A reader of my blog is living overseas with several young children and is married to a man who routinely works long hours. Another woman I know is single; she recently moved to a new town to begin a demanding job that entails frequent travel. My own elderly mother has become frail with fewer and fewer opportunities to get out and mingle with her peers. What do these three women -- at different stages of life -- have in common? For various reasons, each is in the midst of a friendship drought.
There are times over the life cycle when, for various situational reasons, we simply don't have enough friends -- or enough of the right kind of friends. We feel isolated and alone. Other times, people experience persistent friendship deficits because they are very shy, lack social skills, or just have a hard time befriending others.
A new study published in Psychological Science (November 2008) suggests one instinctive antidote to feelings of loneliness and isolation: nostalgia. In four different studies, psychologists at the University of Southampton and Sun Yat-Sen University in Guangshou, China looked at people from various walks of life, including schoolchildren, college students, and factory workers. They found that lonely people used nostalgia as a coping mechanism, drawing upon their sentimental memories of the past. The more lonely people were, the more nostalgic they tended to become as a way of increasing their self-perceived feeling of social support.
"Our findings show that nostalgia is a psychological resource that protects and fosters mental health," says Dr. Tim Wildschut of the University of Southampton. "It strengthens feelings of social connectedness and belongingness, partially improving the harmful repercussions of loneliness. The past, when appropriately harnessed, can strengthen psychological resistance to the vicissitudes of life."
One implication of these research findings: If your current situation doesn't lend itself to making new friends or connecting with the ones you already have, take a brief trip down Memory Lane and re-live the peaks of your past friendships.
While this coping mechanism might help you get over a friendship drought for the short-term, the real fix is to find ways to more fully integrate friendship into the fiber of your life. The isolated mom may need to call upon a babysitter, the nomadic woman may need to use her cell phone more, and my elderly mother may need to connect with other women her age at a senior center.
Source: Press Release, University of Southampton, November 18, 2008, "Nostalgic thoughts of happier times can help overcome loneliness."
Irene S. Levine, PhD is a freelance journalist and author. She holds an appointment as a professor of psychiatry at the New York University School of Medicine and is working on a book about female friendships that will be published by Overlook Press in 2009 and blogs about the same topic on The Friendship Blog. She just co-authored Schizophrenia for Dummies (Wiley, 2008).
If you have a question or concern about your female friendships, please email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org/ and I will try to answer as many as possible on HuffPo.