Why and how friends can shape your life.
One of the most important and yet least understood areas of psychology concerns the role of friends in our lives. In my own writing on adult development and aging, I have constantly felt frustrated about the relative lack of research on close relationships in middle and later life. Most of the research on friendship concerns children and adolescents, and only rarely do researchers seriously address friendships over the latter (and majority) of the lifespan.
Fortunately, author Carlin Flora’s new book, Friendfluence, addresses this much-needed gap. She pulls together the available and wide-ranging academic literature on friendship with personal insights and interviews, exploring all aspects of friendship in a thoughtful and engaging way.
If you ever had any doubts that friends are one of the most important, if least understood, aspects of life, Flora will convince you. When it comes to happiness, your friends are the key.
I’ve tried to distill Friendfluence into what I believe are its most important lessons. Of course, if you want to get the full effect, I recommend that you read it in its entirety. For now, though, here are 15 reasons to appreciate your friends:
- Friendfluence affects you in more ways than you realize. Flora made up the word “friendfluence” to capture the effect that friends have on our lives: “Friendfluence 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” (p. 6). Whether you realize it or not, your friends have shaped who you are today. You are even the product of the friends who are no longer your friends.
- Friends can give you vital life skills. Friendfluence gives you vital life skills, “the very abilities one generally needs to be successful in life” (p. 6). There are many perks of friendship include sharpening your mind, making you generally happier, knowing yourself better, becoming inspired to reach your goals, advancing your career, helping you meet romantic partners, and living a longer and healthier life.
- Childhood friendships start your learning process. Early friendships play a vital role because they occur while key developmental changes are taking place. They help teach us some of those important life skills but also shape our life “narrative.” Flora advocates for parents and teachers to give kids unstructured time to work out their own social relationships rather than to over-program them into restrictive activities.
- Teen friendships shape your later romantic bonds. Though parents spend much of their time worrying about who their teenage kids are with, these relationships are a training ground for the later long-term bonds that will evolve through adulthood. Flora advises parents to recognize that peers will “trump” them every time, and so instead of fighting with your kids about spending too much time with their friends, or who their friends are, you can help your children more by inviting their friends over to your home.
- Friends can help you define your priorities. People tend to pick friends who are similar to them. This fact falls under the general proximity rule of close relationships, in that like tends to attract like. Because we fall prey so easily into this similarity trap, it is important to try to stretch yourself to learn from some of those opposites. Flora points out the many ways in which “Birds, feather, flock.” Knowing this can help you grow by expanding your range of friends and trying out some new points of view.
- Having friends can help you get more friends. People tend to like others who have a reputation for being nice and helpful, and they like people who like them. If you want to be the type of person who attracts new friends, these qualities will help get you on your way toward building your social group. Once you have more friends, you’ll be able to enjoy some of those perks of friendship.
- Close friends support you through thick and thin. To take the most advantage of friendfluence, put effort into your closest friendships. Although being friendly can get you more friends, you don’t need hundreds to help you through life. You may have to prune your friendship tree as you get older to be sure that you give enough attention to the ones who will really matter for your well-being.
- Friends can make you miserable too. There is a dark side to friendship. The people who know you the best are also the ones who have the most power to betray you, should the relationship sour. Friends can also get you into trouble. If your friends are doing something bad or harmful, you tend to be more likely to do so as well, a fact to which many drinking buddies can certainly attest. Friends can also cause you stress when they get in the way of other important goals or relationships. Be ready to say no to friends who disappoint, betray, or stress you and you’ll be more likely to get the full friendfluence effect.
- You’re less lonely when you have friends. The worst kind of friendfluence, according to Flora, is a complete lack of friends. Loneliness is painful, especially when you are living with loneliness for a prolonged period of time. This is yet another reason to put time, energy, and attention into finding and cultivating a close circle of friends.
- Your online friends can steer your thoughts and behaviors. Although online friends are qualitatively different than your in-person friends, they shape you nevertheless. They can also be your source of life support. Flora shows us how Toni Bernhard, author of How to be Sick, and confined to her home, has maintained a lifeline to the outside world through her closest online friends. Of course, your online friends can also make you miserable too, especially if you get caught in the “friendship paradox” (the fact that most people on Facebook have fewer friends than the average number). If you can avoid having Facebook envy dominate your life, you’ll have more rewarding connections with your extended friendship community.
- Friends matter to you, regardless of gender. Although much is made of the difference between male friends, female friends, and male-female friend pairs, all share the qualities of having the potential to influence your life. If you restrict yourself to one certain type of friendship, you may be missing out on bonds that transcend gender boundaries.
- Couple friendships can help your own relationship. People experiencing similar life events can often provide the most valuable support to each other. Unfortunately, some couples withdraw from their friendships when their relationship turns serious. You can benefit both from maintaining your separate friendships, but also from sharing with the couples who are experiencing transitions such as becoming parents, raising teenagers, and helping older family members. Friends can also help you alleviate your work-related stress. Even though you may be stretched to the limit time-wise, the investment you make in these friendships will be worth the psychological benefits.
- Friends can give you a reality check. Who but your closest friends will tell you that your new outfit is ridiculously garish? What person you meet on the street will let you know that your latest romantic interest is going to bring you heartbreak? Because friends know us so well, they are able to see things that we can’t, and they aren’t afraid to share a dose of reality with you. Of course, as we saw earlier, friends can also make you miserable. However, the ones who care about you have a perspective on your behavior that no one else can completely see. As Flora points out: “friends are better at describing our behavioral traits than we are” (p. 132). Incidentally, this is one reason why personality researchers ask for “other” reports to compare to the self-ratings that participants themselves provide. These “other” reports can come closer to the mark, especially for individuals whose personalities ironically make it hard for them to see themselves in a realistic light.
- Banding together with friends can help you create social change. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to fight for a cause, raise money for charity, or even just make a few small improvements in your community on your own. Friends are the first step, Flora points out, to building successful social movements. Facebook provides one way to enlist the support of thousands of people. At a less grandiose level, people are more likely to engage in helping and altruistic behavior at the urging of their close friends.
- Being a friend helps your friends. Friendfluence works in two directions. Not only do you benefit from its many perks, but by being a good friend you are helping those closest to you. “Being a friend is a great honor and responsibility, so treat your friends carefully” (p. 235). If you are aware of how you’re affecting your friends, you’ll work harder to stay close to them which, in turn, will benefit you as well. Being a good friend also includes asking them for help when you need it. Giving someone the gift of being influential can be one of the greatest joys you pass on to your friends.
The upshot is that you need friends and they need you. It doesn’t take much skill to cultivate this close and fascinating type of human bond, but it does take some effort. As Flora shows us, that effort will clearly pay off in helping you lead a more fulfilling life.
Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2013.| Reviewed by Abigail Fagan