What do you think would make you describe your life as satisfying and successful? According to research, it could the quality of your friendships more than anything else…
Robin Dunbar, professor of evolutionary psychology at the University of Oxford, and author of Friends: Understanding the Power of our Most Important Relationship, makes it clear: friendships are vital to our happiness and longevity.
The single best predictor of our psychological health, wellbeing, physical health, and even how long we live, is the number and the quality of close friends that we have. The same conclusions were drawn by researchers in the longest study on happiness, which followed 268 men over 75 years of their lives. Men with warm, social relationships and friendships considered their lives successful and lived longer, were wealthier, and had more satisfying marriages. However, this was only true if the social relationships they had were of high quality.
With this striking evidence in mind, improve the quality of your friendships with three easy hacks.
1. Make room in your busy schedule to spend time with your friends
Friendships are so vital to our wellbeing, happiness, and longevity because of the effect that friends have on our body. “The things you do with friends, whether it be laughter, singing or eating together, triggers the endorphin system in the brain,” explains Professor Dunbar. “This, in turn, supports the immune system, destroying viruses and some cancer cells. So, the things that might cause you serious discomfort or serious illness are either eliminated or reduced. And, therefore, you live longer.”
Importantly, this effect on our body is the strongest when we are physically with our friends. Social media and phones are useful devices for maintaining friendships, as they remind our friends that we keep thinking about them. However, as Professor Dunar stresses, “Nothing really substitutes being able to sit across the table and stare into the whites of the eyes of the other person, and reach out and give them a hug or a pat on the shoulder. These are the things that really kick in the endorphin system”.
That is why making time in your busy schedule to actually see your friends in person is the key to harvesting the wellbeing outcomes of friendships.
2. Find precious moments and stories to share with your friends
When spending time with your friends, concentrate on sharing stories and precious moments, as these bring us together and build further connections. Storytelling and sharing experiences also contribute to the release of endorphins in the brain that makes you feel bonded to the particular person you are doing the selected activity with.
Also, as friends tend to be very similar to us, concentrating on the things we have in common is shown to strengthen our bond.
“There are ‘scene pillars’ of friendships, and the more of those dimensions you share with somebody, the stronger the relationship is,” explains Professor Dunbar. These are your gender, personality, education, ethnicity, interests, moral views, and music taste. That’s right: sharing the same musical tastes is the best predictor of whether you think a complete stranger will become your friend. No wonder dancing and singing with friends is a key bonding activity that’s often on our agenda.
3. Appreciate your ‘shoulder to cry on’ type of friends
Obviously, not all relationships go smoothly in our life all the time. It turns out that the best measure of the quality of friendship is simply the number of people you can call on in emergencies.
“When your life falls apart, a limited number of people are going to drop everything to help you out,” says Professor Dunbar.
As we have limited time, there are limits to the number of people that we can afford to invest a lot of time with, and on average that is about five friends. The best way to care for ‘shoulder to cry on’ friends, is to express once in a while how much they mean to you by directly sharing your gratitude, doing something nice for them, offering a helping hand, and spending some bonding time with them.