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  • Writer's picturepamradtkerussell

The Secret to a Happy Life? Friendship.

There was almost nothing I used to dread more than filling out the “emergency contact” on school and medical forms.

This contact, the form told me, should be someone who doesn’t live in your house.

I have lived hundreds of miles away from any family for most of my adult life. So that left just one option – a friend.

And for dozens of years, I really didn’t have that one person who I thought I could count on. The person who would be there for me if I really needed them.

I would sheepishly call a mother of one of my daughter’s friends, who I hung out with periodically to cry in our wine over the difficulty of toddlers, and ask if she minded if I put her as my contact.

Often I would just scribble a name on a paper, hoping nothing ever happened and they’d never know they were my go-to person. I feared that would think we weren’t friends, let alone emergency contact kind of friends.

I’ve never had a gaggle of friends. The kind of friends who would go out to brunch. The ones who were bridesmaids in each others weddings. In fact, because I only had one good friend who I thought I could count on, I had only a maid of honor… and I had to import her to Alabama from Colorado.

There are tons of reasons why I was relatively friendless. For years I worked ungodly hours at newspapers. And then I had children. And, of course, I believed for the longest time that because I was married, my husband was my best friend and I didn’t need anyone else.

I didn’t know how to make friends, or understand the value of friendships. My mother didn’t trust other women and through her eyes I saw most of them as shallow and vain. She had a few good lifelong friends, but when they got together they generally talked about how awful other women were.

So I was awkward around other women. I could talk about current events or what I had been reading, but I couldn’t talk about makeup or clothes (which is what I thought was all women talked about.)

I realize now, however, the main problem was that I didn’t let people in.

That changed in 2019 when, on a trip, I opened up to a few friends and acquaintances about my marriage.

And an amazing thing happened: they opened up and shared some of their deepest secrets with me.

I realized then, that many of us, especially as we hit midlife, don’t have that emergency contact person. That so many of us are seeking real, true, and deep connection and friendship.

Some, like myself, never had those friendships in the first place, while others have lost connections as they built their careers and raised children.

Those 2019 encounters gave me the key to true friendships: vulnerability.

I began sharing more with my friends and they began sharing back. What started as a short walk or a casual dinner became hours of talking about life, love and happiness.

Today, I have more than a dozen true friends. After that 2019 trip, I created a small, private group of 300 women on Facebook where we can share, safely be vulnerable and support one another. Over the pandemic it's been a lifesaver for many of us.

I easily spend five to 10 hours a week in face-to-face contact with friends, and I spend hours more on the phone or video chatting with others farther away.

And I have never been happier.

Now I do lunches and brunches and dinners and happy hours and am contemplating organizing a girls trip or two. And we never talk about makeup and clothes. (ok, sometimes if someone is wearing something super cute!)

Studies have shown that, especially as we age, friendships become more important to us. That we are healthier with friends than without, and that friends are more important than immediate family. Friendships can actually prolong our lives.

A Harvard study of men has found the best predictor of health and happiness was not wealth or success – it was their friendships at age 50!

I asked women on some my woman’s group and others that I have discovered (check out whether friendships are more important as we age, and the resounding answer was YES. We need friends now for different reasons, to help support us as our parents age and our nests empty – and for rides to and from our colonoscopies, the women said.

A big caveat, though, was the quality of friendships. We may not need as many friends, but the friends we have have to be meaningful and deep.

“More, by so much,” Becca Pendarvis summarized succinctly. “The relationships are richer and more for the soul. Younger friendships were more for the social self. We always need our girlfriends, but I need them way more at 50 than at 15.”

It’s important that we have friends from the arc of our life as well. I’m actually closer to some of my high school friends than I ever have been. They, as my high school classmate and dear friend Karen Riley-Love says “Can remind you both of who you are and how far you have come.”

Each of my friends fills a different need, it seems. But each one listens, supports and encourages me, just as I do for them (I hope!). And each one I would be proud to put down as my emergency contact.

I know now, too, the people I put down as emergency contacts a decade ago would have been there for me when I needed them.

I just had to have the wisdom to let them show up.

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