Otago, is studying at Oxford University after being awarded a Rhodes Scholarship.


Story. The Community Worker, it is said, is a ninja. No time for close friendships, his job is to leave people better off than he met them, and he's away again.

The CW is also called a monomaniacal busybody.

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