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Adulting 101: I’ve lost friends since I started working and learnt there is a season for everything

SINGAPORE — Fun fact: Do you know it takes around 200 hours before we consider someone a close friend, and we have the capacity for only around 150 close relationships, including family?

TODAY senior journalist Low Youjin examines the role of friendships as a person grows older.

TODAY senior journalist Low Youjin examines the role of friendships as a person grows older.

Adulthood is an invigorating stage of life as young people join the workforce, take on more responsibilities and set their sights on the future. But its many facets — from managing finances and buying a home to achieving work-life balance — can be overwhelming.

In this series, TODAY’s journalists help young Singaporeans navigate this stage of their lives and learn something themselves in the process.


SINGAPORE — Fun fact: Do you know it takes around 200 hours before we consider someone a close friend, and we have the capacity for only around 150 close relationships, including family?

And if you find making friends as an adult a chore, there is a scientific reason behind it.

Mr Praveen Nair, a psychologist at Raven Counselling and Consultancy, said that forcing yourself to make new friends can be a strain on neural faculties as the brain is an organ that is built for efficiency.

“Thinking burns calories so the brain would prefer not to think too much where possible in order to conserve energy,” he said. “Children tend to have their lives ‘organised’ by their caregivers, which means there is less of a cognitive load when it comes to making friends.”

I had asked Mr Nair, as well as another psychologist and a sociologist, for advice to help me make sense of the state of my own friendships.

I am approaching the wrong side of 30 and, frankly, the number of people I call friends is dwindling. Sometimes, it is because of my own doing. Other times, it is just diverging interests or priorities.

These days, I seem to be making more contact with people working in public relations due to the nature of my job. While I appreciate their calls to pitch their ideas to me, it is not quite the same as developing a new friendship.

Why is it so hard now? It was not always the case.

With the majority of my waking hours consumed by work, perhaps I have just become less enthusiastic about making new friends.

I think the closest friendship I have forged in adulthood — aside from my girlfriend now — was some years back when I was new to the working world and an older colleague befriended me. We hit it off quite well from the get-go.

We had a similar sense of humour and love for music. I learnt about great Blues legends such as Muddy Waters from him, and he indulged my fascination with Mongolian throat singing.

He told me about the British naturalist Alfred Russel Wallace and through him, I gained an appreciation for Singapore’s green spaces. He also taught me to be open-minded, to respect differing opinions, beliefs and lifestyles.

We could talk about anything. I think I benefited more from this relationship than he did.

Long story short, I went through quite a bad breakup some time back and he was always there to listen. But I believe it got to a point where even he had enough and told me to stop, which upset me.

Hurt, I said some rather unkind things to our mutual friends about him — a very immature thing to do. We have not spoken since.

I tried to reach out to him this year, more than half a decade later, to apologise, but clearly the damage was done.

What did I learn? That I was such a pain. A friendship forged in adulthood, undone by my own emotions.

I asked the experts for their insights on managing human relationships in adulthood so that younger readers may avoid the mistakes I have made and better process what they are feeling.

One question I posed was why I felt this void in me whenever I lost a friendship.

Psychologists have identified that a sense of relatedness — that we have mutually caring relationships — is a basic psychological need that everyone wants fulfilled.

Industrial-organisational psychologist Brandon Koh from the Singapore University of Social Sciences (SUSS) said: “Put simply, our mind seeks friendships just as much as our body seeks air, food and water.

"Positive friendships are also an important component to experiencing meaning in life.” 

He added that a person's self-esteem is heavily dependent on the quality of our friendships. When someone leaves us, it causes us to lose our sense of self-worth.

Why is it so much easier for me to build work contacts than real friends now?

Sociologist Tan Ern Ser from the National University of Singapore said: “Maybe it’s because when we are younger, we have less baggage.

“We are more trusting, less prejudiced, have more time, are less transactional in our interactions with others, and have more opportunities to do fun things with others.”

And time to invest in relationships is something we lack as adults, he added.

Dr Koh of SUSS said that friendships also rely heavily on intrinsic motivation, which is the willingness to do something or, in this case, be with someone out of pure enjoyment and interest.

In adulthood, many interactions occur for an external or task-focused reason, rather than the pure desire to be someone’s friend.

“This lack of personal choice subtracts from intrinsic motivation and reduces the chance that truly close friendships may develop,” he said.

So how do we deal with the hurt of being left out of a social circle?

Adults in their 20s, Mr Nair said, generally turn their focus and energies towards mate selection and career advancement.

Friendships tend to rank low in the hierarchy of relationships. Romantic relationships, family associations and the like tend to rank higher, he said.

“When friendship is low on the hierarchy, many other commitments tend to get in the way,” Mr Nair said. “This appears to be supported by research, which suggests adults tend to shrink their social circles around the age of 25.”

To understand where you, or someone else, stands in a social circle, Mr Nair broke down friendships into the following categories:

  • The best friend: The person to count on when important events occur in life

  • The proximal friend: The person you feel comfortable with but who may not be in your innermost circle. You are probably not going to get any closer unless something changes

  • The distal friend: The person you have known for a long time but may have been away from. You are unlikely to get any closer unless circumstances change

  • The just friend: Office colleagues, neighbours and others you enjoy spending time with but have no desire to socialise with outside of a specific context

“If the person’s friendship is valued and the nature of the break was due to an action by you, the initiation of a remedy can be contemplated by you,” Mr Nair suggested.

“If the break was for something beyond your control... it may be best to adopt the view that you can only control that which you can control and you decide how you want to feel.”

But if it gets too rough, the experts generally said that speaking to a healthcare professional should not be shunned or stigmatised.

How about maintaining our circle of friends as we get older?

“It’s really about quality over quantity,” Dr Koh said. “Pushing for quantity will raise expectations and consequently leave us dissatisfied.”

He said it is important to reflect on why we value our close friends, and added that it might be helpful to draw a sociogram — a graphic illustration of social connections — and identify the traits that define our closest friends.

Similarly, Mr Nair said that it would be helpful to know which friends you want around you in your life — do they fall in the best or proximal friend category?

“Those who fall into these groups are likely to be close friends even if physical contact is reduced. As such, keeping in touch via messaging chat groups or such may be sufficient for up to three to six months.”

He said it would also be helpful to try working out a commitment plan with these friends, such as meeting twice a year or quarterly. “However, do not fret if such plans become compromised by life events. If that happens, try to have a phone or video call instead and not just a text chat.”

Also, letting your friends know why you cherish them and being more empathetic by being an active listener can help solidify friendships, Dr Koh said.

What if I don’t like my friends and need new ones?

Just as we define why we value our close friends, the same concept should apply when making new friends, Dr Koh said.

“By identifying the key ingredients that define our real and close friends, we can be more mindful about which relationships to nurture.”

What if I can’t mend a broken friendship?

“Let it go,” Dr Tan, the sociologist, said. “You can’t force a person to forgive you.”

What is more important, Mr Nair said, is being aware of your role in a broken relationship, and knowing that you tried to remedy matters in the best way you know how. “It is called growth as a person.”

I mulled over the advice. I suppose there is a season for everything, including letting a friendship run its course.

People come and go at different stages in your life story, whether as bit actors or major players, and we should appreciate them for shaping us to be the best of who we are today.

And while we have little control over how we are treated, we can control how we treat others.

In retrospect, I do not think I have always been the best of friends to those who know me. So I will make this public: I am sorry for my shortcomings.

And for readers who are in a similar situation as me, perhaps this quote from American writer Maya Angelou, which Mr Nair shared, might bring some solace.

“I did then what I knew how to do. Now that I know better, I do better.”


Low Youjin is a senior journalist at TODAY where he covers the environment, manpower, as well as court and crime beats.

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Adulting 101 friends friendship relationship psychologist

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