There’s no doubt about it:
everyone needs friends. But when so many of us now live miles from our families – or even on different continents – friends are perhaps more important than they have ever been before. Perhaps it’s this fact that sparked the relatively recent surge in research into friendship – prior to the 1980s, most research into relationships focused around the romantic and sexual. What’s now recently come to light is that besides the obvious benefits – companionship, emotional support and practical help – friends have a previously little-known function. They are good, perhaps even vital, for our health.
In a 2010 analysis of 148 studies comprising more than 308,000 people, psychologists from Brigham Young University, USA, found that people with good social connections tend to live longer, and they concluded that having weak social connections is as risky to health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Loneliness has also been linked with depression and an increase in blood pressure.
Professor Suzanne Degges-White, chair of the Counseling, Adult and Higher Education Department at Northern Illinois University, USA, who has written several books on the subject, extols the many benefits of friends. “Friends boost our self-esteem and give meaning to our lives. They make us feel that we matter. Knowing we have good friends, people who understand us, is life-enhancing,” she says.
In fact, the very presence of a friend can make challenges seem less daunting. This was apparent in a study in which participants were asked to stand in front of a hill, either alone or alongside a friend, and to estimate how steep it seemed. Those with a friend at their side thought the hill was less steep than those who stood alone.
Not surprisingly, friendships have slightly different functions at different life stages. “In our teens and early adult life, we’re forging our identities so we use our friends as mirrors,” explains Professor Degges-White. “However, as we get older, we become more comfortable in our own skin so we don’t need friends who are just like us. We can enjoy having friends of different ages, with different tastes, interests and perspectives.”
Life-stage transitions such as starting or leaving college, moving to a new job or area, having children and retiring also trigger changes in friendships. “After becoming a parent, for instance, your priorities change and you may want to spend more time with other new parents who understand your priorities better than your childless friends,” she adds.
According to Professor Degges-White, there are two main types of friendship: those forged from shared values, and ‘convenience friends’ – those you may see often, for instance at the school gates, but with whom you don’t necessarily have a great deal in common.
“The convenience friendships usually fade as soon as the practical need for them disappears – for instance, when your children have grown up and you no longer need to carpool,” she explains. “This isn’t necessarily bad. If those friendships are not based on real connection but we need them for practical reasons, we may tolerate behaviour we wouldn’t normally accept.”
5 ways to make and keep friends
- Don’t assume other people aren’t looking for friends. They may have just moved to a new area, have recently retired or may be newly single.
- Friendships are often borne from shared interests, so join a local group such as a chess or golf club.
- Reach out to someone you see often who seems friendly. Suggest something casual first, like going for a coffee.
- Share but don’t over-share. To build trust and understanding, a certain amount of mutual personal disclosure is necessary. But go slowly – too much too fast can make you seem needy, or you may divulge something you later regret.
- Use social media. It’s a great way to track down old friends you’ve lost touch with. You never know, they may now live nearer to you than you thought. Even if distance is a factor, email and video chats make it easier to stay in touch than ever before.
Does hearing loss threaten friendships?
While true friends are unlikely to disappear totally, a hearing problem can interfere with verbal communication – an important part of maintaining friendships. It can also make taking part in group conversations or going to restaurants or other venues with background noise difficult.
A 2012 study on more than 800 people in Australia found that hearing-impaired adults aged 55 or over were significantly more likely to feel embarrassed, avoid social engagements and show depressive symptoms than those with no hearing problem.
Which friendships last?
The friendships that sustain are those that are based upon shared core values. These may be old friends with whom we have a strong emotional history. We may not necessarily see them very often but we never stop thinking of them as our friends.
Besides similar values, several factors are needed for friendship to last. “You need a mutual understanding, trust and no envy or jealousy. True friends will support you through the bad times and be genuinely happy when things go your way. True friends also accept your flaws and won’t undermine you. If you always feel low or emotionally drained after meeting a certain person, that could be a sign that it isn’t a healthy friendship,” warns Professor Degges-White.
Worryingly, studies suggest that the number of friends we have tends to shrink in the last third of our lives due to a whole range of factors including death, retirement, diminishing physical mobility and relocation. However, with a little effort, it is always possible to make new friends at any stage of life.