You’ve Got To Have Friends

I recently had an appointment with a physical therapist. As part of the intake process, she said she would do a social assessment about me. That consisted of asking about who resides with me, my marital status, number and ages of my children. It felt as though something was missing. Why weren’t questions about friends and social connections part of the assessment?

After all, data shows that friendship is correlated with health, well-being and cognitive aptitude. For example, people with close chums are two to three times more likely to survive heart attacks and major surgery than those without. Close relationships correlate with stronger immunity. Having at least six close friends can significantly decrease diagnoses of diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and mortality rates.

The benefits of friendship extend beyond physical health. Studies show that individuals with active social networks handle stress better and feel happier when spending time with friends than alone or with family members. When college students were asked what gave their life meaning, nearly all mentioned friends — more than family, religion or career.

How do friends affect health and well-being? First, companions provide emotional assistance. They can be confidants who bolster feelings of connection, providing sounding boards and hope. Second, they can offer instrumental help for those experiencing set-backs by running errands, providing monetary assistance, and helping with meals and childcare. Third, they can serve as sources of information, providing knowledge, lessons from their own experiences, and referrals to other experts. Just the mere association and interactions with friends can decrease stress levels. As the saying goes “A burden shared is a burden halved.”

Friends can increase our feelings of mattering — that we are significant and count in the world. They value us and help clarify our senses of self. Close pals can aid with personal development through appreciation, advice, compassion and encouragement.

Tips for Nurturing Friendships

Make a point to spend time together. Talking and participating in activities are valuable means of maintaining friendly relationships. Some friendships, particularly among women, are talk-based, sharing the narrative of experiences, expressing and getting support for the frustrations, successes and ironies of daily life. Others are more activity-based, such as attending sports matches, socializing in larger groups, partaking in cultural events or pursuing common interests like working out, playing card or board games, shopping and knitting. Like plants that need watering, friendships need time and attention to thrive. So if you haven’t been in touch with a good friend lately, pick up the phone or e-mail and make personal contact.

Be present. In this age of texting, tweeting, IM-ing and other constant distractions, it can be difficult to focus on one conversation at a time. Although people often think they can multi-task, our brains cannot process several different higher-level stimuli simultaneously. Solid relationships are built on attentiveness. Genuine listening can take effort and discipline. When a friend is speaking with you, the most considerate thing you can do is give them your undivided attention. Unless you are researching or interacting with another party as part of the discussion, aim to put your electronics aside and concentrate on being with those in proximity.

Respect and value what your friend has confided in you. In this age of social media and high levels of sharing, it’s important to remember that people differ regarding how much personal information they like to broadcast and what they want to keep private. If a friend reveals something in confidence, it’s vital to honor that and respect their right to privacy. Let them decide who should know the intimate details of their lives, even if it is something you would openly share about yourself. Think twice about reiterating to another party something a friend has told you about him or herself.

Cultivate sensitivity to maintain trust. Similarly, it’s important to refrain from raising sensitive matters that your friend has revealed in a way that may hurt him or her. Maintaining confidence includes trusting that our friends will value the sensitivity of the matter at hand. In times of anger, it can be tempting to remind buddies of the mistakes they disclosed and remind them of their weaknesses and foibles. Doing so can violate the trust they have placed in you to respect the sensitivity of their concern, and breaches in trust are among the top threats to friendships.

Honor your friend's dreams. Even if they seem far-fetched or unattainable to you, respect your friend’s hopes. We are typically drawn to people because they are similar to us or because we share mutual tastes and values. At the same time, no two people are clones, and you will likely run into some variations in priorities and choices. So if a friend has a goal you find foolish or difficult to understand, respect that this is important to them. Do they want to become a professional chef? Sing the national anthem at a sporting event? Learn ventriloquism? Go to the North Pole? As long as it doesn’t fly in the face of justice or safety, respect your friend’s hopes and wishes. People who truly care about us will endorse our dreams, even while we have our doubts.

Friendships are precious gifts. Like many delicate treasures, building and preserving them takes effort. While we have many demands on our time and energy, it's important to cherish and consciously tend to our friendships, as we would tend to our own well-being. The benefits may be even more valuable.

Dr. Miriam Rosalyn Diamond teaches the Psychology of Friendship, Organizational Psychology and the Psychology of Adult Life at Boston University and conducts adult education classes and workshops around the country on a variety of topics. She can be reached at