The benefits of friendship

8 minute read

Following up on last week’s post about different types of friendship, this week I’m going over the benefits of friendship, drawing on articles I found online while doing last week’s research.

Psychology today had an article that discussed what we want out of friends

“The transition from acquaintanceship to friendship is typically characterized by an increase in both the breadth and depth of self-disclosure,” asserts University of Winnipeg sociologist Beverley Fehr, author of Friendship Processes. “In the early stages of friendship, this tends to be a gradual, reciprocal process. One person takes the risk of disclosing personal information and then ‘tests’ whether the other reciprocates.”

We’ve learnt over time to keep certain details of our lives more private. As we get to know someone better, we start to offer up more information about ourselves and see if the other party responds favourably. Everyone is dealing with problems, but few people are comfortable sharing that right off the bat with an acquaintance. We fear judgement and oversharing of too much information. Why do so many people have one ‘face’ they reveal in the workplace and another they show to friends outside of work? We recognise there are boundaries that we’d rather maintain.

Recognising this issue, one thing I like to ask people I’m getting to know is “what do you wish more people knew about you, or asked you about?” It’s a slight breach of comfort, but gives people the opportunity to talk about something they are proud of but worry might be a slight overshare at whatever stage our relationship currently is. It’s a free pass to chat about something they like without seeming conceited. And everyone likes to talk about themselves.

According to Fehr’s research, people in successful same-sex friendships seem to possess a well-developed, intuitive understanding of the give and take of intimacy. “Those who know what to say in response to another person’s self-disclosure are more likely to develop satisfying friendships,” she says. Hefty helpings of emotional expressiveness and unconditional support are ingredients here, followed by acceptance, loyalty, and trust.

The big benefit of friendship then is the support network you have when you’re dealing with problems. Good friends either listen or try to solve your problem [1], and can also give a new perspective on issues where you’re not seeing the full picture. I’d always want my friends to correct me if I’m wrong, and I think we should all hold good friends to high standards.

Compared to these emotional gifts, a friend’s utility paled, Fehr found in her study. Study participants judged as peripheral the ability of a friend to offer practical help in the form of, say, lending 20 bucks or allowing use of a car. This fact often turns up as a truism in movies, where the obnoxious, lonely rich kid can’t understand why always picking up the tab never makes him popular. Money really can’t buy love.

We hear anecdotally all the time about rich people that lost all their friends once they became poor. I haven’t read Fehr’s study, but want to caveat that it seems to rely on people self-describing their reasons for frienship, which could be different from how they actually behave. That said, you know that you have bad friends when you have to pay for company. This could come in many forms - monetary, time spent organising things, attention etc. The relationship should not be all give and no take. It’s hard when you realise your ‘friends’ are benefitting more from the relationship than you are, but better in the long run after you cut them off.

Overall closeness, contact, and supportiveness predicted whether a good friendship was maintained. But when the researchers controlled for these qualities, only a single factor—social-identity support—predicted whether a friend would ultimately be elevated to the position of “best.” Best friends often were part of the same crowd—the same fraternity, say, or tennis team.

This sounds like signalling to me. We make friends with people that will let us signal we have certain virtues or qualities. If I’m interested in dance and want to become a better dancer, my best friends are likely other dancers that can support me in practice. They actually understand all the effort I’m putting in and what I’m trying to aim for. This BBC article talks about how our personal sense of self is derived from other people, meaning that who we choose to spend time with is going to influence who we end up becoming.

The psych today article concludes by saying that four basic behaviours are needed to maintain friendships: (1) disclosure, (2) supportiveness, (3) interaction, (4) being positive. It’s interesting to note they don’t put physical proximity on the list, which I’d argue has been the main cause of weakened friendships in my personal life.

Perhaps physical proximity influences the four factors, and in the end it’s up to the individuals to put in the effort to maintain the frienship? David Perell writes about his thoughts on friendship, and how intentionality is more important given changes in proximity

Epidemiologist David Bradley tracked the lifetime movement of four generations in his family. His great-grandfather’s entire life took place in a square of only 40 kilometers, his grandfather’s took place over 400, 4,000 for his father, and his own extended to every corner of the globe across 40,000 square kilometers. The geographic circle of life has expanded, so friendship strategies that depend on constant proximity are no longer effective. In the modern world, you cannot cultivate a strong, multi-decade circle of friends unless you are intentional about it.

How does he go about being intentional?

I take extra care to prioritize extended time with friends. If you want a deep conversation, you need time. Instead of spending two or three hours with somebody, I prefer to spend two or three days with them. More, if possible. After 24 hours, the small talk disappears, and after 48 hours, philosophizing is inevitable. The benefits are exponential.

This is tough work! I can’t think of the last time I’ve spent more than 24 hours with a friend consecutively that wasn’t work related. I agree that this is likely to facilitate deep conversations, once you run out of pleasantries to kill the time [2]. I wonder how many of my friends would be up for this though…

David thinks of the below as a goal to strive towards in friendships:

By freeing you to speak with honesty and communicate with love, your Anam Cara frees you to explore the wildest possibilities within you. No matter who you are, what you do, or how much money you make, this kind of companionship will foster alignment, safety, and growth

High standards, but it helps to always aim to be better people. If your friends currently don’t feel this way to you, perhaps you could first try being this way for them, and then slowly move everyone up in terms of the support you give each other. As mentioned above, getting coser to someone is all about reciprocating after an initial comfort barrier is breached.

Peers are the engine of career success. Together, the ones you’re closest to comprise your “10 Club.” The 10 Club is a group of 10 people you want to work with later in life, and every member should be kind, ambitious, and generous. Travel together, meet their families, and attend their weddings. Get to know them. Then, team up and support each other.

I’m assuming 10 is an arbitrary number and you’re free to pick 5, 15 etc as long as it’s small. The idea is to be focused and really commit to a set of good people that you can see yourself growing old with. Some may churn over time as life gets in the way [3] but having a strong core group will help you over time. I’m wondering if he means that all these 10 people should know each other as well? Because your ideal group of 10 is likely different from your friends’s group of 10.

The mark of a great friend is somebody who believes in you, looks out for you, and has your best interests in mind. Those who give you honest feedback, even when the truth is hard to share and even harder to hear are worth their weight in gold. When you acknowledge their feedback, friends become like bumpers at a bowling alley. They let you bounce around, but not too much. By protecting you from stupid decisions, they free you to go all out and bowl for strikes.

Similar to what I’ve discussed above. Friends should let you be yourself, but also strongly advise against you doing something that has serious negative consequences. We’re all adults, and I don’t think that friends should be responsible for your ultimate decision, but they should at the least chime in if they think you might be unaware of information that could change your mind.

“If you care about having an interesting life, you have to care about winning over other people – so that you can access that information. If you really want to be smart, you’re going to have to tap into people’s perspectives, insights, questions and so on. You can’t learn it all from books and essays – because there’s a lot of “living knowledge” that never makes it into those things.”

This seems to tie in back to the point of spending a signficant amount of time with friends, in order to break past the initial comfort barrier and get a deeper relationship.

Friends provide a huge, if not the most important benefit to how you live your life. Without friends, we start losing a sense of identity and also a support network for our problems. We should all be more deliberate about making friends, both in the time we spend with them and also how we use that time.

Footnotes

  1. And also understand when you’re asking for a solution vs just needing to rant about something.
  2. This paper looks in depth into the research on friendship, and claims that small talk actually hurts relationships!
  3. Relationships are a two way street so it might not be your fault! Something I wish I’d learnt much earlier in life.

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