Remember riding bikes with your friends until the street lights came on? Or having sleepovers and sharing your deepest secrets with each other? There was laughter, joy, and community. Childhood friendships are our first attempt at forming bonds outside the family.
But as we become adults, friendships take a back seat.
As adults, it’s often difficult to add another thing “to do” into our day. It isn’t uncommon, for this reason, for adults to experience a lack of active friendship outside of the people they see at work, or the friendship they (hopefully) share with their partner. Further still, for some the quality of our friendships is no deeper than sharing what we did over the weekend or talking about the Netflix show we’re both watching.
But what about the kinds of friends you can share anything with? Who are there for you on your worst days, know everything about you, and whose presence brings ease and comfort? In the age of social media and digital interaction keeping close friends becomes a little less natural, and cultivating new friendships takes an act of will. It’s probably even easy to think, naively, that close friends just aren’t necessary.
Science tells us the exact opposite, and the research is detailed: Close friendships are necessary for optimal health and well-being. Studies show that people with strong social relationships increased their odds of survival over a significant period by 50 percent, the researchers say.
Take the Japanese people, for example. They fall into what is known as a “Blue Zone” of longevity, areas of the world that show increased well-being and lifespans. One of the factors for these areas was lifetime friendships and a sense of community. That’s on par with ceasing smoking, and nearly twice as beneficial as physical activity in terms of decreasing your odds of dying early. That definitely changes things. What is it precisely that friendship gives us?
Serena Chen, a social psychologist, and professor of psychology at the University of California, Berkeley says it’s because we are naturally social and communal creatures. She adds, “when we are intimate with another person, we can experience positive mental and physical reactions in our body, mind, and heart.”
Intimacy is a necessary ingredient for a fulfilled life, and the intimacy that comes with friendship is an exceptional kind.
Dr. Amir Levine, a psychiatrist and a neuroscientist and the author of Attached: The New Science of Adult Attachment and How It Can Help You Find and Keep Love, “has studied humans and animals as a way to understand human bonding. “Social connections are the most powerful way for us to regulate our emotional distress,” Dr. Levine said. “If you are in distress, being in proximity to someone you’re securely attached to is the most effective way to calm yourself.”
I caught up with a close friend for dinner, and we did the download of all the things that each of us are working on and shared what was overwhelming. At the end of the conversations, she sighed and said, “just being with you. I know it’s all going to be alright.” I replied. “It already is! Everything right now is good.” And that’s the power of friendship.
True close friendship, though, offers a deep sense of intimacy but does not need to be as extreme. It’s as simple as having someone who just “gets” you. “A big part of intimacy is being able to be fully yourself and be seen and understood by others,” Dr. Chen said. “When people close to us don’t ‘get’ us, it’s undermining to intimacy.”
Intimacy requires vulnerability; it is a beautiful benefit of relationships but is also a deep fear for many of us. While it seems like the perfect reason to dodge close friendship, it’s actually the very reason to run toward it. Where we feel discomfort is exactly where we need to grow and, as Kabbalah points out, friendships can and should help us to evolve and grow into the highest version of ourselves.
Think about it this way. Friendship asks us:
To show up as our authentic selves.
To love unconditionally.
To be accountable to someone else.
To give and to receive equally.
This is why superficial friends or acquaintances don’t count. Dr. Chen also touches on this nuance of modern friendship, “when we post something on Facebook and people give us affirmation in the way of nice comments or encouragement, that feels good, but it doesn’t necessarily create intimacy because there’s no give and take.” A close friendship is about sharing, being seen and understood, and being able to provide that to someone else. Mutual disclosure is key.
So how can we create this close kind of friendship in our lives now? Whether you have a close friend, a partner, or not there are a couple of steps you can take to begin to cultivate this kind of connection in your life, and the journey to finding close friendships will also be making you a better friend to everyone you know.
The first step is to open up more. Really let yourself be seen by people that you trust. Share your guilty pleasures, reach out to someone, and ask them to hold space for you while you vent about something that is causing you stress or pain, allow a less-than-flattering detail to be seen. Helping others understand who you are on an authentic level means accepting yourself on that level also. By doing so, you permit others to do so as well. When sharing vulnerably, be sure to listen attentively. This builds trust and solidifies connection.
Next, listen to others fully and completely. When someone is sharing with you, even if it seems arbitrary, be present with them, and really listen. Ask questions, get curious, and stay attentive. When we focus on another person as they’re sharing, we attune our nervous system to theirs, creating an emotional feedback loop. We begin to understand how their body moves when they are stressed, how their face looks when they’re sad, and we become mirrors. This mirroring creates empathy and allows the other person to relax, feel accepted, and—just like that—intimacy is born.
I can tell by the pitch of a friend’s voice if they are well-rested, sleep-deprived, feeling confident, or under stress.
Finally, be consistent and accountable. Do you often cancel plans at the last minute? Do you let calls go unreturned, and texts go unanswered? To attract real friendship, you must be someone that others can count on, someone who is available and predictable. When forming attachments, we want to create as secure an environment as possible. We do this by showing up when we say we will, by being available, consistent in our communication, and reliable in our commitments. Conversely, if you notice that someone in your life does not exhibit these intimacy basics, its time to reexamine that friendship. Again, as you become a better friend, it will become easier to spot the people in your life who aren’t a match for you and attract other friends who share these values.
In a time where friends exist online, entire conversations happen via email or text, and our in-person experiences decrease nurturing real connection is a brilliant act of self-care and generosity. Being a good friend helps us to be a better person and a more realized expression of ourselves. The deeper our friendships, the more joy, and fulfillment we experience, and that spills out onto the world around us. A good friend can change your life, and that kind of positive change can change the world.
Think about the quality of your friendships. Who would you call a close friend? What are the ways that you can take these tips for deeper friendships and apply them to your relationships?