While much of our attention in relationships go to romantic or intimate relationships, there is strong evidence of the positive impact that friendships have on our wellbeing, mental health and even our longevity.
People who have friends are more likely (than those who say they do not) to be satisfied with their lives (a key indicator of emotional wellbeing) and they are less likely to suffer from lifestyle diseases such as cardiovascular disease (CVD) and diabetes and less likely to experiences mental ill-health.
Friendships provide a protective shield to our wellbeing – physically, emotionally and psychologically.
Friendships have this mediating effect on our wellbeing because of the way our bodies are connected to our senses, our brains and our emotions and because we are hard-wired for social connections.
Friendships can help us take in challenging tasks, even riskier ones, and they even help us co-regulate our emotions, motivation and sensory processing. They also help us buffer against the rollercoaster of life and provide a valuable resource to help reduce cortisol levels and overall stress levels.
On the other hand, when people are low in social connections because of isolation, loneliness or poor-quality relationships they face increased risk of premature death. A systematic review and meta-analysis of 90 cohort studies of social isolation, loneliness and mortality (including 2,205,199 individuals) published in the journal Nature (June, 2023) found that in the general population both social isolation and loneliness were significantly associated with an increased risk of all-cause mortality, including CVD and cancer.
In June 2023 the US Surgeon General warned that social isolation and loneliness now posed a greater health risk in the USA, than smoking a packet of cigarettes a day.
If friendships are so important to our wellbeing, why do so many people have trouble establishing and maintaining them, and why are so many people feeling so isolated and lonely?
While there are many factors at play including poverty, economic inequality, aging populations, the role of the internet, the capacity to work from home, the breakdown in community institutions and the trend toward individualism over collectivism in western societies, there are also psychological factors such as cognitive biases at play.
For example, many people find talking to strangers difficult or uncomfortable. However, research shows that talking with strangers is usually less difficult than we imagine and usually more satisfying than we predict and that most people enjoy having deep conversations with strangers rather than shallow ones.
As a society we undervalue so called “weak ties” with acquaintances or even strangers, yet these interactions have been shown in numerous studies to boost our mental health and wellbeing. People with more “weak ties” have been shown to be happier than those who have fewer.
Research (Sandstrom, 2023) has also shown that with practice, talking with strangers becomes easier and more enjoyable. These unplanned encounters enable us to learn and connect and give us a different perspective on life, others and importantly ourselves.
One of the more common cognitive biases around friendships is that it is harder to make fiends when you get older. But the principles for creating and maintaining friendships hold true at any stage of life. It takes effort and practice to make friends and takes different skills to maintain and deepen them.
Here are some simple suggestions on how we can make and maintain friendships.
- Assume you’re worthy
Negativity bias holds people back, meaning that people can begin looking for clues that they are not well liked when those clues may not be present or real. Instead, assume that people will like you and that you have something to offer in friendship. Immediately you will find that people are more responsive because our mindset impact our body, our emotions and the social engagement signals we give to others including our facial expressions and body language.
- Aim for substance and authenticity
Studies report high quality relationships have both depth and authenticity. Seek out friends with similar values, interests and attitudes. Companionship can be a great pre-cursor to friendships. But don’t be afraid of getting to a deeper emotional level in your conversations with friends. It’s likely you will both find it more satisfying and nurturing to the relationship.
- Make the time and effort
Relational effort is required for establishing and maintaining friendships. Just like with physical fitness if you don’t put in the work, you are unlikely to get the outcome. Even when you’re busy or tired make the extra effort to meet or contact a friend who you value, the pay-off will reward you both, physically, mentally and emotionally. Consistency is key, it is what you do regularly that sends the message about how we view the friendship. Rather than being about grand gestures, friendships are about the little things we can do for each other.
- Listen like you mean it
Friends value others who can genuinely listen, not those who just waiting to talk. Friends value others who respect equal time talking and listening. Friends value others who can listen non-judgementally and when required can give advice with empathy and compassion. In friendships, listening is caring.
- Have realistic expectations
No one is perfect so it makes no sense to expect that from our friends. It’s okay (in fact healthy) to disagree or to hold different world views. Instead of seeking perfection, we can seek consistency, reliability and honesty from our friends, even at times when it can be a little uncomfortable. Real friends aren’t afraid of telling us the truth, even at times, when we might not be ready to hear it. But real friends tell us the truth compassion and empathy, and they do it because they care not because it’s easy.
So, make a little more time for friends, and even strangers, it’s one of the best investments we can all make.
Steve Johnson is CEO of the Wellbeing Science Institute and author of the world’s first qualification for elite athlete wellbeing management.