A truth shared in confidence. A joke whispered in your ear. Moments of comfortable silence. A helping hand when you need it most. These are all signs of a type of close emotional relationship that we call Friendship. But what is a friendship and what does it mean to us? How does it benefit us in ways other than the obvious? To answer these questions, we need to dive into the realm of relationships, where it all begins.
Where Did it All Begin?
Not much is known about the history of how this form of relationship evolved over time, but we do know some interesting facts about friendship. For instance, did you know that 250,000 years ago, the Neanderthals hunted in groups? Sure, we’ve seen it in Hollywood movies like 10,000 BC but this was much, much before modern man appeared on the scene.
These groups that Neanderthals formed were very likely the first friendships on the planet. They were born of a necessity for survival, companionship, and our innate desire to congregate into social units. Those traits persisted through more than two hundred millennia, transferring their DNA to modern man and instilling in us the deep-seated need for interaction with other humans.
That brings us to the seven main reasons why friendships play a critical role in our own lives - 2,500 centuries later.
7 Reasons Friendships are Essential to Our Well-being
#1: Friends Help Us Survive
The world was a harsh place 250 millennia ago. The Neanderthals, who lived in parts of Europe and the western parts of Asia had to undergo tremendous hardships just to survive. According to scientists, “they witnessed some of the coldest climatic conditions ever known in these regions.” The groups they formed were to help them hunt down larger animals, which also suggests that they knew how to strategize and execute the hunt in a coordinated manner. These pieces of evidence of ‘friendship’ indicate more than just a casual relationship; their livelihoods were intertwined with their ability to work together as a unit.
The survival side of friendship still persists to this day. Anyone who has gone through a crisis with a stranger knows that a deep bond is established and often turns into lifelong a friendship. Take the men and women serving in the armed forces, for instance. Going through a tour of duty together often forges strong friendships because of those early survival mechanisms. In simple terms, if you’re in a foxhole under enemy fire, the guy next to you is bound to be your friend.
That brings us to far more subtle reasons why friendships are so essential to our existence.
#2: Friends Make Us Stretch Our Limits
In this scenario, a friend is someone who motivates you to do better and go beyond what you’ve even been or done before. From that perspective, an Olympic coach is not just a trainer for the athlete in question, but a very dear friend. That’s an extreme example, but we all have friends who push us to be the best at what we do. Not all of them, for sure, because there are different levels of friendship. The best ones, though, are always our cheerleaders.
Why do we get revved up when a friend motivates us? One of the reasons for that is that we tend to admire different things in our friends. That admiration also instills a sense of trust in that person. Therefore, when a trusted person tells you that you can do it, your subconscious mind takes that as a priority instruction, telling you that since he or she said it, it must be true. In a sense, our subconscious mind is validating that information against what you consciously and subconsciously know about that person. But the subconscious part is far more powerful.
Interestingly, that’s also the reason we respond better to professionals or our peers. Your doctor telling you something’s bad for you has much greater value than your dad telling you the exact same thing. If you’re a parent, you know this to be true. Often, your son or daughter will come home excited about learning something new. When they tell you what it is, you probably roll your eyes because that’s what you’ve been telling them for years! However, their subconscious mind has now validated that information based on what they heard from a peer or a professional. That’s the power friendship has over our ability to go above and beyond our limitations - the power to convey information as ‘friendly, therefore reliable.’
#3: Friends Calm Us Down and Help Reduce Stress
Hanging out with your friends isn’t just a way to feel more relaxed. It actually alters the chemical balance of your body to make you feel calmer and reduce stress levels. That’s why dogs are recommended by therapists not only to heal a variety of ailments but also as stressbusters. Keeping a pet when you have a high-stress job is probably the best way to alleviate that stress without any damage. And that’s because your body is tuned to release ‘feel-good’ hormones when you’re in the company of someone or something that’s non-threatening.
And that’s exactly what a friend represents - a non-threatening entity that you can be yourself around.
Another consideration is the sharing of burdens, which is also related to the brain’s and body’s hormone secretions. When you have a friend you can share your worries with, your own stress level is automatically reduced. It’s not because the burden is halved or anything like that; the real reason is that your body releases less cortisol in a stressful situation where there are friends around. Cortisol is what the brain releases when a person is under stress. So, when we feel that the world is too much, we subconsciously seek to lower our cortisol levels by seeking out a friend. Sharing your burden is merely the psychological aspect of that stress-reduction phenomenon.
#4: Friends Give Us Self-confidence and Courage
Though somewhat related to the aspect of friendship that helps you transcend your limitations, its ability to give you mental fortitude to deal with a particular challenge deserves special mention. Feeling loved and appreciated is a huge part of our mental makeup. Everyone craves recognition in some form or other, and friends give us that in large quantities. That’s why it’s so easy to be fooled by a false friend who peppers their conversations with flattery. Our innate need to feel good about ourselves and maintain a high level of self-esteem makes us blind to hollow flattery. Some of us are even aware that it’s ‘fake’ but we still play along anyway because we need that fix every once in a while.
Interestingly, that’s where the concept of ‘yes man’ came from. The definition: “a person who, regardless of actual attitude, always expresses agreement with his or her supervisor, superior, etc.; sycophant.” Sound like anyone you know?
Real friends are those who will also tell you the truth to your face. They’ll call it as they see it. That’s the basic difference between a true friend and a yes-man. A friend won’t tell you what you want to hear - they’ll tell you what you need to hear.
Another intriguing effect of having friends around you is the ability to feel more courageous in their presence. This excerpt from a touching story of a boy who finally made a friend at school is a perfect narrative to show you what we mean. As narrated by his mother:
“From that day on, Joshua and his friend embraced the noise and joys of recess together. They sailed on the swings and climbed courageously on the monkey bars. They spun themselves silly on the merry-go-round, and eventually, they even joined those rowdy kickball games.
Steadily, my son’s confidence and contentment returned. And the skip in his step did, too.
As the school year drew to a close, I asked my little boy what made his buddy so special.
“He makes my legs brave,” Joshua replied with a grateful grin.
Hot tears burned my eyes as my son’s declaration stirred my soul. I realized it wasn’t bold words or daring deeds that had fueled my son’s fearless feet. He’d found courage in the “with-ness” of a friend.”
What a beautiful story, wouldn’t you agree? That’s what a friend can do for us - make our legs brave!
#5: Friends Make Us Physically Healthier
There’s more than enough evidence to suggest that having friends keeps you healthy, but how does that happen? Well, when you’re with a group of friends, you tend to do physical activities together, you become more animated, you sleep better at night, you are less stressed, etc. These have various effects on our bodies.
For instance, sleeping restfully at night elevates the level of a hormone called Leptin, often referred to as the ‘satiety hormone.’ This is basically the chemical that tells our brain when our bellies are full and to stop eating. Healthy levels of leptin and the brain’s ability to sense it with receptors ensure that we only eat when we’re hungry.
The activities we do with friends keep our heart pumping and help maintain the health of our circulatory system. The closeness of relationships helps us be more mentally and emotionally balanced as well, and this reflects on our physical health. In terms of stress, it is well known that stress leads to unnecessary snacking. Friends help reduce stress levels so we can avoid those problems.
The number of physical health benefits we receive from interacting with friends is huge, and most of us are barely aware of it.
#6: Friends Provide Emotional Support
When we go through hard times, who lends a shoulder to lean on or to cry on? When we’re on the verge of a mental breakdown, who can we rely on to bring us back to stability and sanity? When we lose someone we love, who do we turn to? Having friends you can call on during these times is absolutely critical to your ability to handle the situation. When we have no one to trust, that’s when we turn to other things like drugs and alcohol as emotional crutches.
Modern societies are not generally built for friendships. They may be built for companionship but that’s entirely different. The human touch and that ‘friendly neighbor’ sentiment have been all but relegated to small towns. Big cities are cold and impersonal because they house millions of humans per square foot. Isn’t it ironic, though? Being that close to that many human beings makes you yearn for personal space; on the other hand, having your nearest neighbor be a mile away on the next property makes you yearn for human company and proximity to other souls. Loneliness is a very real yet very imperceptible thing, and the presence of a friend is imperative if you want to get through this difficult period.
That’s why our customers love our Friendship Lamps so much. It allows them to stay in touch with their loved ones even if they’re physically separated by great distances. In a recent story published in Our Daily Bread, a mother talks about how the Friendship Lamps she bought gave her the ability to stay in touch with her grown sons after she and her husband moved across the country. We get tons of reviews almost on a daily basis from customers telling us how they enjoy tapping their FriendLamps and having another one that’s hundreds or thousands of miles away light up instantly in their chosen color!
Our need for friendship is so deep that a simple gadget like a Friendship Lamp can literally and figuratively light up our lives in an instant. Is it surprising, then, that we so deeply value friendships--that we crave the companionship and attention of another human being to the extent that we’re even willing to accept a proxy for it? That’s the kind of emotional support that a friendship or any close relationship can provide.
#7: Friends Help Keep Our Secrets Safe
Do you know how hard it is to keep a secret? It doesn’t necessarily need to be a deep, dark one to qualify. Just something about a family member or a colleague at work can drive you nuts if you can’t share it with someone. At times like these, it is imperative to have a friend you can share this with, in the knowledge that the information won’t go beyond them.
When you think about it, a lot of friendships form during times of oppression. It could be as simple as finding a co-worker who loves to gripe about the boss as much as you do, and a friendship is formed from there. And it goes all the way to the unbreakable bonds that are formed in oppressive societies or during times of war. They may take the form of resistance movements in the extreme, or even prayer groups or other types of congregations.
The essential purpose of this type of friendship is safety in knowing that the other person won’t ‘tell on you,’, and the underlying principle is trust. If there’s someone you can share a piece of sensitive information with that could harm you if it was revealed, and you feel confident that the person will never tell anyone, that means you trust that person and treat them as a friend. And if the act is reciprocated, the trust is deepened and, quite often, the friendship is cemented for life.
How are Friendships Typically Formed?
Gathering from several studies conducted on the phenomenon of friendship, there are nine factors that influence the formation of this type of relationship: Trust, Availability, Conflict, Jealousy, Self Disclosure, Openness to Feedback, Perceptiveness, Participation, and Similarity.
In other words, these factors are not only the typical attributes of a friendship but also the bases or foundations on which friendships are formed. That means we can use these as tools to make friends. Isn’t that amazing? It’s a “how to win friends and influence people” in a nutshell!
Let’s break it down so we can understand it better.
9 Friendship Attributes That Also Form the Basis of a Friendship
Trust - In any friendship, there must be trust, but for trust to be the basis of a new friendship, it requires a special situation such as the ones we discussed in #7 above. It could be a secret you trust another person to keep or a shared belief that is being persecuted by ‘outsiders’, or even something as simple as being able to confide your fears to someone. The trust you place in someone in these situations will often lead to a friendship, if upheld. On the flip side, if there is a betrayal of that trust, it could lead to enmity.
Availability - In simple words, is she or he there for you when you need them? That’s a requisite for any good friendship, but friendships based on availability are typically formed when you spend a lot of time with or near someone, like a colleague or a neighbor. You might have some friends in this category - someone you reached out to in a time of need and received help from.
Conflict - Conflict is part of any relationship, and friendship is no different. However, conflict as the basis of a relationship has a different meaning. We’ve seen that in times of war, people tend to befriend each other for various reasons - safety and security being the primary ones. However, friendships can also form during milder forms of conflict. Take the example of two kids becoming friends against a common bully. Their friendship is built on the conflict they face together, often on a daily basis.
Jealousy - Jealousy or envy here isn’t about negative feelings that one friend has toward the other. God knows there’s enough petty jealousy among friends to last a lifetime. In this context, it is a friendship forged from being jointly envious of someone else. Of course, jealousy is often inherent in many friendships because of dissimilarities. One person might be more talented or wealthier than the other, and these are causes for envy suddenly rearing its ugly head in the relationship. But what we’re talking about here is very similar to how friendships are formed during times of conflict. The only difference here is that the so-called ‘enemy’ is a third person.
Self-disclosure - Another attribute of - and a basis for - a friendship is the mutual revelation of one’s true nature. It’s about being comfortable enough to be ourselves rather than wear the social mask that we usually have on. It’s about being honest with each other about our beliefs, habits, and the little nuances that make us...well, us. Such a friendship might take a long time to evolve because it requires spending time with each other, and that’s not something we normally do with someone with whom we’re not on familiar terms. On the other hand, there have been instances where two complete strangers have struck friendships after being stuck for several hours in an elevator during a blackout. In either case, the basis of the friendship is the willingness to be open about ourselves. It comes naturally to some people, and you’ll notice that these same people tend to have a lot of casual friends as well as close friends.
Openness to Feedback - A friend will usually be receptive to getting feedback, as long as it’s conveyed in a constructive manner and with the right intent behind it. But did you know that you can also make a friend by being receptive to feedback about yourself? A simple question like “what did you think about that” or “how did I do?” can spark off a conversation that may lead to the acquisition of a new friend. This is an important aspect of forming relationships because such friendships can often lead to something deeper like a romantic relationship or a best friend.
Perceptiveness - Friends are often ‘in sync’ with each other, but the quality of being perceptive itself can be a tool to make a friend. If someone senses that your level of empathy and sensitivity toward them is high, they’re more likely to become your friend. “She gets me” is the sentiment often associated with perceptiveness. That’s why we’re more likely to be fond of someone who sympathizes with our point of view. We see them as perceptive and empathetic. In other words, we view them as a friend. Being more perceptive is not a talent you’re born with, although some people are certainly better at it. As with an attribute like leadership, perceptiveness can be developed. You can do this by learning to be a good listener, learning to empathize rather than criticize, and learning how to connect with someone on their level. You need to up your own sensitivity level so you can really hear what other people are saying. Once you master this, you’ll never be short of friends ever again.
Participation - Taking part in someone else’s area of interest or simply being involved in their activities is another way to make a friend. It is also a commonly-seen phenomenon between friends. Friends like to ‘do stuff’ with each other. It doesn’t matter what that activity is; what matters is that you’re doing it together. That’s why engaging in a new activity usually ends up with you making a new friend or two. People who have a shared interest tend to be more open to forming new friendships. If you join a new gym or workout place, you might see someone else picking the same equipment or doing the same routine and be drawn to them. That’s one aspect of participation being a causative force in the formation of a new friendship.
Another interpretation of this factor is your participation in the relationship itself. Are you the passive one while the other does all the work? That’s not a healthy relationship and it’s certainly not a good friendship. It takes an equal amount of work to make a friendship work; or else, it will fall by the wayside when the person who puts in all the work starts to lose interest.
Similarity - Over time, friends might start liking the same things, start to do the same things, copy each other’s mannerisms, etc. It can also be used to make a new friend. Haven’t you ever made a friend just because they were from the same college you went to or the same town that you grew up in? If you look at groups of friends, you’ll see this phenomenon of similarity in action. In some cases, you’ll see it in the extreme - they might look alike, dress alike, prefer the same foods, talk the same way, have very similar mannerisms, etc. There are essentially two sides to this: one is where similarities draw you to each other, and the other is where similarities start to creep in because of subtle changes in attitudes, behaviors, and habits.
How Do I Know if a Friendship is Real or Not?
Up until now, whatever we’ve discussed has been theoretical and anecdotal. But do we have any empirical evidence of this? We most certainly do. For instance, when we reminisce about the past, what event or occasion do we think of fondly? Isn’t it the one where we had the best time of our lives - and wasn’t there a friend or two involved?
What other empirical evidence of friendship do we have? Although such studies are scant, there has been some research around the level of happiness as it correlates with interaction with friends on a regular basis. Here’s an excerpt from a study called Social Relations and Life Satisfaction: The Role of Friends.
“The coefficients related to the key variables showed that friendship relationships were associated with life satisfaction. In particular, the probability of an individual who meets friends once a week or several times a month being satisfied with life is 9% lower than the same probability for an individual who meets his friends regularly. If the individual meets friends only a few times a year or does not have friends, then the probability of being satisfied decreases nearly 27%. Moreover, if individuals are either quite satisfied or not satisfied with their friendship relationships, then the probability of being satisfied decreases 49 and 69%, respectively, compared to the same probability for individuals satisfied with their friendship relations.”
In simple words, the chances of you being happy are significantly higher if a. You are satisfied with the friendships you have, and b. You meet and interact with them on a regular basis.
Isn’t that all we really need to know? And doesn’t that tell us a lot about the friends we make and the ones we decide to keep?
In a nutshell, we need to be careful about who we make friends with in the first place. If we get stuck with the wrong friends, our life may not turn out the way we expect it to at all. You have to ask yourself what your friendship is based on. If it’s something trivial or even destructive, you may want to rethink your friendship. On the flip side, if a friendship is based on something more tangible or at least more perceptible, nurture that with everything you have. You don’t want that to be the one that got away.
In a way, every relationship is some form of friendship, whether it’s a casual acquaintance you barely nod to on your way to work every day or someone you’re deeply involved with. It all starts with a friendship. That’s how important this type of relationship is to our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual well-being.
And that’s the reason why friendship and friends play a critical role in our lives. They shape who we are, they drive us to higher levels of achievement, they inspire us to be all we can be, they trust us with their deepest secrets, they make time for us, they criticize when they have to, and they praise us when praise is due. They are our lifelines in a world filled with turmoil, a passing ship that spotted us on a desert island, a beacon we use to guide ourselves through life. Don’t ever take your friends for granted, but first, find out who they really are.