Social connectedness is one of the cornerstones of mental health. I consider it as being one of the “non-negotiable 4” elements necessary for emotional growth – along with keeping the brain active, eating healthy, and owning your body through exercise, proper sleep, and meditation.

The average person has various categories of social connections, many of which are established for us – such as family members, work colleagues, casual acquaintances, people who provide services to us, and (depending upon our occupation) customers, clients, or patients. One category that we can control, however, is the category of friends. It is a category that is under our control to a large extent – as our choice is part of the reciprocal relationship known as friendship.

While it is neither rare nor inappropriate to choose friends who look and act and think like us, if we allow that to be a limiting criterion we miss out on a lot. Our ability to grow intellectually, to experience compassion, to understand how others can hold differing opinions, and how generational differences can be understood, is largely dependent upon our willingness to engage with others at a friendship level. How can you appreciate the impact of racism and other biases if you only know the attitudes of those who think like you? If you have no physical or intellectual impairment or limitations, can you adequately appreciate what it means to be disabled or limited just by reading about it? If you live in an age-related bubble, you risk the richness that life can provide by helping you understand other generations while giving those older or younger than you a reason to regard you as relevant.

Indeed, the world becomes a better place when more people are able to cross personal boundaries to establish friendships with people who aren’t really like them. If you are not doing so, you’re missing something. Total similarity in your choice of friendships breeds complacency which breeds stuckness which inhibits personal growth.

Do an inventory of your friendships. Don’t give up the ones you have – unless some of them are toxic, but be open to opportunities to expand them. Among other places, such opportunities to make new friends may exist in organizations to which you belong or among friends of friends. They may have been there the entire time, but your comfort level may have inhibited you from seeking out a closer relationship with that acquaintance with whom you enjoyed a conversation but didn’t pursue it because of discomfort about a difference in race or religion or age or social status or physical limitations (yours or theirs).

Friendship is a reciprocal process, and you can’t force a friendship or create one where no shared basis for it exists. However, you can be open to the experience and not assume that the other person isn’t open to it too. After all, friendships come in all shapes, sizes, and ages.

Ron Kaiser, Ph.D. Psychologist, Educator, Author, Podcaster

Ron Kaiser, Ph.D., is a positive health psychologist, coach, author, podcaster, educator, consultant, and speaker. He has been in practice for more than five decades, including 25 years as Director of Psychology at the world-famous Jefferson Headache Center at Thomas Jefferson University. As an innovative thought leader in the field, he has developed the concepts of THE MENTAL HEALTH GYM, GOAL-ACHIEVING PSYCHOTHERAPY (GAP), THE TYPE P PERSONALITY, and REJUVENAGING®.

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