You might have hundreds of ‘friends’ on Facebook, but when it comes to real-life, how many are true friends? Just like any relationship, you’ve got to put in the work.
A 2019 study found that Australians have on average 3.3 ‘best friends’ at the core of our friendship circle.
The circle then extends out to those who are valued but not so close, with acquaintances on the outer edge. Some of us enjoy a large extended friendship group, while others like to spend time with one or a few close friends. Regardless of how many friends we have, what seems most important is that we feel a sense of belonging within a social network.
The depth of our friendships is more important than the number of names we could put on an invitation list.
Friends are essential for our health – and survival
Good friends share good times and bad, and even great adventures. They provide comfort, wellbeing and richness to our lives. But when it comes to our health and life’s challenges, friendship has other distinct advantages. Research shows that strong friendships promote health, enhance longevity, protect brain health as we age, fight disease and depression, and speed recovery from illnesses.
A 2005 longitudinal Australian study found that people with strong friendship circles are 22% more likely to live longer than those with fewer friends. Another study of 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that those with close friends were almost four times less likely to die of their illness than those without. A striking finding was that the amount of contact people had with their friends was not associated with survival – simply knowing they have friends is what influenced their will to live and see the next day.
The real risks of loneliness
In contrast, social isolation is associated with a 50% increased risk of dementia and an increased risk of premature death from all causes that can rival the risks of smoking, obesity and physical inactivity. It’s even suggested that the loss of social connections can result in feelings similar to physical pain.
Muhammad Ali once said, “Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.”
Here are ten ways to deepen your friendship circle.
1. Pay attention to reciprocity
The central principle of how to be a good friend is not complex. Most of us are familiar with The Golden Rule, found in most religions and cultures, which states that you should “treat others as you would like others to treat you”. Ralph Waldo Emerson captured this when he said, “The only way to have a friend is to be one”.
Being a friend requires decency, compassion and kindness. Reflect on the qualities you value in a friend and how you measure up to these in being a friend to others. Do you have expectations of friends that you wouldn’t want them to expect of you? Are you loyal? Do you give as much as you receive?
2. Dedicate time to nurturing your friendships
When life gets busy, it can be hard to find time to maintain the friendships we care about. But without time and nurturing, friendships fall away. How often do you initiate contact? Make an effort to connect with friends in simple ways that won’t deplete you or take too much time.
Share a simple meal, a coffee, a walk, a phone call or text asking how they are, anything that helps you stay in touch. Let them know they matter.
Remember to be aware of how many people you’re trying to dedicate time too as well. Spread yourself too thin, and you run the risk of having a wide but shallow circle of friends. Focus on only one or two people, and you can be left in the cold if a friend moves away or the relationship goes sour.
3. Listen and remember
The film producer, Ed Cunningham, said “Friends are those rare people who ask how we are and then wait to hear the answer.” How good are you at asking friends about their lives and really listening to them? Do you keep them in mind and remember to follow up on events they told you about last time you met? Good friendships call for an even exchange when it comes to talking about yourself and being a good listener.
4. Practise acceptance and forgiveness
Friendship is when people know all about you but like you anyway. None of our friends are perfect and neither are we. Good friendships are built on an acceptance, and even an appreciation, of each other’s imperfections.
Do you like your friends for who they are or are you critical of them? Can you forgive small human failures in service of the relationship’s greater good? Keep in mind there is a fine line between accepting imperfections or eccentricities and tolerating bad or toxic behaviour. If a friend leans more towards bad behaviour, it may be time to rethink the friendship. Don’t expect your friends to accept your bad behaviour forever either.
5. Value yourself
It takes courage to value ourselves in our friendships and know we deserve friends who are loyal, supportive and encouraging. Hard as it may be, there are times when we need to sort out ‘fake friends’ from true friends.
Be honest with yourself when you reflect on a friendship. Do you feel good after spending time together? Do you feel judged and put down? Do you give a lot and get back little? Perhaps they only ever talk about themselves? Have you grown apart in a real way? Do you remain out of obligation and habit? If the friendship is feeling one-sided and depleting, it may have run its course.
6. Show loyalty and care
Walter Winchell, a newspaper columnist, popularised the saying “A true friend is one who walks in when the rest of the world walks out.” We often find out who our true friends are when we have stressful or bad times in life. How good a friend are you when your friends have bad times?
7. Say thank you
Remember to thank friends for social occasions, meals they cooked, a good night out or the support they gave you during a bad time. Remember birthdays not just through Facebook reminders, but with a call, a get-together, a card or small gift. Let them know they matter.
8. Have fun together
It is fine to be vulnerable with friends and pour your heart out at times but there should always be a balance. Bring stimulation and fun to the relationship too.
9. Remember it’s not always about you
Try not to take things personally and beware of hypersensitivity. Sometimes friends really are busy or distracted and it is not all about you.
It’s not uncommon for those of us with low self-esteem to wonder at times why anyone would want to be our friend, but it’s important to keep this in perspective. Find ways to turn down the volume of your inner critic and lessen self-obsession. If your struggle with low self-esteem is getting in the way of your friendships, it might be time to get some outside help.
10. Consider getting professional support
A move to a new city or a change of life circumstances, such as a divorce or new job, can mean we need to build a new network. This can be hard to do even in the best of times, and even more so when feeling vulnerable and uncertain. Sometimes, seeing a coach or seeking other professional support can help you develop and maintain skills to ensure you are connected and valued within your networks.
Like any relationship, navigating its course safely, respectfully and responsibly, can be complicated. When wrestling with these issues, a neutral party like a counsellor can offer you some impartial guidance.