The best kinds of friendships enhance our lives, make us feel supported and loved and boost our overall happiness. Some studies even indicate that friendships are as essential to our health, well-being and longevity as diet and exercise.
What kind of friendships make us happiest? Recent research shows that people need between three to five close friends to achieve optimal life satisfaction. Having more close friendships than that can become hard to balance. “We don’t generally have sufficient time or emotional energy to sustain more than five close friendships at any given time,” said Lauren Napolitano, a licensed psychologist practicing in Philadelphia. “Less than three close friendships is less than ideal because it lowers our odds of getting our needs met if one of those friends is unavailable.”
Looser connections with friends you’re not as close to can be just as valuable — especially as our social needs grow and change over time. Here’s a look at the five types of friendships we need for optimal happiness and well-being:
Close friends are people you’ve known for many years who have been with you through ups and downs. Though there may be periods where you’re not in touch, you can pick up right where you left off at any point and can always call them when you’re in need. According to Dr. Anjali Ferguson, a clinical psychologist based in Virginia, close friendships are most essential for mental health. In these relationships, judgments and social desirability are less important, and an individual can be their most authentic form,” she explained. “These relationships challenge us and support us simultaneously while helping us grow through validation and safety.”
There may be some overlap between close friends and lifelong friends. Napolitano said that lifelong friends have the benefit of knowing you when you were still growing and developing as a person. “Also sometimes called ‘family friends,’ these people have known you and your family since childhood,” she said. Napolitano described these friends as knowing all the distinctive ways you were raised, who also understand your parents and siblings well. “While you might not speak to these friends regularly, there’s a depth of understanding that helps us to feel steady and secure in our friendship with them,” she added.
Ferguson said lifelong friendships become even more important as we age because our social circles become smaller. “In these friendships, individuals may experience a multitude of life changes and stressors, so these supports can become paramount for navigating stressful life events.”
Friends of convenience
Friendships built on proximity, such as friends we make through a hobby or interest or those who live in our neighborhood, are considered friendships of convenience. You may see these friends more often than your close friends due to proximity and shared interests, such as trying a new restaurant in the neighborhood or attending a local concert. Though these friendships may not last throughout our lifetime, Ferguson said they still play an important role in our happiness and well-being. “They can offer a sense of belonging or support during a period of adjustment or transition (which can be a much-needed stress reducer),” she said.
“I don’t think any of us realized the emotional support that we received from our work friends until we were banished into remote work environments,” said Napolitano. Though you may lose touch after one or both of you move on to a new company, work friends who understand the struggles you’re facing and can validate your feelings offer a kind of support that no other friend can. “Work friends keep our spirits up, validate our complaints about our job or industry, and provide much-needed predictability in our work lives,” Napolitano said.
As we move through different phases of life, it’s important to be supported by others who are experiencing the same struggles simultaneously. “Whether you’re prepping for the SAT, pregnant with your first child or getting divorced, we need friends who can support us and inspire us as they navigate the same challenges,” said Napolitano. “We learn from their mistakes and successes, and we feel that this kind of friend is uniquely invested in helping us navigate this chapter of life.”
Can one friend fill all of these roles?
Of course, there can always be overlap within these friendship types. You may grow and maintain a close friendship with a work friend or have a friend of convenience turn into a same-chapter-of-life friend. However, Ferguson said it’s not realistic or recommended to attempt to get the kind of support we need socially from just one friend.
“If this one relationship does end or become distant, it can have profound impacts on our mental health,” she said. “Furthermore, relying on just one individual for all your friendship needs can potentially become overwhelming and taxing for that individual.”
Do social media friends count?
Social media can be a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it has the power to unite people with similar interests or unite marginalized groups to make them feel less alone. “Here, social media is a powerful tool to help connect like-minded folks across the world,” said Ferguson. “But research also demonstrates that our generations are growing increasingly disconnected from meaningful social connections, so it is important we remain present-focused and mindful of establishing physical connections as well.”
If you’re missing a few types of friendships from this list, Napolitano said it’s never too late to make a new one. “It’s harder than when we were in high school or college, but it’s worth it to always try to make new connections because you never know when you’ll make a new friend.”