The demands of a busy senior business role do not allow much time or energy for close relationships outside immediate family. This is one of the reasons that Dr Vivek Murthy, former US Surgeon General, has stated there is a “loneliness epidemic” that is a more significant health issue than cancer, heart disease or obesity. He states that social isolation is “associated with a reduction in lifespan similar to that caused by smoking 15 cigarettes a day.”

In response to this issue, the British government appointed Tracey Crouch as the first Minister for Loneliness in 2018. In 21st century Western society, many people feel isolated from any sense of belonging to meaningful community.

After we have done all we feel we need to do at work, and then tried to be a good partner and parent, there is very little real ‘friend time’ left.

Understanding relationship spaces

In our lives, we usually have the following relationship spaces: immediate family (includes partner, children and ageing parents), wider family, close friends, friends, work colleagues and acquaintances. Without being too anal, it is important that we understand into which relationship space people around us fit. Family can be complicated, but they are not the focus of this article. A close friend is someone to whom you have a level of personal commitment and a desire to socialise with regularly outside of work.

We all want to be inclusive and have harmonious work relationships. However, we can include people in the wrong relationship spaces, which can create all kinds of tensions and misunderstandings. For example, the awkwardness when a work colleague who thinks they are a close friend invites you to a social event outside of work and you realise you really do not want to go.

The people you spend the most time with at work may grow to become close friends, but only if you develop a mutually beneficial relationship that moves beyond the workplace.

So how do we make this happen in the midst of our busy lives?

5 tips for building and maintaining close friendships

  1. You possibly do not need as many close friends as you imagine

    Even the most gregarious of us can only maintain a handful of close friendships. Two or three close friends who know you well and with whom you spend regular quality time is very hard to build in your mid-years, and difficult to maintain.

  2. You need to be intentional

    Close friendships will not develop without regular time together, and they can easily drift so we do not see each other for months at a time. This takes commitment and planning. The easiest way is to find a way to have a regular catch-up once a week or once a month to which both of you are equally committed.

  3. Ensure your closest relationships are supportive

    If you want to add someone to your inner circle, other key relationships already in your world need to understand and be supportive.

  4. Be friend worthy

    This means you need to make room emotionally and commit energy, mind space and time to the relationship. It is about being aware and ready to give as well as receive. It may sound trite, but to have close friends you need to be friendly.

  5. Link friendship activities with activities you enjoy

    Friendships are built around mutual interests. This could be anything such as playing or watching sport, cultural activities, fitness or gym, and so on.

Neuroscience is reinforcing that we are social beings hard-wired for relationships. We thrive best as human beings when we can build and maintain close friendships in which we feel loved and respected, and free to be ourselves. It is important that we do not allow the busyness of work to shrink our social world to those in our immediate family. We need to make room to build and maintain close friendships as well.

How often do you see your friends?