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Fortify Your Friendships to Flourish

Who are your 4 a.m. friends?

Make new friends, but keep the old; Those are silver, these are gold. —Joseph Parry

Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
Celebrating my 30th college reunion with James.
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

I (Suzie) just celebrated my 30th last week—my 30th college reunion, that is. And what a truly spectacular time I had! It was lovely seeing so many dear old friends from my Penn days, a special time I refer to as a sort of secondary stage of my formative years, because they helped me develop into the person I am today.

Having known me for more than half my life, these “formative” friends have seen me at my worst and at my best, and a whole lot in between. In brief, they just “get” me.

Given the long period of social distancing over the past few years, my friends and I were especially eager to come together on campus at our alma mater to connect, savor, and celebrate. Many of us have realized more than ever the importance of our social connections. Human beings are social animals, and we have relied on others for our survival since the beginning of time.

Being back on campus catapulted me back in time, to an easier and simpler time than what we are experiencing today. And for a moment (well, actually three days), I felt like that carefree college student with nary a worry in the world.

My friends and I spent hours engaged in deep, meaningful conversations. We retold beloved stories of yesteryear. And we shared so much laughter. What joy to feel young again!

Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
Back on campus with my dear friends who made me feel like a carefree college student again.
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

Friends Help Us Flourish

Not surprisingly, I was bubbling over with joy when I returned home after the weekend festivities, which carried over into the next few days. I did my best to spread that joy to my family and others since I know from positive psychology research that emotions are contagious.

Studies suggest that people are twelve times more likely to feel happy on days they spend six to seven hours with friends. No wonder I was feeling so good after a marathon weekend of socializing.

However, friends don’t simply make you feel good; they are actually good for you. Research suggests that friends can help you live longer; in fact, people with strong social connections are 50 percent less likely to die early.

Having close friends is as good for you, if not better, than getting regular exercise and maintaining a healthy weight. (Although that shouldn't be taken as a free pass to skip out on your exercise or to pack on some additional pounds.)

Positive psychology research has confirmed that our social connections are key to our thriving. In fact, eminent Harvard psychiatrist George Vaillant, who helmed the largest study on adult development, found that our loving relationships are the single most important factor in aging well. Our loving relationships aren’t just the ones we have with our significant other or family members. They also include the high-quality connections we have with our friends.

Your "4 A.M. Friends"

Over fifteen years ago, while attending graduate school, I recall famed social psychologist Christopher Peterson asking our class if we had at least one person we could call in the middle of the night for any reason. To those of us who answered yes, he smiled and said that was a key factor for our individual well-being. He then paused and gave the rest of the class a challenge. He encouraged anyone who didn’t already have a “4 a.m. friend” (or ideally two or three) to make an effort to get one right away.

More recently, a 2021 study by Jenna Wilson and colleagues found that our perception of our social support may be a key factor in how our friendships affect our health. In a study of 454 middle-aged to older adults, individuals who characterized themselves as having a supportive group of friends fared better in overall health than those who felt disengaged from others and like they did not have a strong level of support.

The kicker is that these individuals had better health regardless of whether or not they actually used the support system. These findings suggest that even if we don’t use the support of our friends, just knowing that we have it is key. It serves as a sort of psychological security net for us.

Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
These "formative" friends have seen me at my worst and best.
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

I feel like a very lucky woman to have my support system of amazing, close friends. Having these "4 a.m. friends" has indeed helped reduce my anxiety and bring me comfort during these tough times, especially since I’ve joined the “sandwich generation,” where I’m raising a young son while simultaneously caring for aging parents. These friends are also there to help me celebrate the good times, too.

Like happiness, though, flourishing friendships don’t just happen. We need to actively nourish these close connections to reap their well-being effects. Sometimes that seems easier said than done. It’s possible to have the best of intentions but not know where to start, or to get wrapped up in our busy lives.

Here are some researched-based ways to help fortify our friendships:

How to Fortify Your Friendships

1. Connect

Forge deep connections rather than merely superficial interactions. Be intentional. Ask meaningful questions. Actively listen, rather than interrupting or anxiously waiting for your turn to talk. Respond, don’t react. Maintain your sense of curiosity like you did when you first became friends. While you don’t need to agree with everything your friends say, you do need to be agreeable.

Be openminded. We learn more when we are open to new experiences, ideas, and perspectives rather than staying in our comfort zone. Don’t assume you know all there is to know about your friends. Make an effort to understand them more deeply. You might be surprised what you discover about them—and about yourself.

2. Savor

Sharing experiences together with close friends is key to well-being. Slow down to savor the seemingly ordinary. Don’t rush through experiences. Pay attention to small magical moments, rather than just waiting for the momentous (like your 30th reunion).

We live life moment by moment so it’s all the more important to be intentional about cherished time together with our close friends. Whether it’s coming together to celebrate at a big college reunion, touching base over coffee on an ordinary day, or connecting virtually, remember to be fully present. Treat each and every interaction as a special opportunity to connect. You may be surprised to see what blossoms.

My dear 4 a.m. college friend Marnie and I celebrating the good times.
Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
Source: My dear 4 a.m. college friend Marnie and I celebrating the good times.

3. Celebrate

We all know the importance of supporting our friends during tough times—and naturally, we all hope that our friends will be there for us as well during our challenging times.

What we may not realize is that it’s equally if not more important for our individual and relational well-being to celebrate the good times with our friends. In fact, in a study of married couples, those who responded to their partner’s good news in an “active and constructive” way had a fifty percent greater chance of still being together six months later as opposed to those who did not.

Since good things happen on a more frequent basis (3 to 1, according to research by Gable & Haidt, 2005) if all we are doing is being there during the bad times we may be missing out on many opportunities to connect with our loved ones and friends.

Active Constructive Responding (ACR) is a powerful way of strengthening our close connections because it makes the other person feel “understood, validated, and cared for” (Gable, et al. 2006), something we all want in life. Make it a habit to actively celebrate your friends’ successes, whether it’s a big promotion, health achievement, or another meaningful goal they accomplished—and then watch how your relationships continue to grow.

Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski
It’s important to nourish our friendships on a daily basis, not just on momentous occasions.
Source: Suzie Pileggi Pawelski

With these tips in mind, do your best to improve your friendships by actively connecting, savoring, and celebrating every day, not just on special occasions.

While I can hardly wait for my 35th reunion so I can get together with my closest friends again, in the meantime I’ll try to remember to nurture my friendships on a daily basis, not just on momentous occasions.

Friendships that have stood the test—
Time and change—are surely best;
Brow may wrinkle, hair grow gray,
Friendship never knows decay.

References

Demir, M., & Davidson, I. (2013). Toward a better understanding of the relationship between friendship and happiness: Perceived responses to capitalization attempts, feelings of mattering, and satisfaction of basic psychological needs in same-sex best friendships as predictors of happiness. Journal of Happiness Studies, 14, 525–550. doi:10.1007/s10902-012-9341-7.

Demir, M., Orthel, H., & Andelin, A. K. (2013). Friendship and happiness. In S. A. David, I. Boniwell, & A. C. Ayers (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of happiness (pp. 861–870). London: Oxford University Press.

Fiori, K., Denckla, C. (2015). Friendship and Happiness Among Middle-Aged Adults. In: Demir, M. (eds) Friendship and Happiness. Springer, Dordrecht. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-94-017-9603-3_8

Gable, S, L., Gonzaga, G. C, & Strachman, A. (2006). Will you be there for me when things go right? Supportive responses to positive event disclosures. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, Vol 91(5), Nov 2006, 904-917

Gable, S. L., & Haidt, J. (2005). What (and why) is positive psychology?. Review of General Psychology, 9(2), 103.

Parry, Joseph. (1841-1903) New Friends and Old Friends.

Pileggi Pawelski, S. & Pawelski, J. (2018). Happy Together: Using the Science of Positive Psychology to Build Love That Lasts. New York: TarcherPerigee.

Rath, T., & Harter, J. (201). Well-being: The 5 Essential Elements. Washington D.C.: Gallup Press.

Saphire-Bernstein, S., & Taylor, S. E. (2013). Close relationships and happiness. In S. A. David, I. Boniwell, & A. C. Ayers (Eds.), The Oxford book of happiness (pp. 821–833). London: Oxford University Press.

Wilson, J.M., Smith, K., JStrough, J. & Delaney, R. (2021) Knowing you are there makes the difference: perceived social support, preferences for using support, and health, Journal of Women & Aging, 33:4, 396-410, DOI: 10.1080/08952841.2020.1860633

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