Friendships are powerful

Friendships are Powerful.
And Necessary.

We need to heed friendship’s power now more than ever. American families have never been smaller.

While a woman’s average number of children shrank slowly from 3.5 to two over 50 years, the average number of cousins a person has as plummeted from close to 20 to four. Because introductions to friends and society often come through families, shrinking families deplete all kinds of connections.

Small households everywhere mean, for instance, that we have fewer neighbors and fewer neighbors’ children for our kids to play with, or become lifelong friends with. People commute longer and stare at screen entertainment longer; both cut us off. Americans are more isolated than ever; one in four say they have no one to whom they could relate their worries or successes. Among those without a family member to confide in, half say they have no one. This all is not just sad, it’s dangerous.

We tend to take friendship for granted, to make it secondary to other demands on our time. It is, after all, precious in part because it is voluntary, free from the bonds that keep us pressed in other relationships. Even if individuals move in and out of our lives, however, we should not think of friendship itself as something easily jettisoned. The best life, it seems, demands that we think about and plan for friendships just as much as we plan around our family, our careers, money and where we live. New scholarship shows that friends are every bit as important to our health and well-being as family, romantic love and just about anything we deem central to our lives.

It turns out, for instance, that friendships share some the same life-changing qualities of great art. One theory in cognitive science holds that much of our personality builds from the qualities we first copy and then absorb from our friends. Smarter friends make us smarter; more social friends make us more outgoing; healthy friends make us more health conscious. Who they are becomes part of us.

What might happen if we made friendship as important a private and societal goal as family?

Recent findings suggest, too, that friends have life-sustaining practical benefits. It also appears that adults who socialize often with several good friends live longer than those with few friends who socialize less.

A main conclusion of the Grant Study at Harvard, which followed its subjects for 75 years, was that strong relationships are the most important ingredient to well-being over a long life.

What’s more, friendship alone is a kind of wealth. Kids who have close friends in school earn more later in life than those without. Adults who have a friend they see on most days add as much to a their overall well-being as making an extra $100,000 a year. Having a best friend at work likely makes you far more productive than colleagues who do not.

It turns out that friends, just as much as family, can give people the connection they need to stay happy and well.

We cannot determine how many siblings or cousins we have, but we can build lives rich in friendship. What might happen if we made friendship as important a private and societal goal as family? We could facilitate friendships with programs in schools, the places we work and worship and where we act as citizens. There are good models for this already. More personally, we can push friendship more to the center of our lives. There’s no guarantee that any one individual will become or remain one’s friend. What is clear is that staying social creates a garden of friends out of which can enjoy those that keep us healthier, smarter, happier and more.

While I was researching a book on aging, I traveled the world to interview older people. Occasionally, I talked to men and women nearing 90 or 100, and in the midst of nice conversation tears flowed down their cheeks. I asked why? I heard the same answer in Japanese, English and Spanish: “My friends are gone.” I think that late in life, they knew how much of themselves was shaped by friends, witnessed by friends and depended on friends.

Clinical and academic research continues to show how friendship — and its absence — steers the course of our lives. Yet we might not need mountains of science to design friendship deeper into our personal and public agendas. We can learn from people how the wisdom of the heart also produces compelling results.

– Ted C. Fishman

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