Sharon Stephenson asks four Kiwis what the trick is to making friends post-40.
They met at a wedding, bonding over too many whiskey sours and a dislike of the venue, where the smell of burnt milk and hairspray hung in the air like bunting. It was an aroma that kickstarted their friendship.
"We were gagging for fresh air and went outside where we discovered we're both super-sensitive to smells," recalls Ben Scott (42) of how he met Daniel, a graphic designer.
They also discovered they'd gone to the same school (Wellington College), live near each other in Grey Lynn and share the same golf handicap.
Through a drunken haze, the pair saw the potential for a new friendship and traded numbers. Since last April, they've met up at least twice a week to do everything from train for a marathon to see live comedy.
"I moved to Auckland two years ago for my job," says Scott, a divorced public servant. "But most of the people I socialised with were either from my Wellington or London days. I don't have a partner or kids, so I haven't been hooked into those networks and most of my colleagues have their own established friendship groups. I've found it really hard to make friends here and I'm a reasonably outgoing guy."
Scott isn't alone. Experts say our friendship networks peak in our early 20s, followed by a steady decline as we move into our late 20s. A 2013 study revealed that making friends in our 30s and 40s is tough, because our airspace is often crowded with family, careers and home ownership. As we age, we also become more selective in who we spend time with, not only because of changing interests and tolerance levels but, after getting bruised by past hurts and disappoints, our shells naturally harden.
Toss in a more transient workforce and limited free time, and it's easy to see why you may not have added a new contact to your phone for some time.
"When you're an adult, commitments such as work and family don't allow for the same natural patterns that were second nature at school," says United States clinical psychologist Dr Andrea Bonior. "Your priorities change, with spouses, kids and challenging careers usually coming before friendships."
Almost two-thirds of Americans, for example, report they've lost at least 90 per cent of the friends they had 10 years ago. Read that again: 90 per cent. In your 30s and 40s, so the theory goes, plenty of new people enter your life through work, children's play dates and, of course, social media. But actual close friends – the kind you make at primary school, the kind you call when your partner cheats on you – those are in shorter supply. Even today, with the myriad ways there are to connect with others, one in four of us is apparently walking around with no friends to share our lives with.
But here's the thing: friendships aren't simply a nice-to-have, they're also associated with better health, happiness and well-being. A study at Utah's Brigham Young University showed that having fewer friends can be more dangerous than obesity and carries the equivalent health risk of smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Researchers concluded that people with a solid group of friends were 50 per cent more likely to survive at any given time than those without.
As Scott says, there's no getting around the fact the gears of daily life tend to run smoother when they're greased with friendships. "There's some theory that states having a close friend you see often can have the same impact on your well-being as making an extra $100,000 a year. I'm not sure if that's true but meeting Daniel has made a huge difference to my life. It's also made me more confident about going to Meetup events and putting myself out there – the more friends the better, as far as I'm concerned."
Sonia Greenslade uses words like "lucky" and "loyal" when describing her friends.
"I've had the same small group of friends since I moved to New Zealand 21 years ago," says the freelance fashion stylist/consultant.
This might seem unusual for someone who moves through a number of Auckland media circles but the Aussie import says aside from a period in her 20s and early 30s when she was "incredibly outgoing and sociable", she's happy with her compact friendship group.
"Every person in that group is like family. We've been through good and bad times and I cherish them all."
Greenslade (50) moved to New Zealand from Sydney in 1998 knowing only one person. "For a while I felt like a fish out of water."
She landed a gig doing wardrobe for Hercules and Xena but her team wasn't terribly friendly and, tired of catching stick for her Aussie accent, she quit after three months.
Greenslade was on the verge of going home but at her next job, Shortland Street, the god of friendship struck. "I loved my three-and-a-half years on that show. I met these amazing people who helped me feel more settled and are still part of my core group."
She didn't have a terribly robust friend-making template. As a child growing up in Tasmania, her parents were pretty strict on her and her older sister.
"I was the kid who wasn't allowed to go to camps, discos, sleepovers or the shopping mall. I often felt left out around other kids and didn't have many friends."
Post-40, Greenslade has sailed over those speed humps and is happy with the friends she's made. "I've never felt more comfortable in my own skin. That's why quality friendships are more important than having lots of friends. I love the fact that long-established friendships are as comfortable as a much-loved old cardie, that you don't have to work at them as much as new friendships but can sit in comfortable silence together."
Like most people, Greenslade has shed certain friends as she's aged. "Like others, I've outgrown friendships but I think that's a natural part of getting older. Good friends are hard to come by, so when you find them, don't let them go."
Something comes over Niki Schuck at a social event: she sees clusters of people she doesn't know, wonders who she can chat to, worries she doesn't have the bandwidth to chat to strangers.
Which is ironic, considering Schuck (50) is a woman in possession of her own PR firm and one of Auckland's fattest contact books.
"I love people but have always enjoyed my own company and gather energy by being by myself," says Schuck, between sips of green tea. "I've always found it difficult to go to events by myself and aren't confident walking up to a group I don't know and introducing myself, which of course I often have to do for work."
A nomadic personal life has thrown up the same challenges: Schuck moved from Dunedin to Christchurch to study, then to Fiordland where she taught economics and Invercargill to segue into PR. In 2002 she moved to Auckland to be with her now-husband Ed; the couple shifted to Waiheke in 2014.
"I found moving to Auckland really hard because the only people I knew here were Ed, his two children and a woman I'd played squash with in Dunedin in the 90s. Looking back, I actually think I was quite depressed and felt very isolated."
One day, about three years in, Schuck realised she wasn't meeting new people in her adopted home. "It's an island, so it was a bit odd I wasn't bumping into new faces."
She mentioned it to a friend, who felt the same, and they set up a not-for-profit group, W3 (Wonder Waiheke Women).
"It's about helping women meet, socialise and network, create a community and be inspired and educated. We both agreed there was a need to get women together and provide a platform for new associations and friendships to be formed."
At their first meeting in 2015, 25 women turned up. At monthly events over the past year, they've regularly had around 80-120 members attend dinners with speakers, walks, movie nights, even a fashion show with members moonlighting as models.
"We've got over 400 women on the database from their early 20s to women in their 80s, who often tell us the group has helped them make friends, get jobs and accommodation, even find babysitters."
Schuck believes women are hard-wired differently to men, seeking a greater connection via friendships. "W3 has shown us there's a real need for this kind of thing. As we get older there are so many demands on us, from work and family to ageing parents and our personal time can get squeezed. We might be fully connected on social media, but making those authentic, real-life friendships is so much harder. That's why this group works so well – it's a non-threatening platform where you can get to know people slowly and socially. I've made some lovely friends through it and even if I don't see them that often, it's given me a sense of belonging and community."
Don't ask Rachel Klaver to be part of a "girl gang" - it isn't in her skill set. Klaver (47) says she's tried to like nights out and weekends away with female friends but she just finds them stressful.
"Society tells women we're supposed to be like Sex and the City, with a group of girlfriends we spend evenings and weekends away with," says the mother of three teenage girls. "But I have a busy job with lots of travel, so after hours my natural tendency is to be a hermit. If I have a choice between socialising or hanging out alone or with my husband or daughters, I'm going to choose the latter."
Klaver runs a marketing agency close to the Hibiscus Coast home she bought with husband Rod Klaver three years ago. Friends, she admits, have never been in short supply.
"I've always had a lovely hodgepodge of friends and flitted between lots of different groups. I've just never been a BFF kind of girl."
But having spent much of her adult life moving – from Auckland to Hamilton, then Sydney, Rangiora, the North Shore and finally up the coast – some friendships have been hard-won.
"As a working, formerly single mum who moved around a lot, it's tough ducking in and out of other people's lives, especially those with long-established friendship groups. We were really struggling to meet people in Rangiora and this guy said to me, 'We really like you guys but don't have the room for any more friends.'"
Klaver once started a group, "Thursdays at Rachel's", where she would invite various different people to her house. "I love seeing people connect and it was a great way to socialise without having to get babysitters."
While social media can plug some friendship gaps, Klaver admits there's nothing like real interaction. "Last year I bumped into an old friend and commented we hadn't seen each other for six years. She said, 'But I see you on Facebook all the time,' which isn't the same. For me, real life interactions are more important than online ones."
A watershed moment came after Klaver's 40th birthday, when she realised she had neither the time nor the desire to proactively find new friends.
"Maybe it is about getting older, but I've finally accepted my life is happy and full as it is. I made a conscious decision to stop connecting with people as much online and expecting to make friends locally. I have a big bunch of people I'm connected to all over the show, but I only want a very small circle of friends, the sort who call me on stuff and who I trust completely. Do I need more friends in my life? Not at the moment."
HOW TO MAKE FRIENDS AFTER 40
• Find something you're passionate about – join a language class or volunteer at an animal shelter if you love animals. That's where you'll find people with similar interests and values.
• It just takes one leap of faith – you might be terrified but you'll never make new connections unless you try. Chances are the person you're chatting to feels the same as you.
• Ask people about themselves and listen carefully when they answer. A good listener is rare these days and can be the best passport to friendship there is.
• Don't expect too much from one person. As an adult, making a best friend may not be realistic. It's healthier and more fulfilling to have a variety of friends for different reasons and levels.