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Grow friendship circle

'I have lost friends, some by death . . . others through sheer inability to cross the street.' --Virginia Woolf

Technology offers us more ways than ever to reach out and touch someone. As we emerge from the holiday whirl, January is a good time to reflect on the strength and depth of those interactions.

Start with your stack of Christmas cards. How many contain a significant or intimate note? How many simply are signed? Is this the only time of year you keep in touch?

Since when did our friendships get relegated to a holiday footnote? Despite the number of friends we have on, a 2006 study in the American Sociological Review suggests that we live lonelier, more isolated lives than two decades ago.

In 1985, the average American had three people in whom they could confide important matters. By 2004, that number dropped to two. One in four had no close confidants at all.

The study found a sharp drop in contacts through clubs and with neighbors. The number of people who count a neighbor as a confidant dropped by more than half, from about 19% to about 8%.

We rely more on our families. The percent of people who confide only in family increased to 80% from 57%; the number who depend totally on a spouse rose to 9% from 5%.

Total reliance on a spouse means that death or divorce topples your entire support system. Other studies show that men feel marriage reduces their need for friendship. This only is true for 50% of women.

The phenomenon of helicopter parents (those who use e-mail to hover over their college kids) may signal an emotional overreliance on family.

Research doesn't explain our shrinking circle of friends. But there are theories. More people live in the suburbs. People who work two jobs or commute long distances have less time to socialize or join groups.

Another factor may be the entertainment options enjoyed in the comfort of our homes: large-screen TVs, DVDs, and computers. Our time is fragmented. Our lives are fragmented. So are our friendships.

However, the study reveals regional differences. The upper Midwest --
including Nebraska, Minnesota, the Dakotas, Kansas, and Iowa -- has stronger social networks. This is true despite a high proportion of elderly and dual-income, commuter parents.

That's good news because sociologists and mental health experts say close relationships form a safety net. Research links social isolation and loneliness to mental and physical illness.

How much time is a best friend worth? California State University research reveals it's about 14 hours a week for 20-year-olds. By age 40 to 55, time with best friends drops to about three hours a week.

Many people unable to escape Hurricane Katrina didn't know anyone who could help. In rural areas, close relationships also provide a critical foundation to build community and civic participation.

Women spend more time with friends. But writer Virginia Woolf knew how life can interfere. "I've lost many friends, some to death . . . but others through sheer inability to cross the street," she wrote.

Join me in resolving to make time for friends, and let me know how it works out.

'I have lost friends, some by death . . . others through sheer inability to cross the street.' --Virginia Woolf

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