What are friends for? Well, as it turns out, friendships have a profound effect on your mental, emotional and even physical health. In “Friendfluence,” Carlin Flora examines the intricacies of how relationships with friends affect our lives. Here’s an excerpt.
Each friend represents a world in us, a world not possibly born until they arrive.
— Anaïs Nin
When I was fifteen, my family moved from North Carolina to Michigan. The relocation was difficult for one reason above all: I had to leave behind my friends. For the first few months at my new school I was a puddle of tears as I attempted to connect to other kids but didn’t feel I could truly be myself. I read and reread letters from my old friends and felt painfully excluded from their latest escapades. Then one day I saw them up in the bleachers during a pep rally: They were a boisterous group of “alternative” girls (this was the ’90s) who were nonetheless not too alternative, I soon learned: They were adventurous and artsy but still cared about getting good grades. From the first time I sat at their lunch table, my isolation began to subside. I started to feel excited about life again.
I was sentimental to begin with, which is probably why leaving my North Carolina friends was so painful. But my experience is far from unique: Friendship is a crucial facet of life, and not just for melodramatic teenage girls.
During the eight years I worked at Psychology Today magazine as a writer and editor, I noticed a steady increase in scientific findings about friendship. Study after study pointed to its surprising benefits. Who knew that friendship could be so good not only for one’s mood but for one’s health? Solid friendships can help you shed pounds, sleep better, stop smoking, and even survive a major illness. They can also improve memory and problem-solving abilities, break down prejudices and ethnic rivalries, motivate people to achieve career dreams, and even repair a broken heart. Yet very few of the many social science and self-help books that crossed my desk covered all of these aspects of friendship. Walk through the relationships section of any bookstore and you will be overwhelmed with titles about finding and keeping a romantic partner or parenting a child. An alien perusing this body of literature might assume that lovers and families are the only relationships we humans have.
Of course we also have friends. We might think all of our traits and life decisions can be traced back to our genes or the influence of our parents or partners, but it has become increasingly clear that our peers are stealth sculptors of everything from our basic linguistic habits to our highest aspirations. And while friendships are a staple in most of our lives, very few of us are fully aware of the effect friends have on our personal growth and happiness.
The converse holds true, too: A person without friends will become unhappy or worse. Loneliness sends the body and mind into a downward spiral. A lack of friends can be deadly.
Evolutionary psychologists theorize that friendship has roots in our early dependence on others for survival. Having a friend help you hunt, for instance, made it more likely that you and your family—and your hunting buddy and his family—would have food cooking over the fire. While most of us no longer rely on friends for house building or meal gathering, we still have a strong need for them. Anthropologists have found compelling evidence of friendship throughout history and across cultures. Universally, we’re built to care deeply about select people outside of our kin group. It’s hard to construct a personal life history that doesn’t include important parts for one’s friends.
Now happens to be a prime time for increasing our awareness of how friends affect us. Friends are not just more important than you might think; they actually are becoming more important sociologically. In his 2004 book Urban Tribes, journalist Ethan Watters posed the question: “Are friends the new family?” Watters entertainingly depicted city-dwelling buddies who relied on one another throughout their twenties and even thirties, as they delayed marriage and found their vocational callings—a phenomenon of his class and age-group. While big, stable “tribes” might not characterize most Americans’ social circles, people of all ages (and from all areas of the country) are relying on friends to fulfill duties traditionally carried out by blood relatives or spouses.
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The median age of first marriage is still rising: In 2010 it was 28.7 for men and 26.5 for women, up from 27.5 and 25.9 in 2006. Americans aren’t merely delaying marriage; many are divorced or widowed or are opting out completely. One hundred million or so Americans (that’s almost half of all adults) are not married, and a 2006 Pew Research study found that 55 percent of singles are not looking ever to get married.
College students and young adults seem to be less inclined to have steady romantic relationships and are instead “hooking up” casually with one another. It stands to reason that without the psychological support of a serious boyfriend or girlfriend, this group is also relying on friends more than their demographic equivalents have in the past.
Sociologist Eric Klinenberg points out that “more people live alone now than at any other time in history.” In cities such as Atlanta, Denver, Seattle, San Francisco, and Minneapolis, at least 40 percent of all households are made up of a single per- son. Klinenberg blows apart the stereotype of the lonely, quirky singleton by concluding that these people, whether young or elderly, socialize with friends more than do those who live with partners and families.
So, for the increasing number of people who are not living in traditional family structures, friends are often primary ties, providing close emotional support and “instrumental” help as well. It’s not necessarily an either/or proposition, where friends must replace family, however. Singles are often close to their parents, nieces and nephews, and siblings, after all. But friends, in part because they are free of the heavy weight of obligation, can be even more beneficial and life-enhancing than relatives, particularly if they live near us.
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It’s not just single people for whom friends matter—a lot. Friends are also important for parents and those who are married or living with a romantic partner. Time with friends is actually our most pleasant time: We are most likely to experience positive feelings and least likely to experience negative ones when we are with friends compared to when we are with a spouse, child, coworker, relative, or anyone else. We’re not surprised when we hear people grumbling about how they have to attend a family holiday party, yet it would puzzle us to hear the same people complain about having to go to a celebration full of their friends.
Why do we prefer spending time with our friends over our families? Some say it is because we pick our friends (God’s consolation prize) while we don’t pick our families. Insofar as we choose our spouses and decide to have children, we do have some say over our families. More likely, our time with our pals is more enjoyable because of our expectations. When we’re with friends, we bring sympathy and understanding and leave out some of the grievances we carry into interactions with family members. We tend to demand less from friends than we do from relatives or our romantic partners, and each friend provides us distinct benefits. For instance, one might be our confidante, another might make us laugh, while a third is our go-to person for political discussion. We don’t insist that they be everything to us; thus we are less disappointed when a friend falls short in a certain way than we are when a parent or spouse does the same.
When working parents devote every scrap of free time to their children, their friendships are the first thing to slide. We know from research (and our own intuition quickly confirms this) that expecting one’s spouse to be everything is a recipe for disaster. Leaning on friends for intellectual stimulation, emotional support, and even just fun activities relieves the pressure of the overheated nuclear family. Busy moms and dads would do well to stop considering friends to be a nonessential luxury.
Kids themselves might also be more friend centered than they were, say, fifty years ago. Back then only children made up 10 percent of American kids under the age of eighteen. The latest census reveals that the ratio of “onlies” has doubled. There are about fourteen million of them, and they are likely seeking out pals more because in-house playmates aren’t available.
In some ways we put friendship up on a pedestal. Think of all the popular movies and TV shows (such as, um, Friends) about tight clans whose members see one another through life’s awkward moments and dramatic trials alike. But if we understood how beneficial real friends are, I think we’d be less passive and more careful about how we treat them, even if other people, such as our partners or kids, officially occupy the primary places in our hearts.
Friendfluence, then, is the powerful and often unappreciated role that friends—past and present—play in determining our sense of self and the direction of our lives. In the pages ahead, you’ll learn how friends affect us during different developmental phases. As children, we’re attached to our parents but preoccupied with our pals. Preschoolers who have trouble making friends tend to go on to have bad relationships with younger siblings, for instance. As middle schoolers, kids who don’t care what friends think of them do worse academically and socially in high school—and beyond. It’s not just that good friends are nice to have; the skills one needs to make good friends are the very abilities one generally needs to be successful in life. (“Tiger Moms” should rethink sleepover bans if they want their children to thrive in the social jungle, for which there is no adequate cramming course.)
When we are teenagers, friends co-create our fledging identities. Drug use, smoking, and early sexual activity are highly influenced by peer behaviors as well as parental behaviors. The often overlooked flip side, though, is the positive influence of peer pressure. Teens who befriend academic achievers, for example, will often work to get their own grades soaring.
Adult friendships subtly steer our beliefs, our values, and even our physical and emotional health. Although resolutions to enact new diet and exercise plans and vows to change our character are all too easy to break, if we befriend people whose philosophies and habits we admire, we naturally start adopting aspects of their personalities and lifestyles through a positive desire to be with and to be like our friends. The health-friendship connection is particularly compelling: One study of nurses with breast cancer found that women without close friends faced mortality rates that were four times as high as those nurses with at least ten friends.
The book will explore the “dark” side of friendship, too, to help you understand some of the uglier feelings that come along with amiable affection. Since friends have a hold over us, their power can damage and destroy just as it can heal and help. I’ll also tease out the conflicting findings about online friendship to clarify how the latest modes of electronic socializing alter our flesh-and-blood bonds.
Friendship has always been, and will always be, a cherished aspect of human life. But now, just as friendship is rising amid the rescrambling of social structures, we’re finally getting a handle on the complex ways that this relationship affects us. Learning how we can get the most out of our friendships is an important endeavor for anyone concerned about well-being, and unraveling the thick narrative strands contained within just one friendship is a fascinating exercise in its own right. The closest of friendships contain the mysterious spark of attraction and connection as well as drama, tension, envy, sacrifice, and love. For some, it’s the highest form of love there is.
Excerpted from the book Friendfluence. Copyright © 2013 by Carlin Flora. Published by Doubleday, a division of Random House, Inc.
© 2012 MSNBC Interactive