The Value of Friendship 'February 2008
Why is it so important for people to nurture friendships?
Having friends is good for you!
In study after study, researchers have found that people who have strong social relationships live longer--and happier—lives. Studies have found that people with narrower social networks are more likely to have a heart attack--and to die afterward--while people with more social contacts are less likely to suffer cognitive decline.
Surprisingly, even spending time with an intimate partner doesn't provide the same health benefits as friendship. Researchers haven’t figured out exactly how, but friends boost your immune system.
What characterizes friendships?
Friends are often those who cross paths with regularity; our friends tend to be coworkers, classmates, and people we run into at the gym. Best friends are often part of the same crowd.
Self-disclosure characterizes the moment when a pair leaves the realm of buddyhood for the rarefied zone of true friendship. In the early stages of friendship, this tends to be a gradual, reciprocal process. One person takes the risk of disclosing personal information and then 'tests' whether the other reciprocates.
Once a friendship is established through self-disclosure and reciprocity, the glue that binds is intimacy. People need to be emotionally expressive and offer unconditional support. In friendships, trust and loyalty are very important. True friends boost our self-esteem and make us feel better about ourselves.
Our friends are there for us through thick and thin, but the best friends know when to keep their mouths shut. People may start to steer away from a friend who always seems to know what's right for you and makes sure you know it in no uncertain terms. A dose of discretion is important in friendships.
Unlike with family, friendship is optional, so the bond tends to be even stronger. If we are not getting our needs met by a friend, we end the friendship. So those friendships that last across decades are the real strong ones.
Are friendships between women different from those between men?
Women tend to have more close friends and more regular contact with them than men do. Sometimes it's hard for men to allow themselves to get too close to another man because there is often a competitive element in men's relationships that inject a dose of distance. Some men worry that the wish for a close friendship will be misinterpreted as homosexual advances.
Both men and women need friendship but approach it differently. Women tend to engage in "face-to-face" interactions, in which they meet specifically to talk, often about personal concerns. Men tend to favor "side-by-side" relationships, in which conversation, which may be casual, occurs in the course of participating in a common activity.
Joining groups that pursue hobbies and interests similar to your own takes some of the self-consciousness out of friend seeking and provides a pool of like-minded people to befriend.
Can men and women be friends?
Men and women can definitely develop close friendships but there are some hurdles that have to be got over first. The first is one of definition – it has to be clear that this is a platonic friendship and not a bid for something more romantic. Once the friendship is formed, other friends and relatives may put pressure on it, making an assumption that men and women can't be just friends. And sometimes those cross-gender friendships get derailed when one of them starts to have romantic feelings for the other.
I know that many men seek out friendships with women because they provide more emotional support – it's often easier for a man to talk about intimate things with a woman friend then with a male friend.
How can a person be a good friend?
1) Spend time together. You need to keep in contact on a regular basis. Even friendships with people who live in other cities can be very successful if you remember to check in when important things are happening in that person's life.
2) Make friends a priority. We are all always so busy that it's easy to think that something else is more important and put the friendship last. It sometimes helps to make dates well in advance and make sure not to cancel.
3) Have the courage to be there for the good and bad. We need to be involved in the whole nine yards – not just the good times. We turn to friends when we're suffering and we have to be there for our friends when they needs. Sometimes just being an ear is enough.
4) Don’t keep score. Some people are more organized and better at keeping in touch. It doesn't mean that your friend doesn't care if they are not so good at that. It's okay if one of you takes the role of social secretary and makes sure that you get together.
5) Focus on the positive. It's easy to get your feelings hurt from time to time, but then it's important to address that with a friend and try to work it out. To be a good friend, forget about the things you wish were different.