Our connection to people is one of the most important qualities contributing to our well-being. The better and deeper our relationships are, the better our lives are emotionally, mentally, physically, and by just about every other metric. Lots of ink and electrons are spent exploring romantic relationships ("10 Ways to Keep Her/Him Forever") and family relationships like parenting. But despite friend becoming a verb (to friend, will friend, have friended, and even, am unfriending!), there is relatively little attention given to what it takes to create and maintain good friendships. In the spirit of sharing the love Valentine's Day inspires, we invite you to take a few minutes to consider your friends.
5? 15? 50? 150? 500? According to the research, ideally we need 2 to 5 close friends. Close friends are those people we can call upon at anytime for sharing, asking for help, commiserating, and celebrating. You name it, they are there. Sadly, the number of people in the U.S. who report having these types of friendships has been declining since 1985. Now the average number of friends is down from four to two, and one in four people report no close friendships at all.
At the upper end we have the potential to be friends with up to 150 people. These are the people with whom we would enjoyably engage in a personal conversation whenever we met them. It is difficult for us to track more than 150 people because of the way our brains are wired. We have neither the quality of attention nor the quantity of time to really focus on more people than that. As a result, the strength of our connections diminishes with the more friendships we try to maintain above 150. (You can keep this in mind next time you need to limit your party guest list!)
Note to Facebook: Friendships only grow in real time when we are face–to–face with one another. Social networking of all types (phone, text, websites, etc.) can prevent friendships from decaying when we are apart, and they can also help connect us with new people with whom we may want to develop relationships, like affinity and dating networks. But 500 hundred friends on Facebook does not well being make.
In addition, we need time to be friends, and big chunks of it. Finding ways to get together regularly—be it several times a week on the frequent side or every month on the less frequent side—is vital to maintaining our friendships. One way to create this time is to include each other in the activities of our lives. Instead of taking time out of our lives to be friends, we can look for ways to include our friends in the activities of our lives as we cook, garden, maintain our homes, repair cars, exercise, etc.
In addition to sharing the activities of life, our friendships benefit from sharing good times, especially those that involve laughing, dancing, singing, and generally having fun. These types of endorphin–triggering experiences are the signals our brains need to further bond with the people around us. We may go into an enjoyable event as individuals, but we come out of it as happy friends. The more frequently this happens, the stronger our connections.
One of the beauties of friendships is that they help us connect more deeply with our hearts in ways that may not always be possible with family and romantic partners. We can find ourselves exploring what is in our hearts beyond what we share with those closely related to us, and, just as importantly, we learn to listen to what is in the hearts of others. We can discover the different ways our friends need support and how to benefit from the support they can offer us. It is essential that we find ways to communicate from this deep place in a way that our friends can receive it. According to Gary Chapman in The Five Love Languages we each have specific preferences for how we interpret and express love: words of affirmation, quality time, receiving gifts, acts of service, or physical touch. While originally written with intimate relationships in mind, Chapman later wrote a version for all types of relationships, called The Five Love Languages Singles Edition.
As wonderful as technology is at keeping us connected in certain ways, we still need physical touch to feel good. Studies, backed up by a fair degree of personal research, indicate that the more hugs we get, the better we feel. Finding ways that we can appropriately and comfortably reach out and touch our friends is one of those win–win strategies in life that is worth cultivating beginning today.
Now, who needs a hug?
Choose one or two ways you want to invest in your friendships. This is a great thing to talk over with your friends. You could ask, "What would you like from me as your friend?" while letting them know what you enjoy about being their friend.
Beth and Eric
This monthly slow essay is from Beth Meredith & Eric Storm of Create The Good Life.
Please pass this along to other interested people. Your feedback is much appreciated.
If you find our work useful or inspiring, consider making a gift via PayPal.