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The Importance of Friendship

Good friends enhance the quality, the pleasure, and the health of each other

We. All. Need. Good. Friends.

The songs “You’ve Got a Friend” by Carol King, “People, People Who Need People” by Barbra Streisand, and “With a Little Help from My Friends” by Joe Cocker, express the critical roles good friends play in our lives.

Like many of you, some of my oldest close friends have been an important part of my life over the decades.

As attested by the old adage—we choose our friends, not our family—the personal and positive nature of friendship is voluntary. We are a social species and we need that sense of “Belonging,” of feeling deeply appreciated by people we care for. Meaningful, long-term friendships are cherished.

Intimate friends share each other’s experiences and in some ways, they inhabit each other’s lives. They often have similar viewpoints and values, and they may share similar backgrounds and traditions. They witness the milestones and unexpected changes of life, the highs and lows, celebrations and sadness.

People without friends often experience the vulnerability of loneliness, that poignant state that many of us have felt at some point.

Friendships first develop during childhood, when youngsters learn to interact with others. They learn how to agree and disagree, to exchange meaningful words and gestures, to accommodate others’ temperaments, and to make friends. These early skills are foundations for later friendships.

Friends exchange caring, celebration, and solace. When people feel blue, they often reach out to old friends for support and counsel. But in times of deep depression, they might avoid human contact, either out of lack of energy or thinking they are unworthy. They withdraw when they are most in need of support from others.

A key finding from a major study of adults’ lives was that those who had close, long-term friends fared better than those who were less social. Close friendships enhanced moods and functioning as well as emotional and physical health.

Friendships have to be cultivated and nurtured to be meaningful over years. Social media supposedly enable people to make new friends via sites such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and many others. Unfortunately, some of these online friendships are more “virtual” than real. Many of these “cyber-bonds” are often anything but meaningful, and can actually be a way of not engaging deeply with others. In the guise of generating friendships, the Internet can ironically serve to keep people apart. Social media can never replace the authenticity and intimacy of face-to-face interactions.

Good friends are open, genuine, and honest with each other. They tolerate each other’s frailties, appreciate their differences, and honestly criticize when necessary. Over many years, they participate in each other’s celebrations and marriages, and in their children’s and grandchildren’s milestones. They are there for each other during illnesses and setbacks, and some are left to mourn the losses of their dear old friends, almost as a loss of a part of themselves.

You know that some of the feelings and experiences you shared with friends during good times and sad are among your most cherished memories.

In Sondheim’s beautiful song "Old Friends," an old friend says: “Here’s to us, who’s like us?”

Simply put, good friendships are some of the best stuff in life.

More from Saul Levine M.D.
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