The Science of Friendship

“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” - Helen Keller

Social Isolation in America, reports that in the last 30 years, we’ve all gone from having 3 close friends to having 0-1. This is an especially prominent problem as we age. What gives? 

Well, for one, our love lives interfere with friend time. Research reveals that, on average, having a new romantic partner pushes out two close friends from your inner circle. Then, if we marry that partner, many of us believe family is enough socialization. Unfortunately, being busy with family responsibilities is no substitute for having friends. Try not to take this personally, married people, but Nobel Prize winner David Kahneman did research showing time with friends is more enjoyable than time with spouses or children.

This all matters, of course, because friends not only increase our sense of well being and connection, but also improve our overall health.  The most compelling evidence comes from The Harvard Study of Adult Development which has been watching the health and well being of 724 men since 1938. Robert Waldinger, the study’s current director, says that his research unequivocally finds that the men who are or were socially isolated: “were less happy, their health declines earlier in midlife, their brain functioning declines sooner, and they live shorter lives than people who are not lonely.”

Harvard is not the only one studying this friendship effect. A Brigham Young and University of North Carolina meta-analysis of friendship research found a 50% increased likelihood of survival, overall, for participants with stronger social relationships.

Okay, so you need friends, but what counts as friendship? Facebook actually does “sort of” count, but the health benefits of social media vs. offline friendships have not yet been well established. The Atlantic article, How Real Are Facebook Friendships, takes a deep dive into the definition of “Friend” online and its offline implications.

Another great The Atlantic article, How Friendships Change in Adulthood, defines it more simply by breaking down the key factors of friendship across time. William Rawlins, the Stocker Professor of Interpersonal Communication at Ohio University, defines it like this: “[Friends are] Somebody to talk to, someone to depend on, and someone to enjoy. These expectations remain the same.”

So how do we get friends? Don’t worry, science also provides tips about how to make friends and how to keep them. The basic underpinnings are as you might expect:

Use Open Body Language: This means make eye contact, have an open torso or do body mirroring, use hand gestures and engage in slower, more thoughtful speech.

Be a Good Listener: Or as Stephen Covey says, “Seek first to understand and then to be understood.”  Which also means not only relating to things through an autobiographical lens, but instead using conversation to delve further into a friend’s experience.  

Make Time for People: This might seem super obvious, but we just don’t do it. A Notre Dame study breaks it down: You have to “touch base at least once every 15 days.” And you have to return communication to those who reach out. They say, “The leading cause of persistent relationships is reciprocity — returning a friend’s call.”

Trust and Disclose: The experts at The Science of Friendship have found in their meta analysis of research that having a high level of trust and a high level of self disclosure also builds strong friendships. So be willing to open up about your life as well and being a good listener.

Hang Out: Also in the obvious-but-we’re-not-doing-it-enough category -- getting together. In addition to all the regular strength-building benefits of in-person communication, it turns out that having a friend physically present positively influences cortisol levels during times of stress.  When you’re having a bad day, go see your friends and help your hormones.

For more on friendships, check out our article on Making Real Connections.  And if you like visuals, check out this amazing infographic on Happify about the benefits of having friends.  

Human Unlimited
Human Unlimited