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.
This article was originally written for Body & Soul.
Studies show most of us have three to five genuine friends at the core of our friendship circle, surrounded by maybe ten close friends. 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 intimate 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.
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 distinct advantages. Research shows that strong friendships promote health, enhance longevity, protect brain health as we age, fight disease and depression, and speed recovery.
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.
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 is 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.”
How do we deepen and revitalise our friendship circle?
The central principle of how to be a good friend is not complex. Most of us are familiar with The Golden Rule, an ethic of reciprocity found in most religions and cultures, “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”. To be a friend calls on 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. Time and nurturing
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. Spread yourself too thin and you run the risk of having a wide shallow circle of friends. Focus on one or two and you can be left in the cold if a friend moves away or the relationship goes sour. 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.
3. Listening and remembering
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. 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 greater good of the relationship? Keep in mind there is a fine line between accepting imperfections or eccentricities and tolerating bad 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 either.
5. Value yourself
Oprah Winfrey urges us to “Surround yourself only with people who are going to lift you higher”. 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?
6. 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. Manners and appreciation go a long way
Remember to thank friends for social occasions, meals they cooked, a good night out or the support they gave 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. Fun and stimulation
It is fine to be vulnerable with friends and pour your heart out at times but there is always a balance. Bring stimulation and fun to the relationship too.
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 is not uncommon for those of us with low self-esteem to wonder at times why anyone would want to be our friend, but it is 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.
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 building in a coach or other professional support to boost the direction you want to go can help you develop and maintain the 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 such issues, a neutral party like a counsellor can offer impartial guidance.