Friends – Are They Really That Important?

By Emily Pierson, M.Ed., Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

Do you ever feel like a piece of you is missing? Like no matter how many self-help books you read, or how many times you try to ‘focus on yourself’, there is still a gap you can’t seem to fill? Turns out, the solution may not be found by looking within, but instead, by turning to others.

It is no secret that humans interact and have relationships with other humans. However, developing meaningful, positive, long term relationships with others can be more difficult the older we get. In school, kids have a built-in network of peers that they see every day. They don’t just go to class with their peers, but they go to recess, play sports, participate in activities, and eat lunch with humans their own age.   In other words, they get to do fun things with people who have interests that align with their own. That’s a lot harder to do when you’re older, and other obligations (work, kids, aging parents, etc.) take your time and energy. Putting time and effort into building and maintaining relationships becomes much more difficult at the end of a long week at work when all you want to do is go home and stay there. But are there consequences to not spending time with others?

Benefits of Positive Relationships with Friends

According to researchers at the Mayo Clinic, having positive friendships with others are, in a nutshell, incredibly good for you. They can (1):

  •         Promote overall health
  •         Reduce risk of health problems
  •         Increase longevity
  •         Improve a sense of purpose
  •         Reduce stress
  •         Boost self-confidence
  •         Be a support system for traumas

In addition to the benefits of these positive relationships already listed, friends can help you to try new things, combat loneliness, and fill the void that you may feel without others in your life. Good friends can also help you emotionally or physically when needed as well as listen to you and be a shoulder to cry on. That support and dependability can be crucial at times. Friends also allow you to be yourself and accept you for you. You don’t have to hide who you are, which in and of itself, has very substantial health benefits.

Are All Friends, Good Friends?

Unfortunately, the answer to that question is no, not all friends are ‘good’ friends. Some can be toxic, cause stress, cause instability, or unhealthy habits (2). These aspects of a relationship can actually have a negative effect your mental and physical health. Some negative social interactions have been shown to lead to inflammation in the body, loss of sleep, stress, and mental exhaustion (2). If someone in your life that you consider a friend is rude, degrading, unreliable, or encourages unhealthy behaviors or poor decisions, it may be time to reevaluate whether that particular person is a positive influence on your health. If not, it may be time to end that relationship, or at least take that person in small doses to protect yourself. Now the more complex problem, becomes finding newer, healthier relationships.

I’m Ready to Build Some Positive and Healthy Friendships… But How Do I Find Them?

Making friends can be very difficult. How do you find people that are your age, in a similar place in life (i.e. are in a serious relationship, are single, have kids, don’t have kids, work full time, share similar interests, etc.)? Unlike school aged children, or even college students who are around same aged peers often, it can be downright hard to find people with whom to be friends. Add in family commitments, a career, or other solo hobbies, and finding time to find and make friends can make the process even more stressful and daunting. There are ways to make and build relationships, however.

  1.     Get out of the houseIt goes without saying, that in order to meet people, you need to leave the house. With today’s technology, it can seem as though we are ‘connected’ with people through social media, cell phones, or other electronic means of communication all day long. This electronic connection can help at times, but does not always allow you to physically go do something with another person.  Getting out and meeting others face-to-face will help you to ease the loneliness that social media sometimes brings on.
  2.     Go do something involving other peopleNow that you’re out of the house, the next key piece is doing something that will allow you to ‘run into’ others. Preferably, choose a social activity that you enjoy doing (this will help give you something to talk about as well). Maybe try going to the gym or taking an exercise or class. Join a book, running, gaming or dog walking club. Take a painting, art, or photography class. Get involved with local government or volunteer at an animal shelter. The important thing is that you get out into your community and give yourself the chance to interact with others. One thing is for certain, you won’t meet anyone face to face, while staying at home. For some, it can be scary to do things on your own, but don’t let that stop you. Ask a family member or coworker to go with you. Perhaps they could introduce you to someone, or just be with you for support while you try new things.
  3. Put yourself out there
    Ok, you made it out of the house, you’re out doing something you’re interested in. Now it’s time for the hardest part; putting yourself out there. Understandably, talking to people we don’t know can be difficult at first. What do you talk about? What about those anxious thoughts of self-doubt? While it can be scary, try to talk to others. Whether you chat about the weather or whatever it is you’re doing (because that’s at least one shared interest!) starting conversation is the first step to forming a friendship. Here are some easy conversation starters:

    • Talk about the weather: Yes, this may be a tad cliché, but the weather affects everyone! Comment about the rain, the snow, the sun. The weather is a shared experience. After all, no one can control it, it just happens. It is a easy conversation starter and a great transition into other topics.
    • Discuss shared interests: Animals, food, drinks, books, sports, music, hobbies, hometowns, games, work, favorite places to go in town… the list goes on and one. The point being, ask someone about their interests. You may find something you have in common or learn about something new.
    • Mention current events: Most people out there have some way of learning about things that are happening in the world. Maybe bring up something that has recently happened locally. Try to keep this light and positive. It will help keep the conversation ‘happy’.
    • Ask the person questions: This may seem a bit obvious, but an easy way to get to know someone, is to ask them questions about themselves. Do they like to travel? Do they enjoy cooking? Where do they like to eat or hangout in town? And the million-dollar question; how are you today? Asking questions will allow you to learn more information about a person, discover similarities and differences, and help you to see if you may be compatible friends. Start with the easy questions and work your way up to more personal ones. Parade magazine has a great list of online conversation starters for you to check out (3).
    • Be ready to be a little vulnerable: I don’t mean this in an arrogant, ‘they seem full of themselves’ type of way. But what if the person you’re talking to is just as shy and nervous as you are? Maybe they need you to break the ice and mention things that you are interested in to help them feel more comfortable. I’m not saying tell them your whole life story the second you meet them but be open to sharing things about yourself. Sharing can help the conversation flow and will help others get to know you as well. Just be careful not to dominate the conversation. You got this.

Making friends can be an exciting and sometimes scary experience. It’s hard to put yourself out there, especially as an adult when you are busy with other commitments. Trying to balance work and family is tough enough, without trying to build new relationships with others. It is not impossible, however, science tells us that having friends is extremely beneficial to our health and happiness.  Get out of your comfort zone, put yourself out there, and you may just find someone that may change your life for the better.  Joe Cocker said it best when he sang “I get by with a little help from my friends”!

By Emily Pierson, M.Ed., Licensed Clinical Professional Counselor

Emily offers a holistic approach to mental health and wellness. In addition to prioritizing mental well-being, she uses a strengths-based perspective to improve relationships and physical health.  She is passionate about helping teens and adults set and meet realistic, achievable goals, while also meeting them where they are in their journey.

Emily was born and raised in Alaska, where she received her Master’s degree in counseling from the University of Alaska Fairbanks.  After moving to the “Lower 48”, she has been working as a therapist for the past four years.

References/Resources

  1.     Friendships: Enrich your life and improve your health. Mayo Clinic. Retrieved from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/friendships/art-20044860. Accessed July 18th, 2021.
  2.     Signs of a Bad Friend. WebMD. Retrieved from: https://www.webmd.com/balance/signs-bad-friend. Accessed July 18, 2021.
  3.      Let’s Talk: 250 Perfect Conversation Starters for Any Social Situation. Parade. Retrieved from: https://parade.com/969981/parade/conversation-starters/. Accessed July 21, 2021.