The importance of keeping your friends close

In this introduction to friendship week, Laura Kennedy looks at how friendships often take a back seat to romantic or family relationships despite studies that show they are essential to health and happiness

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock

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Friendship week: From best mates to bromances - All week on irishtimes.com/life-and-style, we take a closer look at friendship

When Bob Marley said, “Everyone is going to hurt you, you just need to find the ones worth suffering for”, he might have come across as melodramatic, but he was expressing something important. By inviting people into our lives and showing them our vulnerabilities, we give them opportunities to harm us.

Unfortunately there is no way around it. If you want to forge good, lasting friendships, you have to put in work, take risks and occasionally look a bit silly. This week on the Life pages we take a close look at the relationships we have with friends and how they affect our lives.

A healthy pursuit

We spend years focusing on our relationships with partners, spouses and blood relatives. We agonise over relationships with siblings; when we feel they don’t appreciate or care for us, the relationship can become fractious and destructive.

From the moment our genitals give their first baffling tingle at the sight of an equally hormonal classmate, we spend our lives obsessing over prospective mates. So much so that single people must swim against the merciless tide of public belief that they have failed.

Whereas familial relationships can be tense or complex, friendships tend to be more straightforwardly rewarding. We overlook the concept of friendship for the most part, but we do so at our peril.

Self-awareness is essential to finding the right romantic relationship, and happiness in general, but it is easy to forget that this tool is just as important for choosing friends. Understanding ourselves makes us more likely to choose friends who will be a positive influence and improve our wellbeing.

It turns out that good friends are good for our health. A study published last year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences had interesting results. With every positive increase in social relationships, researchers in China and North America saw improvement “in specific physiological biomarkers such as blood pressure and body-mass index”. The largest positive effect was in people with a variety of relationships, such as friends, romantic partners and coworkers.

Help from Happify

Happify is a nifty, free iOS app that claims to train users to think positively through quick games, quizzes and activities. It asks you some questions about your life and aspirations, and then recommends “tracks” that you can follow to help improve those areas. The aim, ultimately, is to get people thinking more positively about the aspects of their lives they tend to feel negatively about. It includes some handy, common-sense tips for people who want to focus on forming and maintaining healthy friendships.

According to research collated by Happify, we average between seven and nine close friends for most of our lives, and people with strong social ties are 50 per cent less likely to die prematurely than those without them.

Working actively on social ties is not a priority for many of us, but perhaps it should be. Ensuring that we spend time with friends also ensures that we take time for ourselves, by creating a space in our lives that isn’t necessarily defined by work or family roles. It maintains independence and makes us happier. Ironically, friendships help us to define ourselves independently of our relationships with others.

Am I a good friend?

We generally end up with the friends we think we deserve, and severing bad friendships is difficult but doable. Toxic friendship is something to be wary of.

But how often do we stop to ask ourselves, “Am I a good friend?” Or ask ourselves whether the people we choose to spend our most precious finite resource (time) on are actually making our lives better. Integral to a good friendship is reciprocity.

In his book Answers for Aristotle: How Science and Philosophy Can Lead Us to a More Meaningful Life, Massimo Pigliucci explains Aristotle’s view on love and friendship. One of the three kinds of love Aristotle refers to is philia, the platonic love or affinity that exists between good friends. By his logic, friendship, unlike love, is always reciprocal. Without reciprocity, it is one person trying to please another, which is more akin to unrequited love or a crush than friendship.

Pigliucci writes: “Philosophers have pointed out that love is an evaluative attitude, while friendship is a relational one. It makes perfect sense that you could be in love with someone who doesn’t reciprocate your feeling, but it is incoherent to say that one has a nonreciprocal friendship.”

Friendships are a shared link between two people who value each other, and this is what makes close friends such a great support network. According to Aristotle, friends allow us to see the world from different perspectives, helping us to improve ourselves and ultimately become happier people. Same-gender friends are more likely to fulfil this role.

Gender differences

Unfortunately, there are not many comprehensive studies on friendships between adults; they mostly focus on childhood and adolescence. The available studies generally agree that the way we approach friendship is gendered. Whether that is inherent or socially incited, there is broad agreement in studies that men and women – on average – have different metrics forming the basis of their friendships.

Women enjoy dyadic friendships, investing a lot of time in one-on-one interactions with individuals and prioritising intimate disclosure.

Men generally prefer to make friends as part of a group scenario, and their friendships tend to be based around shared activities more than sharing intimate information. Often, men rely on romantic partners for intimate disclosure, and this can make them particularly vulnerable outside relationships. Society, on the whole, does not make this easy for men. When they do form close bonds with another man and spend time together outside a group, they can be subjected to jibes about “bromance”, suggesting that a close, one-on-one friendship between men is somehow feminine or to be discouraged.

And then there are always surprises: later this week, Patrick Freyne examines his own opposite-sex friendships which confound stereotypes. As he puts it, “Most of my male friends want to talk about their feelings, most of my female friends are thugs”.

Despite the differences between the genders, there are consistencies. Both men and women primarily choose friends of the same age and gender as themselves, and we tend to expect symmetrical reciprocity from our friends. In other words, regardless of gender, we recognise that time spent with friends should be more positive than negative, and we expect to feel cared about.

Very modern pitfalls

When we lack meaningful connections with friends, we can get lonely. Loneliness is one of the most debilitating contributing factors to mental-health issues. Although it is easier than ever to keep in touch with friends who live all over the world, the convenience of social media can make us lazy, making friendships easy to neglect until they are convenient for us. It is easy to cancel previously agreed plans with a text on the day, and it is less time-consuming to email a friend than to take the time to meet them somewhere.

Too much of this, however, is counterproductive and leaves us feeling undervalued and neglected. Taking the time to reconnect in person and do things together is essential to maintaining a bond. Maybe we should think of good friends more like spouses: if we consistently give them second best or neglect to spend time with them, the bond fizzles away.

Friendships need to be worked on. Make time to see your friends and, when you do, leave your phone in your pocket. After all, when your family life thrums with chaos or your primary relationship breaks down, your friends will be the ones you turn to for a sympathetic ear, to take your nonsense and to help you to see the good in yourself.

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