Resolution #1: Be a Good Friend

Good friendships are a model for other relationships and critical for health.

Posted Dec 30, 2019

Friendship has been found across species.
Source: FamVeld/iStock

Be a good friend. That is my number one resolution this year. You ought to consider making it yours as well. 

I’ll tell you why in a minute. But first, let me acknowledge that it is not surprising that I'm thinking about friendship this year since I am about to publish a book about how important it is. What is surprising is that it never occurred to me before that friendship was resolution-worthy.

That fact neatly sums up a basic problem with friendship. We think we appreciate our friends. We think we understand what friendship does for us. And yes, there are a few generous, thoughtful, souls among us who ace this friendship thing on a regular basis (If that’s you, keep up the good work. But read on, just to be sure...). Most of us, however, could and should do better. We get busy with work or family. We fall in love. We just want to binge-watch The Crown instead of going out to dinner. Weeks go by and we never quite manage to call Liz or get in touch with Bill. Or alternatively, we monopolize conversations—always talking, rarely listening. We care about friendship, but we don’t necessarily prioritize it.

Resolutions, of course, are about priorities and aspirations. They are often about steps we can take to make us healthier and happier. They are also about ways we can go about being a better version of ourselves. For years, my annual list had a depressing sameness to it. The health-related ones were about exercising five times a week or eating more vegetables. The work-related ones were about discipline and productivity. I often threw in something about being a more patient parent or a more loving spouse. 

Those goals are all well and good, but there is no better bang for your self-improvement buck than investing in friends. That's why being a good friend is at the top of my list for 2020.

Simply put, quality relationships are as important for your health as diet and exercise. Individuals with the strongest bonds are happier, healthier, and more successful. They live longer. This is true across species. Monkeys, for example, spend as much as 20% of their waking hours grooming their closest allies because that’s how they bond, building and maintaining relationships they can count when a leopard or lion shows up.

What defines a quality relationship? According to biologists, it’s a relationship that is positive, stable, and reciprocal. In other words, someone who makes you feel good, who is reliable, who helps you out when necessary. That sounds like a good friend to me. Think about it. If you call your spouse or your sister your “best friend” (and you well might), you use that phrase to indicate something extra special about your relationship. Friendship is the relational equivalent of a superfood.

Friendship is powerful in part because it’s the antidote to loneliness, which is deadly. Loneliness leads to increased mortality, depression, aggressiveness and stress, as well as social withdrawal, poorer sleep, and elevated blood pressure. To neuroscientists, loneliness doesn’t just mean social isolation, it is a marker of our level of satisfaction with the level of social connection we have. It is possible to feel lonely in a crowd or to enjoy time alone. That said, everyone benefits from having at least one friend. 

Based on my years of reporting on the science of friendship, here’s how I will go about being a good (and in some cases, better) friend: 

Put in the time. 

Friendship requires time. It takes about 50 hours of time spent together to consider someone a friend rather than an acquaintance and a full 200 hours to call someone a best friend. The more time we spend with our friends—talking, sharing a meal, going to a movie—the closer we usually are. Frequency of contact matters. So, put in the time—show up when it matters, make a date to get together and don’t cancel.

Prioritize people that matter most.

Friendship, by definition, is about partiality. We connect with some people more powerfully than with others. Put the bulk of your time and energy into the people in your closest circle. Those should be the people in your life who are reliable and make you feel good. Some will be relatives or romantic partners; all should feel like a friend. 

Accentuate the positive.

Time with good friends is not just psychologically rewarding, it’s physiologically rewarding. When we enjoy someone’s company, our brain’s reward systems are engaged—the happiness hormones of dopamine, oxytocin, and endorphins kick in. This is why quality matters. The relationships that are good for our health are the ones that make us feel good. Strive to make your friends feel good in return. Let them know what you appreciate about them. Notice what’s going on in their lives. Engage in conversation.  

Be helpful.

Good friendships are cooperative and reciprocal. You help your friends and your friends help you, especially in times of need. What friendship is really about, say the experts, is creating a small circle of people you can rely on. Friendship is a way of alleviating the stresses of life. All that investment of time and good feeling only pays off if, eventually, your friend is there to help when you need it and vice versa — to bring dinner over in a crisis, to help you move. The two of you must cooperate. When you don’t — when a relationship feels too lopsided — it often fades away, or it should, because you need to invest in someone else.

Whether you make new friends or cherish old ones, I wish you a very happy New Year. 

Copyright: Lydia Denworth, 2019.