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With a little help from your friends


With a little help from your friends

Friends are important at any time in life but as we age, we tend to choose to have a smaller circle. JUDY RAFFERTY examines introverts, extroverts and changing friendships.

Connections to family, friends and community give us a sense of belonging and a sense of place in our own little bit of the world. According to research, our friendship patterns change as we age.

As older people, rather than wanting a range of people in our lives, we tend to have, by choice, a smaller number of friendships. The number of friendships may be smaller, but the friendships are deeper and more meaningful.

There are a variety of theories to explain this. One is that as we age, we find social interactions increasingly stressful and become more selective about which we choose to engage in. I wonder if, with the wisdom of age, we become less tolerant of wasting time with friendships that are demanding or unrewarding.

It is important to continue to make new friends. Unfortunately, it is true that, at any age, our current friends are not always going to be a part of our lives. People move on for many reasons.

If your pool of friends is small, then it is important to have back-up or be ready to make a new friend. It is usually at this point, when I am speaking to a group, that someone timidly raises a hand and says, but I am an introvert, so I find making friends hard.

Do you know if you are an introvert or an extrovert? It is useful to think of these traits as being on a continuum.

In your mind draw a line with extroversion at one end and introversion at the other. You can be at either end or, like most people, somewhere in between.

An introvert is generally more reserved. That does not mean that an introvert cannot sometimes be the life of the party or enjoy a social event,  it just takes more out of them and they are likely to want to go home from the party sooner.

Extroverts tend not to turn down invitations and so may have a broader group of acquaintances. They tend to talk to others to sort out problems while an introvert is more likely to ponder in their own mind.

In fact, introverts are more likely to worry and possibly overthink problems. Extroverts are more likely to be risk takers.

Making new friends is a risky activity. It requires you to be vulnerable to rejection.

Perhaps the easiest way to identify whether you are an introvert or an extrovert is to ask yourself whether you find that being with others takes of your energy or gives you energy.

Introverts need time alone to recover energy. Extroverts need time with others to recharge.

Neurobiology helps us to understand us why some people are introverts and some are extroverts. There is a difference in their brains.

Introverts are more sensitive to dopamine, a chemical in the brain that is part of its reward system. When it is released, it makes us feel good.  Because the brains of introverts are more sensitive to dopamine, they need less of it to get the response required. It is easy for them to become neuro-chemically overstimulated. When this happens a quiet period is needed to rebalance and recharge.

Extroverts’ brains are less sensitive to dopamine and need more of it to feel good which results in more talk, more action and often, more risk taking. It could be argued that talk, action and risk taking are helpful for making new friends.

The ancient Greek maxim was to know thyself. A jolly good idea. When making new friends be mindful of yourself as an introvert or extrovert or of being somewhere in the middle.

I don’t think the Greeks said to know your neighbour but consider the person to whom you are talking. Initially, an introvert may seem a bit cold and unresponsive to an extrovert while an extrovert might seem a bit overwhelming to an introvert.

This should not stop you being friends. It might mean you gain from each other. An extrovert will encourage their introverted friend to get out and about and the introvert will help keep the connection meaningful and grounded.

 Judy Rafferty is the author of Retirement Your Way, A Practical Guide to Knowing What You Want and How to Get It. Available at all good bookshops and online.

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