We think that just finding that right person will make us happy and fulfilled. But research shows that friends are actually even more important to our psychological welfare. Friends bring more happiness into our lives than virtually anything else.
Friendships have a huge impact on your mental health and happiness. Good friends relieve stress, provide comfort and joy, and prevent loneliness and isolation. Developing close friendships can also have a powerful impact on your physical health. Lack of social connection may pose as much of a risk as smoking, drinking too much, or leading a sedentary lifestyle. Friends are even tied to longevity. One Swedish study found that, along with physical activity, maintaining a rich network of friends can add significant years to your life.
But close friendships don’t just happen. Many of us struggle to meet people and develop quality connections. Whatever your age or circumstances, though, it’s never too late to make new friends, reconnect with old ones, and greatly improve your social life, emotional health, and overall well-being.
The benefits of friendships
While developing and maintaining friendships takes time and effort, healthy friendships can:
Improve your mood. Spending time with happy and positive friends can elevate your mood and boost your outlook.
Help you to reach your goals. Whether you’re trying to get fit, give up smoking, or otherwise improve your life, encouragement from a friend can really boost your willpower and increase your chances of success.
Reduce your stress and depression. Having an active social life can bolster your immune system and help reduce isolation, a major contributing factor to depression.
Support you through tough times. Even if it’s just having someone to share your problems with, friends can help you cope with serious illness, the loss of a job or loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or any other challenges in life.
Support you as you age. As you age, retirement, illness, and the death of loved ones can often leave you isolated. Knowing there are people you can turn to for company and support can provide purpose as you age and serve as a buffer against depression, disability, hardship and loss.
Boost your self-worth. Friendship is a two-way street, and the “give” side of the give-and-take contributes to your own sense of self-worth. Being there for your friends makes you feel needed and adds purpose to your life.
Know what to look for in a friend
A friend is someone you trust and with whom you share a deep level of understanding and communication. A good friend will:
- Show a genuine interest in what’s going on in your life, what you have to say, and how you think and feel.
- Accept you for who you are
- Listen to you attentively without judging you, telling you how to think or feel, or trying to change the subject.
- Feel comfortable sharing things about themselves with you
As friendship works both ways, a friend is also someone you feel comfortable supporting and accepting, and someone with whom you share a bond of trust and loyalty.
Focus on the way a friendship feels, not what it looks like
The most important quality in a friendship is the way the relationship makes you feel—not how it looks on paper, how alike you seem on the surface, or what others think. Ask yourself:
- Do I feel better after spending time with this person?
- Am I myself around this person?
- Do I feel secure, or do I feel like I have to watch what I say and do?
- Is the person supportive and am I treated with respect?
- Is this a person I can trust?
The bottom line: if the friendship feels good, it is good. But if a person tries to control you, criticizes you, abuses your generosity, or brings unwanted drama or negative influences into your life, it’s time to re-evaluate the friendship. A good friend does not require you to compromise your values, always agree with them, or disregard your own needs.
Tips for being more friendly and social
Focus on others, not yourself. The key to connecting to other people is by showing interest in them. When you’re truly interested in someone else’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, and opinions, it shows—and they’ll like you for it. You’ll make far more friends by showing your interest rather than trying to get people interested in you. If you’re not genuinely curious about the other person, then stop trying to connect.
Pay attention. Switch off your smart phone, avoid other distractions, and make an effort to truly listen to the other person. By paying close attention to what they say, do, and how they interact, you’ll quickly get to know them. Small efforts go a long way, such as remembering someone’s preferences, the stories they’ve told you, and what’s going on in their life.
For better friendships
Making a new friend is just the beginning of the journey. Friendships take time to form and even more time to deepen, so you need to nurture that new connection.
Be the friend that you would like to have. Treat your friend just as you want them to treat you. Always be reliable, thoughtful, trustworthy, and willing to share yourself and your time.
A good listener. Be prepared to listen to and support friends just as you want them to listen to and support you.
Give your friend space. Don’t be too clingy or needy. Everyone needs space to be alone or spend time with other people as well.
Don’t set too many rules and expectations. Instead, allow your friendship to evolve naturally. You’re both unique individuals so your friendship probably won’t develop exactly as you expect.
Be forgiving. No one is perfect and every friend will make mistakes. No friendship develops smoothly so when there’s a bump in the road, try to find a way to overcome the problem and move on. It will often deepen the bond between you.