The next few weeks will give us sounds of the season…in the stores, on our apps, at holiday concerts. For me, the song “Merry Little Christmas” always sets a proper tone. I like this classic because it recalls “faithful friends who are dear to us,” and sets a mood that takes me back to the days when “troubles were out of sight.”
One memory goes back to fifth grade when halfway through the year a new kid showed up in our class. He was tall and gangly, but also relentlessly friendly…smiling, chatting up his new classmates. He moved from Detroit because of his dad’s job. The family relocated to an old apartment near the post-World War II tract development where our school had popped up along with the all the new houses…and the Baby Boom students.
His name is Don Weber, and he became my longest-standing friend. (I choose my words carefully here, because my wife Sandy has always been my best friend.)
Don and I went on through high school together and were in each other’s weddings. Sandy and I were godparents to Don and Kathie’s daughter, Ellison. We joined them on vacations, plus virtually every New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day for 50 years. As the song says, “Through the years we’ll always be together.”
But before Don, there was first friend Chris, who lived three houses down the block when I was four. We were inseparable until about fourth grade, and then over time, we lost touch…even though we lived in the same town. Perhaps 15 years ago I ran into him in an elevator of a building where he worked as an assistant prosecutor catching deadbeat dads. We scheduled a lunch at the “Happy Hour” saloon in our old neighborhood, swapped stories, strolled past our former homes…and have never seen each other again.
None of this should surprise us. Nearly 50 percent of Americans say they met their closest friends before they were 21. Some 45 percent of adults say it is difficult to form new relationships: data shows that the average person has not made a new friend in at least five years. Experts say that the emotional quality of a relationship declines by 1/3 for every year we don’t see an old friend.
That doesn’t even include our experiences with COVID-19. Half of us report losing touch with at least some of our friends during the quarantine. Clearly, some people are already resuming a few of those old relationships. Yet others are reluctant to resume friendships that may have been fractured by political or health debates over the past two years.
Further, psychologist Robin Ian MacDonald Dunbar says that none of us can handle more than a certain number of relationships at one time. His “Dunbar number” maxes out at just one or two “intimate friends” (the people you fully confide in), five close friends, 15 best friends, 50 good friends, and 150 random acquaintances. That is by and large the limit our brain and schedules can handle.
Still, science repeatedly affirms that friendships of any kind are a key driver of happiness. The Mayo Clinic reports that friends enrich our lives and make us healthier. Friends deliver benefits that include lower stress and improved self-confidence.
All of that makes it worth mentioning that “National Call a Friend Day” is coming up on Dec. 28. Yes, it’s a thing. It’s unclear how it started, but the day seems to be a response to technology such as smartphones, social media, email, and texts that foster contacts that are constant and instant…but perhaps not intimate.
Call a Friend Day reminds us to take a couple of moments and reach out by voice to someone who is (or once was) important to us…the kid who sat next to us on the school bus, a teacher who directed the high school musicals, college friends, our supportive first boss.
Columnist and author Bob Green grew up in an Ohio suburb very much like Sylvania; therefore, he understands the kind of friendships that can be built here…and their long-term value.
“We all, if we’re lucky, have someone in our lives who remains close to us no matter where the world leads us….our first friends, our oldest friends,” he writes. “Friendship is the only thing that lasts forever. No one can take it away from you, except yourself.”
Keep that thought in mind as you consider an unrelated piece of data from the marketing world: many people prefer handmade gifts rather than store-bought items at holiday time. So, think, what is one thing that you can make this year that would be appreciated most? How about a phone call to an old friend?