22 Jul 2020

The Power of Friendship

Good friends do us a power of good. We know they are important so why do we struggle to make time for friends in our busy lives? 

Friendships develop from the individual connections we weave over a lifetime. 

Friends make us healthier especially when they encourage good habits, like going for regular walks or bike rides together. The best friendships make us feel valued and are reciprocated. These are the friendships we can rely on in times of need.

Sometimes we have ambivalent relationships and mixed emotions with friends, family or colleagues. The unpredictable nature of ambivalent relationships can do more harm than good. 

It turns out that having diversity in our relationships is good for our health. For example, people with a variety of social ties are less susceptible to common colds.

Some of us have ‘forever friends’ who we stay connected to for a lifetime. Often our closest friends live nearby, we see them regularly and they are of a similar age. 

By contrast, people who are open to new experiences tend to have friends located further away, who are younger and/or older and who they see less often but are still close to.   

At different life stages we have shifts in our friendships. During our twenties it’s easy to meet new people. In our thirties and forties marriage, families, jobs and relocations often get in the way. 

In midlife and beyond, when we have more time, it can be harder to make new friends, especially after moving to a new place or when families have moved away.

Research by Sarah Matthews at Cleveland State University in the US identified three distinct individual styles of friendship: independent, discerning and acquisitive.

An independent style of friendship is used by individuals who are more self-sufficient and content to socialise in a casual way. This is the least common friendship style. 

A discerning friendship style is evident for individuals who are deeply connected to a few close friends with long-lasting relationships, which are harder to establish later in life. This is the most common friendship style.

An acquisitive friendship style is used by individuals who collect a variety of friends as they transition through different life stages. These individuals are open to meeting new people, and keep up old relationships too.

Professor Robin Dunbar (University of Oxford, U.K.) has studied the dynamics of friendship. His work on friendship circles suggests that most of us have up to five people in our closest inner circle, which usually includes a partner and/or family members. These are the ones we rely for support and important matters.

Apart from our closest inner circle, Dunbar talks about outer circles of friends who are important and contribute to our sense of belonging.  These weaker ties to co-workers, friends of friends and neighbours connect us with useful information and ideas. 

Proximity matters. Face to face interaction is important for cultivating and maintaining relationships.

Increasingly, digital communication provides another way of connecting with friends. People with strong social networks offline add to them online. Social media plays an important role for connecting older and younger generations. Platforms like Zoom and Facebook can help revive dormant relationships. 

The Goldilocks hypothesis (Dr Andrew Przybylski, University of Oxford), talks about just the right level of engagement with digital technology. Thanks to technology, some friendships never die – especially when we keep the same mobile number, email address and social media presence.

As we get older our friendships can become more important and having a partner less so. We also spend more time with the people we really care about (including partners) – choosing quality over quantity.

Close friendships can help us deal with the challenges of getting older, even making physical pain bearable. Retirees who value and nurture their relationships and actively work to replace co-workers with new friends are happier in later life. 

Friendship is critical to our ability to succeed and thrive. More socially integrated people live longer than those who are less well connected.

This all suggests a few things to ponder as we make transitions in our lives:

- Good friends keep us healthier and happier. Proximity matters too.

- Making time for friends is just as important as exercising. Why not combine the two?

- Be open to making new friends as circumstances can change. 

Based on: “Friendship – the Evolution, Biology and Extraordinary Power of Life’s Fundamental Bond” by Lydia Denworth

Mary
Author

Mary Somervell

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