The Value of Friendship in Middle Age

Over the holidays, I host an ornament exchange, to which about twenty to thirty friends come. We always have a great time, and many of them tell me it is the highlight of their holiday season, which is nice, because it is certainly a highlight of mine. Why? Our children (the basis of our friendship years ago) are grown and gone now. With our busy schedules, many of us only see each other at this annual event.

Sadly, we are not unusual. Many adults are alone more than they’d like to be. If solitude becomes isolation or loneliness, though, it can have an adverse effect on our health and overall quality of life.

Adult friendship is typically forged through work or school and sporting events with the kids. Once that is gone, it takes a much more intentional effort to make social connections. But the effort is worth it, not only to fill a social calendar, but also to maintain the physical and mental health needed to thrive in middle age. We are, after all, social beings, and one of the healthiest things we can do for ourselves is to cultivate our social lives.

One way to do this is to build on the wonderful way in which all of us become much more ourselves in middle age. By this time, pretense has fallen away. All of us have won and lost at life. We’ve questioned our decisions, and made small or radical changes as the years have gone by. We realize the value of companionship, of being seen and appreciated by someone we too see and appreciate. Without anything to prove, we can just enjoy each other. The pressure to impress is over.

Lately, I am conversely more protective of my alone time and more open to social outings with those I don’t know so well. The paradox provides a certain balance while making life more interesting, and I’ve found a few new friends along the way. Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche says, “The sun of real happiness shines in your life when you start to cherish others.” Friends, old and new, really do make life pretty sweet.

Small Steps Toward a Creative New Year

Something about the New Year encourages us to take stock of our lives, and we think of resolutions that will take us closer to the lives we wish we were living. Sometimes it is the practical (I will organize my kitchen cabinets or else!) or the physical (Yoga every evening, no more snacks!). But no matter what the motivation seems to be, underneath it all, each promise we make to ourselves, each goal we set, is designed to bring us closer to whom we really are.

We are inherently creative beings, and for that reason, many of us hold a vision for our lives that includes a more creative version of ourselves. We want to be that someone who paints in their free time, has a novel going on the side, or spends hours crafting handmade gifts on the weekends. But creative resolutions can be tinged with a sort of desperation as the years go by, because let’s face it, rarely are they accomplished in their entirety. Rather we begin with great intentions, can’t keep up, and in the end are right back in the same spot the following January.

This year, I am trying a different approach. American essayist John Burroughs once said, “The smallest deed is better than the greatest intention.” Knowing I will not be able to become creative in all the areas I personally would like to improve (cooking, painting, knitting, sewing, gardening, etc.), I’ve decided to begin by building small habits, which I hope will lead to small (and eventually greater) victories.

I know myself better by now, too. Will I realistically go from take-out and thrown together after work pseudo-meals like apple slices and popcorn to a menu from the pages of a Gwyneth Paltrow cookbook? No. But can I do one thing better? Can I try to do the food prep for the week on a Sunday afternoon so I have more time to cook creatively during the week? Or just make a game of trying one new recipe a week? Instead of trying to craft handmade everything for everyone, can I choose one or two things I’d like to make or learn to do for fun, and then gift the results if I choose to?

You see how this will go. Redo the whole garden? How about building the habit of watering regularly? Or maybe planting one new bed? Write a novel? How about a letter? Or a blog post? (You are reading the result of one of the new habits I am trying to cultivate!)

Happily, creativity begets creativity, and each small step we take in the direction (the creation) of our vision, the easier the next steps will be and the more creative our daily lives will become.

Smile, You Are Beautiful

I have numerous exercise DVDs, and on one of them, the yoga instructor talks about the connection between actions and feelings, and he says “You get to act how you want to feel.” In other words, you can act your way out of unhappy or destructive feelings, simply by behaving as if you feel in a more positive way. A smile, for instance, triggers something in the brain that instantly improves mood and so even if you have to fake it, that smile works to transform you in a positive way, which can have wonderful repercussions on your day.

I was reminded yesterday that the same is true of appearance. When you feel beautiful, you are, regardless of what you are wearing, whether or not your hair is done, or makeup applied. And one of the most beautiful, and beautifying, things that you can do is smile.

“Because of your smile, you make life more beautiful,” says Zen master and Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. I think with a smile, you also make yourself more beautiful.

Too many of us, weighed down with worry and responsibility, wonder why we look so tired and old. We look in the mirror each morning and catalog all the ways in which we have aged and deteriorated overnight. Focusing on the negative, we fail to truly see ourselves at all.

Yesterday my daughter reminded me how she actively and consciously tries to be nice to herself. It sounded a little strange at first, but what she says and does makes sense. For one thing, she looks at herself with appreciation, like she would a friend. The more time I spend with her, the more I see in myself the tendency to do just the opposite. One way I plan to grow this year is to appreciate myself more for who I am now. If I can learn to see myself as beautiful, I become more beautiful, inside and out.

Yoko Ono once said, “Smile in the mirror. Do that every morning and you’ll start to see a big difference in your life.” That is a simple enough practice that I plan to try this year.