In the hierarchy of relationships, friendships are usually somewhere toward the bottom. Romantic partners, parents, children—all of these tend to come first.
This is true in life, and in science, where relationship research tends to focus on couples and families.
But our friendships are pretty unique relationships because unlike family relationships or working relationships, we choose to enter into these networks. And unlike other voluntary bonds, like marriages and romantic relationships, they lack a formal structure. You wouldn’t go months or even a year or two, without speaking to or seeing your significant other (hopefully), but you might go that long without contacting a friend.
Despite all of this, the smart people doing all the research and the surveys that all the peoples continue to do repeatedly show us just how important our friends are to our health and our emotional wellbeing.
The reality is the people who have close friendships appear to be happier.
In 2002, two pioneers of Positive Psychology, Ed Diener and Martin Seligman, conducted a study at the University of Illinois on the 10% of students with the highest scores recorded on a survey of personal happiness. They found that the most salient characteristics shared by students who were very happy and showed the fewest signs of depression were "their strong ties to friends and family and commitment to spending time with them."
But I was a University student once. And I reckon I was probably in that top 10%. My friends were without doubt my priority. I was very committed to them. And the shared experiences/regular binge drinking excursions with them. More so than anything else. My part-time job at Donut King. University. My liver.
As we get older though, we tend to have more demands on our time. Many of them more pressing than friendship. After all, it’s easier to put off catching up with a friend than it is to skip your kid’s recorder recital or an important business trip. Or in my case the other day, writing a grant application for work. The ideal of our expectations for friendship is always in tension with the reality of their lives.
William Rollins, Professor of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University has studied friendship for decades.
“The real bittersweet aspect is young adulthood begins with all this time for friendship, and friendship just having this exuberant, profound importance for figuring out who you are and what’s next,” Rawlins says. “And you find at the end of young adulthood, now you don’t have time for the very people who helped you make all these decisions.”
The time is poured, largely, into jobs and families. Not all of us couple up or have kids, but we’re all likely to have friendships affected by others’ couplings. “The largest drop-off in friends in the life course occurs when people get married,” Rawlins says. “And that’s kind of ironic, because at the [wedding], people invite both of their sets of friends, so it’s kind of this last wonderful and dramatic gathering of both people’s friends, but then it drops off. You find at the end of young adulthood, now you don’t have time for the very people who helped you make all these life decisions.”
In a set of interviews he did in 1994 with middle-aged Americans about their friendships, Rawlins wrote that, “an almost tangible irony permeated these adults' discussions of close or ‘real’ friendship.” They defined friendship as “being there” for each other, but reported that they rarely had time to spend with their most valued friends, whether because of circumstances, or through the age-old problem of good intentions and bad follow-through: “Friends who lived within striking distance of each other found that… scheduling opportunities to spend or share some time together was essential,” Rawlins writes. “Several mentioned, however, that these occasions often were talked about more than they were accomplished.”
But if you plot busyness across the life course, it makes a parabola. So for those of us who might be in this peak period of busyness now and our friendships may be at the bottom of the pile, we might have a bit more time later on. Once people retire and their kids have grown up, there seems to be more time for the shared living kind of friendship again. People tend to reconnect with old friends they’ve lost touch with. And it seems more urgent to spend time with them—according to socioemotional selectivity theory, toward the end of life, people begin prioritizing experiences that will make them happiest in the moment, including spending time with close friends and family.
But when there’s so many benefits to cultivating loving and meaningful relationships who wants to wait til then? Not I.
Like romantic relationships, sustaining and nurturing true friendships in the present requires time and effort. But the reality is that it’s well worth it, because having good friends can:
- Improve your mood. Spending time with happy and positive friends can elevate your mood and boost your outlook.
- Help you to reach your goals. Whether you're trying to get fit, give up smoking, or otherwise improve your life, encouragement from a friend can really boost your willpower and increase your chances of success.
- Reduce your stress and depression. Having an active social life can bolster your immune system and help reduce isolation, a major contributing factor for depression.
- Support you through tough times. Even if it's just having someone to share your problems with, friends can help you cope with serious illness, the loss of a job or loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or any other challenges in life.
- Support you as you age. As you age, retirement, illness, and the death of loved ones can often leave you isolated. Having people you can turn to for company and support can provide purpose as you age and be a buffer against depression, disability, hardship and loss.
- Boost your self-worth. Friendship is a two-way street, and the "give" side of the give-and-take contributes to your own sense of self-worth. Being there for your friends makes you feel needed and adds purpose to your life.
And just because you’ve been friends with someone since you were both in nappies, doesn’t mean they will be there forever either. Whether we hold onto these old friends or grow apart seems to come down to dedication and communication. In a longitudinal study of best friends, the number of months that friends reported being close in 1983 predicted whether they were still close in 2002, suggesting that the more you’ve invested in a friendship already, the more likely you are to keep it going. Other research has found that people need to feel like they are getting as much out of the friendship as they are putting in, and that that equity can predict a friendship’s continued success.
Technology has indeed shifted the definition of friendship, but the research vividly points out that our most important and powerful connections happen when we’re face-to-face. There is significant evidence that talking to people face-to-face, even via Skype, is much more satisfying than text, email and Facebook. This in itself isn’t surprising – as humans we respond to visual cues that can never be replaced by emoticons. So make it a priority to stay in touch in the real world, not just online.
Relationships are one of the biggest sources of happiness in our lives. Yes, we get busy and it’s so very easy to get caught up in our responsibilities and other relationships, but losing touch with the people we have chosen in our lives can be one of the most common end-of-life regrets. Let’s make an effort to stay connected and nurture our relationships. Because lovers may come and go, work may carry us half way around the world, but friendship tends to be a point of stability in an otherwise rapidly changing world.