We spend a lot of time and energy pursuing and maintaining romantic relationships, but what about our other social ties? While finding a compatible partner is a very important endeavor, psychological research shows that there are huge benefits to having a larger social network that includes close friends.
What kind of benefits? Friends can fulfill a number of roles in our lives. A close friend can be a partner for new adventures, a source of comfort and understanding when things are difficult, and a friend can help us deal with stressful situations that we encounter in our lives (Gillespie et al., 2015). Research shows that feeling satisfied with the quality and quantity of personal friendships is associated with feeling more satisfied with life in general (Demir & Weitekamp, 2007).
Mental and physical health are both affected by our friendships. Researchers have found that the impact of loneliness and social isolation is associated with long-term health implications. Feeling chronically socially isolated can be as harmful as habitual smoking, high blood pressure, and obesity (House, Landis, & Umberson, 1988). Not only can our close relationships keep us company and support us in times of need, they may also help us to live longer and healthier lives.
How are social networks today different than those 30 years ago? Even with the rise of social networking sites like Facebook, mobile phones, and texting, research suggests that our close social circles have actually been getting smaller. A study comparing social relationships found that respondents in 2004 had significantly fewer close confidants with whom they could discuss important matters with than respondents in 1985 (McPherson, Smith-Lovin, & Brashears, 2006). On top of that, respondents in 2004 were also nearly three times more likely to report that they had no close confidants at all.
However, other recent research indicates that the internet is a valuable and continually growing resource for making and retaining new friendships and relationships, suggesting that our social landscape is changing (Wang & Wellman, 2010). Getting to know someone you first met as a partner in an online game, or meeting a friend of a friend via Facebook, may now be just as socially acceptable as making a new friend at a local bar or coffee shop.
Our focus on our friendships can change over time and can also be affected by major life events. Research has shown that the number of close friendships generally shrinks over the lifespan. Entering into a committed romantic relationship also decreases the number of friendships. However, individuals in relationships report an increased number of friends that they share with their romantic partner (Kalmijin, 2003).
Overall, having close friends who we can confide in and spend time with is important to our mental and physical health. Take a moment to assess how you feel about your close relationships. As a future goal, be mindful and leave yourself open to new social activities, take time to reconnect with old friends, and make an effort to get to know new acquaintances better. Instead of just watching your friends and acquaintances post updates on your Facebook or Instagram feed, reach out to them directly and make plans to get together. Not only will you be planning an enjoyable activity, but you may be fostering a happier and healthier lifestyle.
Demir, M., & Weitekamp, L. A. (2007). I am so happy ‘cause today I found my friend: Friendship and personality as predictors of happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 8, 191–211.
Gillespie, B. J., Lever, J., Frederick, D., & Royce, T. (2015). Close adult friendships, gender, and the life cycle. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 32, 709-736.
House, J. S., Landis, K. R., & Umberson, D. (1988). Social Relationships and health. Science, 241, 540-545.
Kalmijin, M. (2003). Shared friendship networks and the life course: An analysis of survey data on married and cohabiting couples. Social Networks, 25, 231–249.
McPherson, M., Smith-Lovin, L., & Brashears, M. E. (2006). Social isolation in America: Changes in core discussion networks over two decades. American Sociological Review, 71, 353-375.
Wang, H., & Wellman, B. (2010). Social connectivity in America: Changes in adult friendship network. American Behavioral Scientist, 53, 1148-1169.