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Why culling friends is OK

A new study has found that we need fewer but better friends the older we get. That's no bad thing, says Sali Hughes

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By Sali Hughes on

A group of psychology professors in America have recently published their results of their 30-year study into how adult friendships work. One of the study’s key findings (in extreme layperson terms) is that people in their fifties feel less lonely and are happier overall if they’ve had lots of social connections in their twenties, then fewer, but more substantial ones from their thirties onwards. In other words, when it comes to mates, our focus switches from quantity to quality, but each is as beneficial at different times in our lives. Like gardening (I say, as if I haven’t killed off everything green I’ve ever touched), one ideally plants more seeds than are needed, in the hope that a smaller quantity emerges healthy enough to grow strong and be harvested. It seems that the ideal trajectory involves weeding out the spares and chucking them in a skip.

Harsh and ruthless, maybe. But anyone of 30+ will agree that as age increases, tolerance plummets and all those people you once thought quite fabulous can suddenly seem a bit wearying and more trouble than they’re worth. For me, the first to fall away were those who prided themselves on “telling it like it is”, who boasted, “If I don’t like someone, I tell them to their face”. Essentially, people who attempted to make habitual rudeness some kind of character-enhancing selling point. I learnt that I can’t really be near them and, actually, I don’t have to. Then there’s the drain “friend”, who apparently hopes you fail to reach your potential – career, romantic, fitness, financial – because it makes them feel marginally better about never being motivated enough to reach theirs. Then there were the people who showed any signs at all of telling me what to do, who to see, what to wear, where to go, or who attempted to discover details pertaining to these via any other means than my volunteering the information myself (email snoopers, diary readers, interrogators: literally no one is entitled to know another person’s every private thought, you controlling weirdos). 

Thieves, pathological liars, the erratic and harmfully unstable are obviously low-hanging fruit but, sometimes, thirties friend-shedding is a more considered need for shared values. People who are anti-abortion and pro-death penalty are well within their rights, but I’ve come to learn that these two things are fundamental to my belief system, with no wiggle room. I can accept all manner of politics, but if we disagree on either or both of these two issues, we’re simply never going to get on and so should avoid wasting one another’s time and politely step back. Then of course there’s the one-way-street friend: the one who completely fails to make any contact throughout great times and bad, but who pops up once every 18-24 months to ask if you could tweet about their bullshit hipster teapot company <personalise to insert own spectacularly lame and shamelessly self-serving favour here>. Sometimes, it’s not even about them, but you. In my thirties, I made a fairly conscious decision to let go anyone with whom I felt I couldn’t be myself. Not their fault, all mine. But a deal breaker later in life, when you’re more likely to have worked out who you are and decided that’s OK. Life is simply too short for social role play.


When life becomes more complicated and laden with responsibility, a process of natural selection begins. Time becomes too precious to spend on those who just don’t matter.


Not only were my twenties spent tolerating these people but, even worse, hoping they’d like me. (This is also a crucial lesson learnt in your thirties: don’t waste time on people who don’t like you. Accept you’re not for them and know that’s fine. They are not your friend. Invest time and effort in people who like your style and make you feel good.) I now naturally assume that heaps of former mates merely tolerated me too, realising in their third decade that I just wasn’t their bag, or was guilty of some of the above, and should be shed like boa skin. The young me would mentally replay conversations I’d had, on a loop, desperately hoping I had come across as someone you might like as a pal, then invariably cringing when I realised I’d sounded like a bit of a berk.

I wish someone had told me the relentless self-doubt was a means to an end. The new research suggests that our twenties are a great time to cast the net widely and indiscriminately, because at no other point will we find it quite so easy to meet people and find our tribe. People in their twenties are less anchored to home, work and children, more able to try on people for size. When life becomes more complicated and laden with responsibility, a process of natural selection begins. Time becomes too precious to spend on those who just don’t matter.

Those left behind are so sturdy and of such extraordinarily high quality that, even in pared-down form, I feel unfeasibly fortunate to have any one of them, never mind a large handful. Like the friend who dropped everything to get on a train from London to a wedding full of strangers in Leeds, because I’d just been told I was getting divorced and having something of a nervo. The magazine editor who received the same tearful call and told me I was “family”, that she’d give me as little or as much work as I needed to see me through the dark times ahead. The friend who told me, quite categorically, that nothing bad was going to happen to me on his watch, and offered to pay all my legal expenses to stave off my own personal apocalypse. Not to mention the several friends who listen when I want to talk, and don’t take it personally when I don’t, who offer kindness, wise counsel, good jokes and great anecdotes, a quick glass of wine and a massive laugh about nothing at all. They are friends who become part of your DNA, for whom you’d do anything, and to whom you need no longer prove a thing. The bond is unequivocal, accepting, endlessly supportive and cheering. To face your forties with your elite squad all present and correct is to feel that not a moment’s build-up was wasted.

Picture: Getty
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