The ingredients of friendship

Strong friendships are a critical aspect of most people’s emotional well-being. Psychology research indicates that close friendships are associated with greater happiness, self-esteem, goal orientation, and sense of purpose. These bonds are even associated with physical outcomes, such as lower blood pressure, decreased stress hormones, and a longer lifespan. [See Friendships Are Good For Your Mental (And Physical Health]

Friendships are a great way to learn our way in the world, explore, and find adventures, in the company of people who care about you.

Interestingly, a body of research has also found that friendships are initially formed when people find the other person to be attractive or engaging. Over time, as friendships grow, the estimation of a friend as attractive seems to also grow.

Friendship breakups can be as painful as romantic breakups, and leave us grieving, further adding to the importance of nurturing our friendships.

Dr. Degges-White, social scientist and researcher, at Southern Illinois University, has been studying friendship for many years. My review of her research has summarized the following defining characteristics of friendship.

-Friendships exist when pleasure is taken in the company of another.

-Friendship implies reciprocity and give-and-take. This is not in the sense of an immediate even exchange “economic model” of behavior, rather that support is expected to flow both ways in different forms, as needs arise for either party.

-Levels of friendship commitment vary over a lifetime, depending on the energy required by family, work, or other commitments. However, when crisis strikes, true friends can generally be counted on to offer support, regardless of inconvenience or challenges they may face to do so.

– Friendships are voluntary, and we recognize that our friends are also making a choice to engage in the relationship. The classic adage, friends are the family you choose, is supported by the research. 

– Importantly, friendships will flourish and maintain only if mutual respect exists between friends.

-Friendships may serve different needs over time.

Young adulthood: We enjoy sharing activities, interests, and create respite from our adulting responsibilities and pastimes. In sum, we enjoy having fun together.

Middle adulthood: We need friends who don’t waste our time, who challenge us to be better people, or to understand who we are without having to explain. We don’t have time to waste on superficial relationships that once might have claimed our energy.

Older adulthood: We need our friends as social supports. Our friendship circles shrink dramatically during the last stage of life and loneliness and depression can result from isolation. It’s essential that we stay involved in social support networks, either retirement communities, spiritual community (Sangha), or neighborhood groups.

Friendships are a huge part of our mental health resources.

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