We all know that friendship is a good thing. But did you know that friends have a huge impact on your happiness and quality of life? Good friends relieve stress, provide comfort and joy, prevent loneliness and isolation, and even strengthen your health. Despite their importance, close friendships don’t just happen. Many of us struggle to meet new friends and develop quality connections. Even when we’re willing to put in the time and effort, we don’t always know how to go about it. But whatever your age or circumstances, it’s never too late to make new friends or reconnect with old ones. These tips can help.
Why friends are important
Your society tends to place an emphasis on romantic relationships. We think that if we can just find that right person, we’ll be happy and fulfilled. But research shows that friends are more important to psychological well-being than even our love and family relationships. Friends bring more happiness into our lives than virtually anything else. Not only that, our friendships (or lack thereof) have a powerful impact on our physical health. Studies show that a lack of social connection can be as damaging as smoking, drinking too much, or leading a sedentary lifestyle. The quality of our friendships is even tied to longevity.
Why online friends aren’t enough
Technology has shifted the definition of friendship in recent years. With the click of a button, we can add a friend or make a new connection. But having hundreds of online friends is not the same as having a close friend you can turn to or be with in person. Technology can facilitate social opportunities by helping you reconnect with old friends, start new relationships with people around the world who share similar interests, and maintain relationships with friends who don’t live nearby. However, online friends can’t hug you when a crisis hits, visit you when you’re sick, or celebrate a happy occasion with you after work.
Our most important and powerful connections happen when we’re face-to-face. So make it a priority to stay in touch in the real world, not just online. You’ll get a lot more out of an in-person conversation than you will over text or social media comments.
The benefits of friendship
Good friends add special meaning to life. They help you share the good times and overcome the difficult ones. Among other things, good friends can:
- Improve your mood. Happiness can be infectious. Spending time with happy and positive friends can elevate your mood and boost your outlook.
- Help you to reach your goals. Whether you’re trying to get fit, give up smoking, or otherwise improve your life, encouragement from a friend can really boost your willpower and increase your chances of success.
- Reduce your stress and depression. Having an active social life can bolster your immune system and help reduce isolation, a major contributing factor for depression.
- Support you through tough times. Even if it’s just having someone to share your problems with, friends can help you cope with serious illness, the loss of a job or loved one, the breakup of a relationship, or any other challenge in life.
- Support you as you age. As you age, retirement, illness, and the death of loved ones can often leave you isolated. Having people you can turn to for company and support can provide purpose as you age and be a buffer against depression, disability, hardship, and loss. Staying socially engaged as you age keeps you feeling positive and boosts your happiness.
- Boost your sense of self-worth. Friendship is a two-way street, and the “give” side of the give-and-take contributes to your own sense of value and self-worth. Being there for your friends makes you feel needed and adds purpose to your life.
What to look for in a friend
Ideally, a friend is someone you trust who shares a deep level of understanding and communication with you. A good friend will show a genuine interest in what’s going on in your life, what you have to say, and how you think and feel about things. He or she will accept you for who you are and listen to you attentively without judging you, telling your how to think or feel, or trying to change the subject.
As friendship works both ways, a friend is also someone you feel comfortable supporting and accepting, and someone with whom you share a bond of trust and loyalty. A good friend will feel comfortable sharing things about themselves with you.
Focus on the way a friendship feels, not what it looks like
When looking for new friends, try not to get too caught up in external qualifications and criteria. The most important thing in a friendship is how the relationship makes you feel—not how it looks on paper, how many things you have in common, or what others think. Ask yourself the following questions:
- Do I feel better after spending time with this person?
- Do I feel free to be myself around this person?
- Do I feel safe, or do I feel like I have to watch what I say and do?
- Is the person supportive of me? Does he or she treat me with respect?
- Is this a person I feel that I could trust?
The bottom line: it the friendship feels good, it is good. But if a person tries to control you, criticizes you, abuses your generosity, or brings unwanted danger, drama, or negative influences into your life, it’s time to take a hard look at the value of the friendship. A good friendship does not require you to act against your own values, always agree with the other person, or disregard your own needs.
How to be more friendly and social
If you tend to be introverted or shy, it can feel uncomfortable to put yourself out there socially. But you don’t have to be naturally outgoing or the life of the party to make new friends. You can make the extra effort to be more friendly and open to others, while still maintaining your own personality.
- Focus on others, not yourself. The key to connecting to other people is showing interest in them. When you’re truly interested in someone else’s thoughts, feelings, experiences, stories, and opinions, it shows—and they’ll like you for it. You’ll make far more friends by showing your interest rather than trying to get people interested in you.
- Be genuine. Showing interest in others can’t be faked. If you’re just pretending to listen or care, others will pick up on it. Rather than fostering greater connection, your efforts will likely backfire. No one likes to be manipulated or placated. If you’re not genuinely interested in the other person, than stop trying to connect.
- Pay attention. Make an effort to truly listen to the other person. By paying close attention to what they say, do, and how they interact, you’ll quickly get to know them. Little things go a long way, such as remembering someone’s preferences, the stories they’ve told you, and what’s going on in their life.
Self-disclosure: the key to turning acquaintances into friends
We all have acquaintances—people we exchange small talk with as we go about our day or trade jokes or insights with online. These relationships can be fulfilling in their own right, but what if you want to turn a casual acquaintance into a true friend?
Friendship is characterized by intimacy. True friends know things about each other: their values, struggles, goals, and interests. If you’d like to transition from acquaintances to friends, the best way to do so is to open up to the other person. You don’t have to reveal your most closely-held secret. Start small with something a little bit more personal than what you normally discuss and see how the other person responds. Do they seem interested and receptive? Do they reciprocate by disclosing something about themselves?