Out of school, most of us find our friend circles shrinking and changing rapidly. Friendships in twenties, thirties then fifties look a little different at each stage. There are fewer hangouts and even fewer best friends. But does that mean we assign less importance to friendships as we age?
“Humans are social beings; we were never meant to live on our own,” Reema Baniabbasi, a counselling psychologist at The Psychiatry and Therapy Centre in Dubai, told Gulf News. “When we’re lonely our brain sees it as a threat and the body prepares to either fight, run or freeze to conserve energy. In that state, there’s no room for creativity or positivity.
“Friendships are essential for a meaningful life, for survival and thriving.”
Humans are social beings; we were never meant to live on our own. Friendships are essential for a meaningful life, for survival and thriving.
Friendships are nurturing and can buffer loneliness and depression, says research project ‘The Psychology of Friendship’, published in 2016 by the Oxford University Press.
We asked expats in the UAE about friendship and an expert for tips on how to build or add to our circle of friends in adulthood.
It’s quality over quantity
A funny thing happens as we grow older. We become hyperaware of the time and effort we’re putting into building relationships.
Baniabbasi said: “The older we get, the more we’re focused on quality over quantity of friendships. You’re more aware of the limited time you have, your boundaries and don’t settle for anything less.”
Devi Shree S., Indian expat of seven years, once had a huge group of school and college friends. Now at 35, the surrealist artist is more than happy to have a handful.
Once you get older, your friend circle becomes smaller but stronger. You know what matters to you, and it’s not going to the movies together or hanging out...
“Once you get older, your friend circle becomes smaller but stronger. You know what matters to you, and it’s not going to the movies together or hanging out – though at some point these things did matter. I now mostly befriend those I can connect with on an artistic level,” said Devi.
At 20, Aryaan Asad Lalani, too, finds it challenging to bond with fellow university peers who want to practise law. As a second-year law student in Dubai, the Pakistani expat dreams of becoming a professor instead. Conflicting career goals is a barrier to friendship for him.
Professional aspirations become more real in adulthood. If my professional goals don’t align with others, then I find it difficult to bond over that.
“Professional aspirations become more real in adulthood. If my professional goals don’t align with others, then I find it difficult to bond over that,” he said.
Everyone is busy
While older adults like Devi have established friendships, those at the cusp of adulthood like Aryaan are scrambling to keep their friend circles down.
People from the age of 18 to 25 are transitioning to universities, where they have no choice but to build social connections from scratch. For some, this can get tedious.
Manaal Fatimah is a creative writing and journalism student in Abu Dhabi. At 19, despite chasing deadlines and new commitments, she and her five closest friends make sure to get together at least twice a week. Friends she’s known since middle school.
I didn’t find anyone at university to befriend. I’m satisfied with my group now, so I don’t really feel the need to do the work.
“It’s hard to find a day and time that is feasible for everyone; some of us don’t drive, live far away and there’s family, too. It’s a lot of work, sometimes you have to rally to make plans,” she added.
“I didn’t find anyone at university to befriend. I’m not an introvert – I love talking to people – but I just don’t see people in university enough. I’m satisfied with my group now, so I don’t really feel the need to do the work.”
Younger adults prioritise communication past their teenage years. They're, “…always looking to expand opportunities, gain new experiences and build networks,” said Baniabbasi. With less and less time to spare, however, Manaal prefers to fill her quota of chats and hangouts with only those she can gel with.
Narrower friendship criteria
When life gets busy (truly busy, with family, children and bills), some people gravitate towards those who can share their changing interests and needs. Not everyone is going to fit the friendship bill at this stage, not even old friends.
Deepa Kumar, 50 and an Indian mum who’s been in Dubai for six years, counts her circle of friends: yoga friends, parents from children’s school and fellow expats. She says that it helps they all live close by, unlike her school friends in India with whom she’s grown distant over the years.
When you live in another country, friends are like your family. You have a lot of common issues that even family back home may not understand.
“I’m closer to my current friends because I share more with them. When you live in another country, friends are like your family. You have a lot of common issues that even family back home may not understand,” said Deepa. “Even if we don’t see each other for two to three months, we’re still in touch.”
So go ahead, count your closest friends on your fingers. This just means that you’re very certain of your relationship and the time you’ve invested in it. Friends are lifelong bonds in the making.
How do I make new friends in the UAE?
Sitting across from people in their twenties to forties, Baniabbasi tells us how her patients find it difficult to form new friendships. It’s a common issue, she says, that crops up again and again.
“Of course, people might face barriers like mental health concerns. Trauma, for instance, perceives threat even when it’s not there, even in friendships,” she added. “But most of them don’t know how to meet new people. They’re not aware of the opportunities outside of a work setting.”
If you’re looking to make new friends in the UAE as an adult, especially with those you share a similar interest, Baniabbasi has a few tips for you:
- Look into events via social media that are happening in different community centres or spaces near you. You could paint, draw or have the opportunity to chat with the many people that frequent these events.
- Join networking circles. Baniabbasi says an example would be the Female Fusion Network community, which is a good starting point for women interested in business and meeting likeminded entrepreneurs.
- University students can join clubs or create groups on the subject they’re passionate about. This will help them mingle with people who have similar interests.
- Sign up to volunteer.