Friends are the family you choose. If you choose well, they provide the support and companionship you need. Humans are social animals; lack of interaction with others can lead to mental and physical illness. Pets offer unconditional love and companionship and you can tell them anything in confidence but they can’t replace the human aspect of friendship.
Quality Over Quantity…
The importance of a strong social network can be quantified through all stages of life. Adolescents, young adults, and seniors especially benefit from having close trusting friendships. (1, 2, 3) It’s the quality (not the quantity) of friendships that is important and the benefits can be quantified through observed health impacts. (4) Unfortunately, due to various societal factors, a study published in the American Sociological Review found that the number of people who reported having no confidants had tripled from 1985 to 2004. (5)
Constant pressures of everyday life often get in the way of maintaining healthy relationships of all kinds. Add to that the physical separateness of friends and it can become even more of a challenge to give those relationships the attention they deserve in order to flourish and grow.
How Friends in Texas are Ensuring their Lifelong Bonds
One group of friends in Texas values their relationships to such a great extent that they have built a community for themselves outside of Austin. Called the “Llano Exit Strategy”, these five friends hired a local architect to build five small, environmentally conscious, and sustainable buildings that make up the friends’ retirement community. There are four sleeping cabins plus a common kitchen and living area (with accommodations for guests) in their little village. (6) As one of the friends explains:
“Basically, we wanted a place where we could spend a ton of time together—eating and drinking and hanging out—but still have privacy and separation when people needed to get away from the gang…It [the media attention received from the building of the village] made us realize how many people really love the idea of having a dedicated place where you can spend time with your friends as you get older…Always be honest with your friends. If you can successfully navigate everyone’s ideas for what this can be, this kind of project can be an amazing experience and the perfect way to stay connected.” (7)
You have to be a friend to have a friend.
People tend to attract what they project, known as homophily. A study of friendships of depressed individuals found that their closest friendships were with people who were also depressed. (8) The opposite is also true: having a positive attitude attracts others with a similar demeanor; optimism has been linked with healthier lifestyles and strong social support networks. (9) Generally speaking, the structure and composition of your social network is an indicator of your health and wellness throughout your life. (10) In fact, an Australian study found that for seniors over the age of seventy, enjoying close friendships increases life expectancy, whereas family relationships are not as impactful. (11)
Here are three tips to forge and maintain healthy, lifelong friendships:
1. Be honest with yourself and others.
You must be true to yourself to be honest with others. Internalizing your emotions—whether to avoid facing unpleasantness in yourself or potential conflict with others—doesn’t help you to be a good friend.
Honesty is at the root of every healthy relationship because it forms the foundation of trust. Lying or withholding can foster resentment and overall negativity; if you don’t want these in a friend, the concept of homophily suggests you shouldn’t engage in the behavior yourself. You can be honest, respectful, and tactful at the same time:
“Focusing on honesty (but not kindness or communication-consciousness) is more pleasurable, socially connecting, and does less relational harm than individuals expect.” (12)
2. Work through disagreements together.
Good friends know each other’s likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. You know how to both lift a friend when she’s down and cause emotional harm with pointed words. Disagreements and arguments between people occur in every relationship; the way these are handled will determine the long-term effects and quality of your friendship.
Talk through issues rather than avoiding them. Step away in moments of anger or frustration to resume a lucid discussion when tempers have subsided. Apologize when it’s indicated (sometimes even if it’s not) and practice forgiveness. Don’t play emotional “chicken” and wait for the other person to take the first step toward reconciliation; time wasted due to ego constraints is never recovered. Proactive forthrightness will reinforce the basis of trust between you. And remember that the only person you can change is yourself.
“Life becomes easier when you learn to accept the apology you never got.” – Robert Brault
3. Exercise compassion.
We often take those closest to us for granted. Manage your expectations of others and remind yourself that they are individuals with their own needs, desires, and limitations. Demonstrate the same understanding, thoughtfulness, and kindness you want them to show you. Apart from the basic survival instinct, as humans we are naturally wired to experience satisfaction and achieve happiness when we give to others. (13)
Friends made at any age can become friends for life if you are both willing to practice the relative ease of cooperation, consideration, and care. All of us need friends throughout our lives and their loss can be a source of regret. It’s never too late to begin a new friendship or repair a broken one.