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The Fundamental Concepts of Friendship

Throughout out lives, we experience a variety of relationships: parents, siblings, romantic partners, and friends. According to a pair of leading social scientists, a “relationship refers to a pair of persons who are interdependent with each other, that is, each person affects and is affected by the behavior of the other person over time” (Collins van Dulmen, 2006).

The idea of relationship, in this context refers primarily to the intimate connections in our personal lives, while nonetheless, some individuals also consider close colleagues at work or in civic situations as friends as well. Thus, the concept of friendship is an ever-changing, yet crucial part of human experience across time and culture. Ancient Greek philosophers wrote about its importance: Holmes and Greco (2011) noted that, “Friendship is not only a ‘virtue,’ according to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, but a social practice: a social relationship between two individuals who freely choose and mutually trust each other” (para. 1.1). We are born into a biological family, but we have the power and freedom to choose our friends; to affiliate with and spend the majority of our social time with individuals picked based upon something like a common interest or successful mutual emotional support (Peel, Reid, Walter, 2009).

As Barbara Caine (2009) argues, with the decline in marriage rates as well as many women choosing to put off childbearing until later in life, friendships are becoming increasingly vital social…support for many people. Today, in the United States, more than 31 million Americans live in a one-person household and more than 50% of all Americans live in a state other than where they were born (U.S. Census Bureau, 2010). Friendship, then, is an “important social glue” (Peel, Reid, Walter, 2009), and sociologists have begun to study the “friendship convoy,” or the making of new friends as we traverse through life transitions such as relocation or divorce (Pahl Spencer, 2004). Building upon this legacy of narrative histories, philosophical perspectives, and artistic representations of friendship that span history and culture, a scientifically based understanding of the benefits of friendships has also recently emerged in the past century.

The results of current research demonstrate how social scientists are increasingly discovering the health, well-being, and material benefits of friendship. For example, some current friendship studies explore the ways that adolescents’ relationships impact high-risk behavior, the importance of social support and friendship networks to the physical and mental health of the elderly, and the ways in which friendships impact our professional success. These and other developments in research on what Tom Rath (2006) called, Vital Friendships, are informing the ways in which those with whom we choose to spend our leisure time and connect with most closely in the workplace impact our lives. As Rath noted, and the research described in these pages will confirm, “the absence of high-quality friendships is bad for our health, spirits, productivity, and longevity” (Chapter 3, The Friendship Prescription section, para. 5). A now-classic study at Duke University led by the renown researcher in psychology and neuroscience, Redford Williams, found that individuals who were “isolated,” or unmarried and/or did not have a confidant (friend), were up to 3 times more likely to die of coronary artery disease within 5 years (Williams, Barefoot, Califf, Haney, Saunders, et al., 1992). Thus, an understanding of the science of friendship is crucial for optimization of the interpersonal relationships that can improve—and possibly even save—our lives.

Friendships begin early in life and span all of human development. As children we are encouraged to make friends, share our toys, and play well with others. The skills and behaviors developed in early childhood and adolescent friendships such as practicing loyalty, sharing, and experiencing closeness via the exchange of ideas, conflict management and emotion regulation are related to social, cognitive, and emotional development (Newcomb Bagwell, 1995). The ability to make and keep friends in childhood and adolescence has been tied to success in early adulthood (Roisman, Masten, Coatsworth, Tellegen, 2004). According to one research study conducted with 205 children who were tracked into early adulthood, high quality friendships, academic achievement, and exemplary measures on classroom conduct are all correlated with later success. Another longitudinal study of 459 individuals tracked from age 5 to age 24 indicated that high levels of social capital (a term used to define the quantity and quality of friendships) measured in late adolescence, were predictive of positive life adjustment in adulthood including access to higher education, mental health, and positive behavioral adjustment (Pettit, Erath, Lansford, Dodge, Bates, 2011). In fact, a recent longitudinal study in Australia tracking more than 800 individuals from early childhood through age 32 found that social connectedness in adolescence was strongly linked to adult well-being and happiness (Olsson, McGee, Nada-Raja, Williams, 2012). Those individuals with strong ties in adolescence were more than 50% likely to report well-being in adulthood, including states of optimism and meaningfulness, predictors of better mental and physical health. Thus, research indicates that making friends as a child has long-lasting benefit.

On the other end of the developmental spectrum, researchers in the field of gerontology have demonstrated that friendships are important to the well-being of the elderly (Fiori Jager, 2011) and that friendship staves off mental decline in later years (Seeman, Lusignolo, Albert, Berkman, 2001). In a study of over 6,000 aging adults in the Midwest, those with strong social networks of either family or friends reported lower levels of depression and higher levels of cognition over time. In addition, those with strong social networks reported much greater confidence in the ability to ask for help, both material and non-material assistance, when in need (Fiori Jager, 2011). Retirement, health issues, downsizing of a home and the loss of loved ones can have profound impact on mental health in the aged. Strong friend networks and social support can serve as a buffer in these times of change. Evidence from friendship studies demonstrates that keeping our strong social ties is important throughout the lifespan.

However, as noted above, primarily, friendship studies have focused on the early and later years of human development and wane in between. Adult friendships have, until rather recently, been overlooked in research in fields like sociology (Holmes Greco, 2011). In psychology, friendship is often lumped together with other relational structures such as nuclear family including children, spouses, and other forms of kin but has been rarely considered as a source of primary importance on its own. Generally, mate selection, romantic relationship, or familial ties have been the primary relational domains of inquiry in adult development studies in the social sciences.

Friendship, the term used to describe relationships freely chosen but generally not romantically oriented, was viewed by social scientists as a purely private matter over the past two centuries. As Mary Holmes and Silvana Greco (2011) explain, many sociologists believed that private relationships, i.e., friendships, had little impact on our understanding of society and how societies function. This view—as well as the view held in the field of psychology—has changed. Sociologists now acknowledge the necessity and benefits of social networks as both good for the individual person as well as greater society. Psychology research has demonstrated that friendship networks have impact on an individual’s health, well-being and material success. In addition, our very definitions of friendship change over time. In ancient Greece, friendships were considered the exclusive domain of men and were a foundational aspect of public life and impacted everything from the governance of the nation state to the production of art. Now, friendships are varied and are as unique as the individuals in the relationships. There are best friends, friends with benefits, frenemies, wingmen, and brothers from another mother, to name just a few current categories in Western popular culture. Tom Rath (2006) suggests that there are 8 varieties of friends, and that each serves a purpose in our own well-being and success. He suggests that we need friends in each of these 8 categories, or that one person may serve multiple purposes in a friendship. But, he argues that the idea that one primary relationship can serve all of our relational needs is an outdated concept. He suggests that, while a primary relationship such as a spouse or partner may be the most important person in our lives, we should never overlook the importance of our close friends and wider friendship network.

The research that Rath (2006) conducted is primarily focused on friendship in the workplace, with more than 8 million survey responses informing the findings. What he discovered, which is counter to the common practice of discouraging workplace friendships, is that having a best friend at work greatly improves morale as well as productivity. As Rath notes, “just 30% of employees report having a best friend at work. If you are fortunate enough to be in this group, you are seven times as likely to be engaged in your job” (Chapter 7, Major Discoveries From Our Research section, para. 3). The evidence is very strong that having three or more friends in the workplace greatly impacts our experience of the workplace. “People with at least three close friends at work were 96% more likely to be extremely satisfied with their life” (Rath, 2006, Chapter 7, Major Discoveries From Our Research section, breakout box). Thus, friends at work equate to greater satisfaction in all areas of life.

Holmes and Greco (2011) underscore that the element of trust is central to friendship and the social benefits of friendship include receiving and giving of advice, support, aid and affection. Recent research has demonstrated that there are actually four major factors that predict the security and satiability of a friendship, which is also called a secure attachment. “Secure adult friendship attachment can be defined as a bond that involves high levels of hope for both self and relationship, high levels of trust in others, high levels of self-disclosure, and high levels of satisfaction with the relationship” (Welch Houser, 2010, p. 356). Friendships are reciprocal in nature and those whom we call friends are relied upon for social support.

The quality of our social network, with regard to depth and breadth is measured as social capital, or “the nonmaterial resources that are available to individuals because of their positive relationships with close others such as family members and friends” (Pettit Collins, 2011, p. 471). Social capital is divided into two categories: depth (quality of the relationships) and breadth (number of people in an individual’s social network). The higher the level of social capital—most notably with regard to the domain of self-reported depth of relationship—the greater the health and well-being benefits. A major review of contemporary studies linking social support to physiological processes in the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems found that strong emotional social support positively affects these systems and is negatively correlated to disease processes (Uchino, Cacioppo, Kiecolt-Glaser, 1996). As with much of the research on the health benefits of social support, little differentiation is made between kin and non-kin social ties. However, the researchers who conducted this major review of research stressed the importance of gaining more complex and detailed understanding of the variety of relationship that make up an individual’s social support network.

Another element that is an important nuance in the friendship research is the delineation of the type of support that friends may provide. Shelley Taylor (2007) described three forms of social support: informational (facts and information given to another in a time of need or stress), instrumental (tangible aid such as money, food, or shelter), and emotional (care and concern for another person, or reassurance that a person is of worth and value). Informational support is more likely a form of support that can be accessed across the breadth of one’s social network, while instrumental and emotional support are often accessed primarily within the depth domains of our relations. We rely on a variety of sources within our social network to provide all three forms of social support and all are necessary for well-being.

A new way to explore social capital is through the measurement of social intelligence (the ability to be successful in social relationships and situations). Daniel Goleman (2006) described the developing field of social neuroscience in his book, Social Intelligence, including the concept that the measure of high social intelligence is indicative of social competence. According to Goleman, evolutionary psychologists now argue that primates’ social intelligence may be a better indicator of which apes survive and pass on their genes than other factors such as cognition or brute strength. This idea is striking: social connection and an ability to connect with others may be a key factor in the entire human story. In short, we are wired for relationship.

Along with the evolutionary benefits that may go along with high social intelligence, neuroscience research is also demonstrating that human relationships—social ties, friendships, love—are crucial for health and well-being. Researchers like Daniel Siegel, Allan Schore, and Amy Banks are all studying the ways in which the mind impacts our style and abilities to form relationships—and also how our relationships impact our brains. Much of this research is now teasing apart earlier notions that all of our cognitive and emotional processes were housed solely within the brain and a more holistic view of the human experience is adopted. In current research, the term mind is often used rather than the term brain to indicate that human processes are far more complex than neurons firing in grey matter. Siegel’s (2007) theory of interpersonal neurobiology describes the mind as “a process that regulates the flow of energy and information” (p. 4). He argues that this flow is both embodied, distributed throughout the body and not solely in the brain, and relational, the flow of information is shared with others and vice versa. Such insight into the function of the mind suggests that our brains and nervous systems develop and also repair themselves through interactions with others. Thus, as noted above, the relationships that we create and maintain have impact on mental—and physical—health. Goleman (2006), reaffirming several decades of health psychology research, stresses that our social and relational interactions impact, among other things, blood flow, breathing, and mood. The company we choose to keep has profound impact on body, mind, and spirit.

Support networks can also be of great benefit with regard to changing old habits, trying or learning something new, or simply by providing encouragement for a new personal or professional endeavor. Current research has demonstrated the efficacy of life coaching as a method to gain and use instrumental and emotional support in order to reach a personal goal (Grant, 2003). Working with a coach improves quality of life and mental health, and also provides the opportunity to gain insight, or an understanding of why we choose to commit to behavioral change rather than simply going about the change lacking consciousness about motivation. However, as Erica Slotter and Wendi Gardner (2011) have recently discovered, it is not always necessary to hire a professional to reach a goal. These authors note: “the individuals we choose to share our time with influence the possible selves that our current selves become” (p. 231). Classic research into goal attainment suggested that we tend to rely on those already in our social network to help us work toward our aspirations. But, in two recent studies, Slotter and Gardner found that we actually choose friends based upon our perception that they may help us achieve a desired goal. In other words, individuals “construct their social worlds” to help them become the people they want to be (p. 243). This research demonstrated that we choose to spend time with individuals who can help us attain our personal goals in instrumental ways. In fact, this research demonstrated that we choose—whether consciously or unconsciously—new friends whom we believe share common interests and goals. Another important aspect of the research conducted by Slotter and Gardner is that simply making the choice of a new friend whom we believe will aid us in goal attainment has impact on our well-being. Simply believing that friends can help us become the selves that we would like to be in-and-of-itself has positive benefit.

Thus, our friends help us to be who we want to be. “A friend is a person to whom you can show your dreams, delusions, fears and certainties, strengths and weaknesses,” (Holmes and Greco, 2011, para. 1.1). Friendships have impact on our personal well-being, emotional, physical, and psychological health, as well as support us in moving toward goals and future successes. The nature of friendships may vary, from close intimates (depth of social capital) to a network of friends and acquaintances who provide social support in intermittent, yet vital ways like sports teams, civic clubs, or classmates (breadth of social capital). Goleman (2006) and Siegel (2007) suggest that we can cultivate greater connection with others through greater awareness of our own style and motivations for creating friendships. As Slotter and Gardner (2011) found in their research, we choose our friends to help us become more of what we each want to be: “me” (p. 232).

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