The many benefits of cultivating intergenerational friendships | The Optimist Daily
Today’s Solutions: July 15, 2024

Humans tend to gravitate towards or become friends with people our age due to our experiences in school and work. As we age together and share life experiences, it’s natural to stay connected to our cohort. However, broadening our social circle beyond this — whether with someone younger or older — has a plethora of life-enriching benefits. In fact, according to an AARP survey, 93 percent of individuals agree that friendships with people of different ages bring benefits that are distinct from friendships with people of the same age. That said, the same research shows that only a third of Americans have a close friend at least 15 years their senior or junior.

How intergenerational friendships enhance individuals and society

As a species, we have traditionally lived in multigenerational families. Only recently, with urbanization and migration in the Western world, have communities and families grown more divided. “In tribal times we would have connections with people from different generations. We wouldn’t be so boxed in and stick with our cohort,” Performance and Confident coach Olivia James explains.

“Intergenerational friendships are a dual win — both for society and the individual,” psychologist and author Sarah Gregg adds. Studies show that age gaps between friends foster connection and empathy in society, and break down stereotypes or issues like ageism.

Fostering friendships of various ages also helps with ‘comparisonitis,’ the feeling of envy when comparing your life with someone else’s of the same age.  “A twenty-something can look at a friend and think: She has a successful job, owns a lovely apartment, and has just become engaged to a great guy. And I have none of these things, life’s passing me by, time’s running out, I’m not as clever or attractive as her,” James illustrates.  Choosing friends of various ages encourages you to look at the big picture rather than compare or compete.

Conversations can also become richer and more enjoyable. Age differences in life perspectives and experiences might expose you to new ways of thinking and doing.

On that note, being friends with only those you’ve known throughout high school or college might lead to pigeon-holing. It’s natural for us to develop as we get older, but limiting your circle to friends from your youth can sometimes mean you’re not fully appreciated as your mature self. Having older or younger friends avoids this problem.

Benefits of older friends

The most significant advantage here is perspective. This is especially true for those going through a severe life event such as job loss or divorce. “When something happens and you think this is the end of the world. Having older friends who have been through something similar allows you to see people survive and thrive after these difficult events,” James says.

Friends who are further along in life generally have a different perspective than others your age. “Typically older people are less focused on success and careers and more on their happiness,” Gregg notes. When you’re younger and the emphasis is on the next professional step and life objectives like purchasing a house or starting a family, this outlook can be refreshing.

Benefits of younger friends

It can be incredibly beneficial for older individuals to engage with younger people and share their life experiences and perspectives. “For human beings, giving is good. Giving our wisdom and attention makes us feel better. It gives us meaning and is good for our mental health,” James comments.

When people reach their golden years, socializing only with other elderly people might be restrictive. Especially when they frequently witness the deaths of members of their own cohort. Mixing with young people may be extremely rewarding and energizing. “Studies suggest it can increase brain function. A different part of the brain is used that gets them out of their routine and doing something different,” Gregg adds.

How to form intergenerational friendships

There are few possibilities for different generations to mix in current Western society. As Gregg points out, this is something that has to change. “We know it’s beneficial for both parties and as a society we know we need to work on this,” she declares.

Trying to make friends with individuals of different ages is frequently a matter of chance. You can, however, put yourself out there in ways that will boost your chances of expanding your elderly social circle. “Go and do something you want to do not with the intention of making friends but hope for the best. Arts and charities are places where there are likely to be people who are outgoing,” James suggests.

While forming these ties is not always simple, the return is well worth it – for both pals.

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