Back in grade school, making new friends seemed so easy. All you needed was a few shared hobbies and values, and maybe a couple laughs on the playground, and an unbreakable bond would be forged.
Friendship is no less important later in life; all manner of difficult experiences and awkward changes are easier to bear with a good friend. In fact, a nationwide study revealed that 94% of adolescents see their friends almost every day, while 91% of adults over 65 do the same.
But aside from the obvious, let’s take a look at the physical and emotional benefits of friendship.
Benefits of Friendship
Spending time with friends is deeply gratifying for most people, and it carries some surprising side effects: not only does it improve your mood and self-esteem, it also reduces stress and lowers your risk for terminal illness!
Maintaining friendships can be hard during those middle years when work and family often take higher priority – but for a longer, happier, more fulfilling life, it’s certainly worth the effort.
Friendship is an excellent prescription for all kinds of physical and emotional pain. The Mayo Clinic reports that friendship can “increase your sense of belonging and purpose, boost your happiness, reduce stress, improve your self-worth, [and] help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one.1”
It’s no surprise, then, that most people greatly value their friends, and often turn to them first in times of crisis, even before spouses or relatives.
The emotional health perks we receive from our friends can also impact our physical health. According to Harvard Health Publications, “social connections help relieve harmful levels of stress, which can harm the heart’s arteries, gut function, insulin regulation, and the immune system”; friends can also strengthen our immune systems and motivate us to recover from a debilitating injury.
Simply put, “good friends are good for your health.”
What Makes a “Friend”?
What do most people look for in a friend? Typically, the answer is “themselves.”
Our closest friends tend to have many interests and experiences in common with us. Additionally, most people choose friends of the same age, sex, and marital status. North Carolina State University explains that “some people maintain friendships with the opposite sex, but differing interests and overtones of sexuality make this sort of friendship complicated… [meanwhile], a married couple is probably going to have other ‘couple friends’ rather than separate or single friends.”
These preferences demonstrate the unique relationship that we have with our friends. Friends, along with our romantic partners, are among the few significant others that we choose ourselves. The bonds we share are “voluntary, enjoyable to both, and each person is free to make the relationship more or less intense.”
As a result, friendships are generally less complicated and difficult to maintain than other relationships, though they can be just as rewarding.
While the benefits of friendships come naturally, friendship usually does not. It can be difficult to find people with similar interests and values; this is especially true during adulthood when responsibilities like career, education, and family care severely limit your social life.
Moving to a new city can also make finding friends difficult, and many people have trouble relating to old friends due to changes in their interests or lifestyle. But today, friends have a number of ways to meet and keep in touch; websites and applications like Facebook and Skype all allow friends to communicate easily even if they’re miles apart.
How to Build New Friendships
So how can you build new friendships?
The Mayo Clinic suggests starting conversations with someone from your workplace, school, church, gym, or volunteer project; if you frequent many of the same places, it’s likely that you have quite a lot in common.
Inviting an acquaintance to lunch or even just an afternoon coffee is a good way to learn more about them without making things uncomfortable (after all, everyone’s got to eat, right?) Likewise, chat rooms and social networking sites help many adults to make friends without the occasional awkwardness of face-to-face conversation; this should not, however, be used as a long term solution, as “[the] use of social networking sites doesn’t necessarily translate to a larger offline network or closer offline relationships with network members.”
Friendship is one of the most highly valued and rewarding parts of life. Close friends improve our outlook on life and our general well-being, making any unpleasant experience much easier to bear. The connections we form with our friends are also quite strong, offering reliable support that nothing else quite matches.
Though friendship is important throughout our entire lives, adults often have difficulty making time to socialize and share their interests. Fortunately, people can meet new friends in unexpected places, and long-lasting bonds can form from seemingly simple activities. Even without the surprising health perks of friendship, a life without close companions would only be half-lived.
- “Friendships: Enrich Your Life and Improve Your Health.” Mayo Clinic. 16 April 2011. www.mayoclinic.com.
- “The Health Benefits of Strong Friendship.” Harvard Health Publications. December 2010. www.health.harvard.edu.
- Matthews, D. Wayne. “The Magic of Friendship.” North Carolina State University. August 1995. www.ces.ncsu.edu.
Photo by Juliana Coutinho
Originally published 9/12/12 and updated 5/15/14