Whether you dream of finding the Oprah Winfrey to your Gayle King or crave a hilarious circle of F.R.I.E.N.D.S., friendship is the zest of life. Good friends bring laughter and joy to daily activities and support you during hard times.
Friendships enrich our lives on every level, contributing to our self-esteem, happiness, and a sense of purpose.
Friends are important. So important that the quality of your friendships can determine your physical health, your financial fortitude, and even how long you live.
How Many Friends Should I Have?
According to research, the average person has 3 to 5 very close friends, 10 to 15 people in their circle, and 100 to 150 acquaintances in their social network. Naturally, these numbers can vary widely based on your personality, career, location, and social skills.
It’s a common misconception that you need to have tons of friends to be happy, but studies have revealed that it isn’t the number of friends, but the quality of friends, that leads to true happiness. Close friends and “best” friends are far more likely to yield real social fulfillment than a bunch of casual connections.
This even holds true in the celebrity world, where one would imagine that famous people have loads of friends… Nope!
- Oprah Winfrey openly shares that she has only 3 close friends.
- Instagram star and singer Selena Gomez says the same: she only has 3 good friends she feels she can tell everything to.
- Actor Matthew McConaughey says, “I’ve got only a few really close friends in the 28 years of acting that I keep up with all the time.”
Nearly half of the American population reports an average of 3 close friends. About a third of people report having 4 to 9 close friends. The other proportions include people with 10 or more close friends (about 13%) and those who report no close friends at all (12%).
Oxford anthropologist Robin Dunbar calculated that you could only maintain a social network of 150 to 200 people, most of which are casual acquaintances. Most people have a smaller group of about 15 friends that they can confide in. And Dunbar estimates that we only realistically keep an inner core circle of 5 or fewer friends and family members.
Yet, despite all the social media and illusions of online connection, true friendship seems more challenging to find these days. Compared to 1990, Americans are becoming more socially isolated over time.
The number of close friendships Americans have is declining. And a bunch of surface-level acquaintances just don’t cut it for fulfilling our social bonding needs. Even if you know many people, maintaining a handful of close quality friendships could be the key to true social connectedness.
No matter the number, having friends can benefit your life in truly incredible ways.
7 Science-Backed Benefits of Having Friends
It can be hard to pinpoint the exact feeling of “belonging” or “companionship.” Still, scientists have uncovered an abundance of ways in which friendships benefit our lives.
Quality Friends Make You Physically Healthier
Friendships improve your health on nearly every level.
In fact, research shows that they are just as important as diet and exercise.
Physically, social connection is linked to lower blood pressure, lower B.M.I., less inflammation, and a reduced risk of diabetes across all age groups.
But it’s important to remember that this only applies to quality friendships with people who inspire you to become a better version of yourself.
A quality friend can have these traits:
- Is kind and compassionate
- Accepts you for who you are
- Values your time
- Respects your boundaries
- Supports you during hard times
- Is fun to be around
- Is honest and trustworthy
- Encourages you to grow and improve
- Inspires and uplifts you
The risk for depression, suicide, obesity, smoking, and substance abuse drastically increases when people spend time around friends who are depressed/suicidal, overweight, smokers, or abuse substances.
Surprising? Probably not.
Jim Rohn’s infamous quote continues to reign true:
“You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.”
Overall, friendships generally make you healthier. Just be sure that you spend your time with people who uplift you.
Action Step: Prioritize friends who share health-promoting lifestyle choices that you want to adopt. If you know your friend goes to the gym often, but you’ve been afraid to start working out, consider asking them if you could tag along.
You can also find new health-minded friends by trying out local health cafes, yoga classes, joining a sports team, or volunteering at a local community garden.
Friendships Make You Happier
Fame and fortune don’t necessarily buy happiness. But research shows that friendship does.
One of the longest-running human studies on happiness has shown that relationships are the number one key indicator of joy and happiness.
Beginning in 1939, the Harvard Study of Adult Development started collecting data on the lives of 268 Harvard graduates and 456 Boston men.
For the last 80 years, researchers accumulated data from physical examinations, and completed medical histories, interviews, and questionnaires. Their goal? To uncover “what psychosocial variables and biological processes from earlier in life predict health and well-being in late life.”
The results were astounding yet shockingly simple.
At the end of the day, the only factor they could correlate with happiness was the quality of their human relationships. Close friendships, familial connections, and marriages surpassed other variables like social class, genetics, I.Q., fame, or fortune.
The people who had the most satisfaction in their friendships at age 50 were the healthiest and happiest at age 80. Moreover, loneliness was as closely linked to early death as smoking or alcoholism!
How profound is that?
Cultivating just a handful of close friendships today could lead to more fulfillment and happiness as you age.
You can learn more about Harvard’s happiness study in this video:
Friendships Make You Live Longer
Humans are undeniably social animals. Harnessing that innate social drive could be the secret to living a longer life.
Modern science has revealed that our brains have been wired for social connection since the dawn of Homo sapiens about 300,000 years ago. But modern society is increasingly socially disconnected.
Social ties are a survival mechanism. We need friends to make us feel safe, supported, and loved. Perhaps this is why feelings of loneliness and rejection trigger the same parts of our brains as physical pain.
Data from 148 studies have shown that people with stronger social connections are 50% more likely to survive!
In other words, weak social relationships or a lack of friends is correlated with a greater risk of death, regardless of age, sex, health status, or cause of death.
Action Step: Start learning social skills that attract more friends. Here are the top 10 Essential People Skills You Need to Succeed.
Sociability Makes You Less Likely to Get Sick
We all know that stress harms our bodies in a myriad of ways. But new evidence shows that social ties can buffer these negative effects and indirectly strengthen our immunity.
In another study, researchers found that sociability reduced the risk of the common cold. Of 334 participants, those with the highest quantity and quality of social connections were the least susceptible to getting sick when exposed to a virus that causes the common cold.
The association was completely independent of other factors like stress, health practices, and baseline immunity! In other words, people with friends are less likely to get a cold regardless of their other lifestyle decisions.
On the other hand, social isolation and loneliness are linked to a weaker immune system, especially for young adults. Later in life, a lack of supportive personal relationships can lead to immune dysregulation, cognitive decline, and even greater risk for chronic disease!
The evidence is clear: building a robust social circle could help prevent sickness. Perhaps friendship should be at the top of the self-care priority list alongside healthy eating, exercise, and stress management.
Friendships are Linked to Financial Success
Money may not buy happiness, and it doesn’t buy (quality) friends.
But financial success is linked to social competence, particularly amongst entrepreneurs. Social skills are a key determinant of wealth, whether in the tech industry, the cosmetic world, or anywhere in between.
The most successful people in life, business, and finance can effectively interact with people.
Perhaps you’ve heard the saying, “your network is your net worth.”
It’s not about what you know but who you know. Having an endless stream of knowledge in your brain as you sit in your basement alone won’t do the world any good. If you want to share your gifts with the world and have a broader positive impact, the ways in which you nourish friendships can profoundly impact your career success.
Pro Tip: Even if you aren’t an entrepreneur, honing in on your communication skills can drastically improve your friendships. Check out People School to develop more confidence and social skills and be successful at work and in life.
Friendship Improves Your Mental Health
If your mental health suffered during the recent pandemic, you are certainly not alone. A 2020 study indicated that more than 3 out of 5 Americans are lonely. And that number is on the rise.
These results were prevalent across all generations. Many researchers speculate that loneliness and isolation are intricately tied with the mental health epidemic that plagues much of western society today.
A lack of social support is a known risk factor for depression. People need friendships and familial relationships to support them through hard times and celebrate with them during good times.
The antidote? Mutually supportive friendships. If you want to be a better friend, try these 10 Action Steps to Become a Good Friend.
Friendships Make you Feel Safe
Everyone knows how much it hurts to get rejected by a friend or romantic partner, and some would prefer actual physical harm over the experience of rejection.
Interestingly, science explains why. Neuroscientists have found that “social pain” triggers the same parts of the brain as physical pain. In other words, social disconnection causes literal pain inside the human body.
This is why the expressions like “broken heart” or “hurt feelings” infuse emotions with words typically used to describe physical pain. Researchers have uncovered this pattern across a diversity of languages.
Humans evolved to depend on social bonds as a means of survival. Homo sapiens are born dependent on the caregiver(s) to nourish and care for them compared to other animals.
Without social connection, our brain panics and goes into “fight or flight” mode that can lead to a cascade of stress, anxiety, and feelings of isolation. Friendships counteract this by creating a sense of safety and belonging that goes back to our primal roots.
Action Step: If you want to feel calmer and at ease, reach out to 2-3 of your closest friends. Send them a quick text, voicemail, or email letting them know how grateful you are to have them in your life. Invite them to do something with you in the coming week.
While new friendships are exciting and fun, nourishing existing relationships and regularly letting people know that you care about them is vital.
What Makes a Good Friend?
Good friends are vulnerable, consistent, and positive. They lift you up and accept you for who you are.
In The Business of Friendship, friendship expert Shasta Nelson expands on these 3 major qualities of a good friend:
- Vulnerability: Opening up to your friends, being honest, and admitting your mistakes are crucial for creating depth in your relationship. When you are brave enough to be vulnerable, it helps others feel comfortable being vulnerable. Keeping a wall up around your feelings can lead to surface-level interactions and a lack of mutual trust.
- Consistency: Good friends are reliable. They show up when it matters most and follow through when they say they will. They are a consistent force of loyalty in your life.
- Positivity: Friends are the ones that bring you up during tough times and help you laugh through your tears. They encourage you to reach your goals. They are genuinely fun to be around and add joy or playfulness to your life.
Of course, countless other traits make for a good friend:
- Mutual interests
- Hilarious jokes
- Fun to be around
- A shoulder to cry on
- Comfortable to be around
- Easy to talk to
You know you have a good friend if you feel good around them and they care about your well-being. Do they lift you up or break you down? Do they put in as much effort as you do? Do they show you that they value your friendship?
Action Step: Learn the science of being a better friend and apply it to your friendships with our 10 Action Steps to Become a Good Friend.
What to Avoid in a Toxic Friendship?
Toxic friendships are defined by traits like control, manipulation, negativity, drama, and words or actions that make you feel below them.
Toxic people represent the opposite side of the friendship coin. All the benefits discussed above can quickly be flipped on their heads when dealing with toxic friendships.
Suppose you notice your friend displaying one or more of these signs in your friendship. In that case, they may be creating a toxic environment for your relationship:
- They try to control you
- They manipulate you into doing things for them
- They make you feel less self-confident
- They emotionally dump their feelings on you
- They only talk about themself
- They’re constantly negative
- They’re too busy or self-important to spend time with you
- They create drama for no reason
- They live in a victim mindset
- They’re jealous of your other friends or relationships
- They lie to you
- They don’t care to put in the same effort as you do
Unfortunately, there are many ways that friendships can turn toxic. But open communication and self-awareness can be the keys to avoiding a downward spiral.
It’s important to remember that you deserve to have friends who enjoy your company and make you feel happy in their presence! Letting go of toxic friendships could drastically improve your mental health and help you enjoy all the benefits of positive friendships with other people.
Pro Tip: If you are unsure whether or not someone still wants to be your friend, see if you notice any of the 8 Telltale Signs Someone Doesn’t Want to Be Your Friend. Consider channeling your time and energy into more healthy relationships that fill your cup rather than drain it.
How Do I Make New Friends?
Engaging in new hobbies and going to new places can help expand your horizons and create scenarios where connections flourish.
You can also use technology to facilitate new friendships IRL. Use one of our 50 Tips to Make New Friends in ANY City if you just moved. Perhaps message someone you enjoy watching on social media and invite them for coffee. You can also try out a Friendship App to Connect with Likeminded People in your area.
If you want to make more friends or revitalize old friendships, but feel a little awkward when socializing, learn how to navigate Post Pandemic Friendships: How to Overcome Bad Social Skills.
Key Takeaways: How Friendships Radically Improve Your Life
You don’t have to be a social butterfly to enjoy all the benefits of quality friendship. In fact, the most fulfilling and long-lasting relationships are those select few friends you feel fully yourself around. These are the ones who can genuinely improve and enrich your life.
The benefits of friendship read like a lengthy sales pitch for the best product you’ve ever tried:
- Quality friends make you physically healthier
- Friendships make you happier
- A strong network of friends is linked to a longer life
- Sociability is connected to a reduced risk of getting sick
- Friendships are correlated with financial success
- Good friends improve your mental health
- Friends make you feel safe and at home
The deep yearning for a sense of belonging transcends all cultural, economic, and political borders. Friends give us the feeling of companionship that makes life worthwhile.