Why is friendship so important? Why do we even have friends?
I have always found the topic of friendship fascinating. We seem to pick people not related to us (although family can also be friends too) and just decide to have a relationship with each other. That seems kind of weird, doesn’t it?
Over the past decade, I went through several stages regarding friends. There was a while I didn’t have many friends after my best friend moved away. I found myself hanging at home by myself a lot on weekends. I spent my time posting on Facebook and Instagram as a way to stay connected with people. I was by myself so often that I figured maybe I was just one of those people who didn’t need friends.
In 2019, a friend of mine invited me to hang out with him and his friends on some trips, some people that I was acquainted with and some new to me. I thought I could maybe make some new friends. We went to World Pride in New York City and Atlanta Pride. I didn’t quite fit in with them and found myself floating on the outskirts of the group. They were nice enough, but clearly already established. One of them purposely made me feel excluded as a way to keep them intact. It was awful. I left that last trip with them feeling like I had undiagnosed social anxiety. I never hung out with that group again. I only saw them in passing.
I met my current friend group during the pandemic. We just vibes well with each other and connected quickly. We started to hang out together more and then we started traveling together. As we got closer, I started experiencing things that I had never experienced before. I was showing up differently for myself and for others. I was relearning how to be a friend. This topic of friendship became fascinating to me when I went back to school for a psychology degree.
So what are friendships, how do they form, where do they come from, and why are they important to us? In this blog we we take a look at these aspects of friendship from a psychological lens.
What is Friendship?
The American Psychological Association (APA) defines friendship as: a voluntary relationship between two or more people that is relatively long-lasting and in which those involved tend to be concerned with meeting the others’ needs and interests as well as satisfying their own desires (n.d).
The APA goes on to say that: Friendships frequently develop through shared experiences in which the people involved learn that their association with one another is mutually gratifying.
These are the people we chose to have an invested and hopefully long-term relationship with.
Shared experiences really do bring people together. Meeting people during a pandemic would certainly fall under a “shared experience”. We found our association “mutually gratifying” and here we are three years later!
How Do We Make Friends?
Our social circle is full acquaintances like the mail carrier, the Starbucks barista, a classmate, someone you see at parties, a coworker, a neighbor, etc. From that large pool, how do we decide with whom we are going to have a deeper voluntary relationship with?
Just look in the mirror.
Studies show that we have a bias (preference) toward people who are just like us (Drew, 2022). This is known as affinity bias. They can share similar social identities like race, gender, sexual orientation, spirituality, education, etc as us. They can also be similar in personality and character. Or they may be similar in outlook and mindset. These are people who are more likely to become our friends.
According to social psychologists Steven W. Duck and Christopher Spencer: “This perception of similarity is a leading factor of friendship because it increases understanding and thus aids communication (1972)”. When someone is like us, we don’t have to do mental gymnastics to get to know them. It is easy building a relationship because we just get each other. Sometimes a stranger can just go right to friend if we “vibe” instantly.
Two more important elements to this equation are proximity and frequency. Physical closeness to one another and amount of engagement contribute to the advancement of acquaintances to friend (Duck & Spencer, 1972). This means staying connected more, initiating hanging out and communicating more often. When I met my friends, I was just an acquaintance of theirs and they started inviting me to things and including me in group chats. We progressed into friends.
Note: Affinity bias can become a serious problem when friends are so identical that they lack diversity. This will be addressed in a blog post soon.
It’s worth mentioning that when it comes to friendships, men and women have different motivations for making friends. The gender spectrum is diverse but these two genders were used in the research.
Men make friends with other men to do things with (Brent et al, 2014). That is why men tend to bond over things like sports or other hobbies. They also prefer quantity to quality. Women make friends for connection and prefer quality to quantity (Brent et al, 2014). That is why they spend more time talking with each other. Women treat unrelated people more as family than men do.
Now that we have a better idea of friendship, let’s take a second to look at the evolution of how we got here.
Evolution of Friendship
Human beings are social creatures (Apostolou et al., 2021). We evolved to live in groups and are hardwired for human connection. This feature of humans has been around since our hunter and gatherer days. Our ancestors had to support each other or else nature, rival tribes, or other elements would have been the end of them. The men were hunters that created large parties to hunt large game and the women were gatherers and would support each other raising children (not too different from today).
Mutual cooperation and interests kept our ancestors alive and allowed them to survive by working together (Apostolou et al., 2021). According to the same research by University of Nicosia, this cooperation was beneficial to later stages of human evolution (2021). We needed each other for survival. This is where affinity bias comes from and kept our ancestors connected as tribes.
This feature of humans being social creatures has remained unchanged throughout our evolution. Social bond is so hardwired into who we are that we have mechanisms in place to prevent us from becoming isolated (Apostolou et al., 2021). One such mechanism is loneliness. This is an unpleasant experience that occurs when we have not been in contact with other people. This negative emotion drives us to find people establish connections with which makes us feel safe and causes negative mental health outcomes like depression, anxiety, low-self esteem, etc if we don’t (Cherry, 2022). Exclusion from social activities causes us the same kind of pain as a physical injury (Kawamoto, 2017).
We can see just how important friendship was for our ancestors. What about us?
Why is Friendship Important?
Friendship is a unique relationship that can profoundly impact our lives. It’s a type of bond between people and groups that can enrich our experiences, provide emotional support, and enhance our overall well-being. We should not underestimate the impact and importance of friendship.
Here are several reasons why friendship is important:
Social Connections and Support
Friendships provide a sense of belonging and social connectedness. We need to be a part of a community because we are hardwired that way. Friendships fulfill that basic need of belonging (Mcleod, 2023). This is especially important during times of abnormal stress or trauma. Social support can stave off negative effects of stress and contribute to well-being through emotional support and advice from friends (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2022).
One study shared by University of Oxford (2016) showed that friends are better than morphine for pain! One theory from the study posits that “social interactions trigger positive emotions when endorphin binds to opioid receptors in the brain”. This is what makes us feel good when we see our friends. Researchers found that the larger social networks people have, the higher their pain tolerance. Another showed holding the hand of a loved one also reduces pain (Solomon, 2019).
Healthy friendships help us produce higher levels of the hormone oxytocin. It is thought that oxytocin plays a role in trust and relationships by reducing fear and anxiety caused by the amygdala (Zak, 2021). That isn’t the only hormone in play here. Friendships impact dopamine (reward hormone), serotonin (feel good hormone), and the hypothalamic-pituary-adrenal axis (body’s response to stress)!
Friendships have been connected to several positive outcomes for our well-being. When we have social relationships and connections, we can see better mental health outcomes like lower rates of depression and anxiety, reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, lower cortisol levels and longer life expectancy (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2022)(Brent et al., 2014).
Friendships lead to higher levels of happiness and life satisfaction (Cameron, 2008). One study showed that friendship variables accounted for 58% of the variance in people’s happiness (2023). Happiness also spreads through social networks like an “emotional contagion”. Your happiness makes your friends happy and their happiness spreads to you and makes you happy (up to three degrees of separation) (Cameron, 2008).
We are positively influenced by friendships. Personal development is a cornerstone of healthy friendships. Friends may model behaviors that we look to adapt for ourselves. They can help us develop our social skills such as emotional intelligence, conflict resolution, giving/receiving feedback etc. They can provide feedback to redirect undesirable behaviors or to reaffirm positive behaviors. Both types of feedback lend to growth by showing care through honesty. This can improve our confidence and build our resiliency. This can also lead to the development of our own self-awareness as friends will see things about you that you don’t. Their perspective is important. Growth is important.
Friendship is so ingrained into us that it is a part of us physically and neurologically. Whether it is to survive or to be happy, we need friendships. We have always needed them. Our entire well-being depends on them. I know what it is like to not have friends. The call of loneliness is very real. I thought that I was fine, but I wasn’t. I longed for a community and for people to connect with me. I also know what it is like to feel excluded and not invited. That is a different kind of pain and not one we should ever cause someone else. Both of those were signals of how much I needed friendship in my life.
I also know what it is like to have real friendships with people who love and support me. I know what it is like to feel safe to show up as my authentic self and to be vulnerable. My friends help me grow every day and I am honored to be able to do the same for them. We are a community. We are chosen family. I grateful for my friends every single day.
In my current role, I travel regularly to Phoenix. I have seen the power of friendship in an entirely different city. The first time I ever went there I went alone and didn’t know a single soul. Several fellow LGBTQ+ people at my hotel pool adopted me as their friend made me feel welcome. During my frequent travels here I have made an incredible group of friends who have made Phoenix feel like my second home. I saw and felt firsthand the impact of friendship, belonging, and community that these amazing humans created for me. They invite me to everything and always make it a point to see me when I am here. I leave Phoenix feeling loved every single time.
By investing time and energy into developing and nurturing friendships, we can reap all of the benefits shared here and enrich our lives.
APA Dictionary of Psychology. (n.d.). https://dictionary.apa.org/friendship?_ga=2.76522133.1260791164.1677809749-1579710987.1677719989
Apostolou, M., Keramari, D., Kagialis, A., & Sullman, M. J. (2021). Why people make friends: The nature of friendship. Personal Relationships, 28(1), 4–18. https://doi.org/10.1111/pere.12352
Brent, L. J. N., Chang, S. W. C., Gariépy, J., & Platt, M. L. (2014). The neuroethology of friendship. Annals of the New York Academy of Sciences, 1316(1), 1–17. https://doi.org/10.1111/nyas.12315
Cameron, D. (2008, December 5). Having happy friends can make you happy. Harvard Gazette. https://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2008/12/having-happy-friends-can-make-you-happy/
Cherry, K. (2022, May 24). The Health Consequences of Loneliness. Verywell Mind. https://www.verywellmind.com/loneliness-causes-effects-and-treatments-2795749
Drew, D. C. A. P. R. B. C. (2022, December 16). 15 Affinity Bias Examples (2023). Helpful Professor. https://helpfulprofessor.com/affinity-bias-examples/
Duck, S. W., & Spencer, C. (1972). Personal constructs and friendship formation. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 23(1), 40–45. https://doi.org/10.1037/h0032872
Friends “better than morphine” | University of Oxford. (2016, April 28). https://www.ox.ac.uk/news/2016-04-28-friends-better-morphine
Kawamoto, T. (2017, August 17). What Happens in Your Mind and Brain When You Are Excluded from a Social Activity? Frontiers for Young Minds. https://kids.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/frym.2017.00046
Kosfeld, M., Heinrichs, M., Zak, P. J., Fischbacher, U., & Fehr, E. (2005). Oxytocin increases trust in humans. Nature, 435(7042), 673–676. https://doi.org/10.1038/nature03701
M. (2023, January 29). How Much Do Friends Make You Happier? (As Per Science). Tracking Happiness. https://www.trackinghappiness.com/friends-make-you-happier/
Mayo Clinic Staff. (2022, January 12). Friendships: Enrich your life and improve your health. Mayo Clinic. https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/adult-health/in-depth/friendships/art-20044860?reDate=03032023
Mcleod, S., PhD. (2023, March 2). Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs Theory. Simply Psychology – Study Guides for Psychology Students. https://simplypsychology.org/maslow.html
Solomon, S. (2019, November 28). Holding hands can help reduce a loved one’s pain, study shows. Times of Israel. https://www.timesofisrael.com/holding-hands-can-help-reduce-a-loved-ones-pain-study-shows/
Zak, P. J. (2021, August 31). The Neuroscience of Trust. Harvard Business Review. https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust