April 11, 2020

The Power of Friendship

Humans are social beings. For the most part, we crave the company of others. Not all the time and not in all situations. There are people who require a great deal of solitude and who may prefer to be alone much of the time but if they are well balanced and healthy, they will still need companionship and closeness some of the time.  Not all animals are social. There is much variety in the animal kingdom although primates, in general, do depend on a social structure. Our tendency is for pair bonding as well. Most people mate or would prefer to. Even those prone to infidelity and multiple sex partners are usually distressed if they lose their primary relationship.

Extensive Social Networks Predict Health and Longevity

Research shows that the degree of social connectedness is related to our physical and mental health as well as likelihood of living longer. This isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality. One does not need to have lots and lots of friends or extensive social memberships. The most valuable relationships are those that are intimate. I am not speaking of sexuality specifically, but of an intimate connection; the people who know you well, to whom you can confide and those who know and care about the difficulties you face as well as sharing pleasurable activities. A mate and life partner can be critical to our happiness but death and divorce can cause us to lose even the best of these relationships and it is those who do not have close friends who fare the worst after a loss of a mate.

Studies of grief and loss shows that those who recover and move forward the best are those who have a support network. A family or friendship network that already exists can be wonderful but even groups of strangers sharing their loss prove to be remarkably beneficial. That is why grief support groups or spousal support groups have become so common at extended care facility and through hospice programs.

Loss and pain are part of life. If we live long enough we will endure some crisis of loss in our life-loss of a job, loss of health, loss of a beloved family member, loss through divorce.  It is our friends and those who love us who help us through those times.

Urban Mobility and Reduced Social Connection

For much of human history, people lived in small groups that they never left. You were born and died with the same group of extended family and villagers. Nomadic tribes moved around-but they moved as a group! Privacy was much less available and many would view that lifestyle as too much connection. There are still people who live in poor countries or rural area of this country who are unlikely to ever leave their original social group. But humans are increasingly urbanized.  Ever since the industrial revolution people have moved from small  towns to cities in search of economic opportunity. While we derive many benefits from technology and an industrialized world, our increased geographic mobility makes it harder and harder to maintain social connections. Many people I talk to still feel the closest to their family of origin, their friends from school or college or people from their earliest long term jobs.  It can be more difficult to build close friendships as we age.  We may acquire many casual friendships but it is hard to replicate the closeness we develop when we are younger, more open and self-revelatory. The friendships forged in youth are often the strongest-whether we define youth as teens or twenties.

You Can’t Choose Your Family

As a psychologist, I find that many of the people who seek to avoid people (though certainly not all) come from families that were not close or were harsh and painful. Those who do the best at overcoming difficult backgrounds find new “family.”  We can create  our own through spouses and children but the family of friends matters a great deal too. We can find surrogate mothers and fathers and grandparents and siblings and often these relationships are stronger and better than the ones we had through blood.  Our friends buffer life’s multiple injuries and insults if we allow them to truly know us. Personal strength is important but humans are social.  We did not evolve to live separately;  we were not designed to endure alone. Not just the bad times matter. Think about the triumphs and joys we experience. Aren’t we always eager to share those experiences with the people who know us best and love us.

Value and nurture your friendships. They are one of the most important gifts in life. I treasure mine.

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