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Who Needs 'Em?
There's an old adage about friends doubling your joy and cutting your sorrow in half. Unless I'm forgetting a part about whiskey, the point of this proverb is to remind us that friends serve important roles in our lives—profound, meaningful purposes that go much further than telling us if our butts look fat—and that their mere presence can have a phenomenal impact on our experience of happiness and pain.
HOW FRIENDS IMPROVE OUR HEALTH: WHAT YOUR GRANDMOTHER (AND A BUNCH OF DUDES IN WHITE LAB COATS) DISCOVERED
In fact, friendships have a host of emotional effects on us. Clinical depression, a disorder whose prevalence is growing sharply and whose typical age of onset—like (sadly) the market for thongs—is getting younger and younger, appears more likely to target those who feel unsupported by quality friendships. Anxiety disorders, from the phobia that makes a person go screaming when in the presence of mayonnaise to the debilitating and uncontrollable panic attacks that can confine someone to his or her house, are also associated with a lack of adequate social support.
The connection is especially true for one of the most extreme anxiety syndromes: posttraumatic stress disorder. Research shows that after suffering a trauma, whether it be a natural disaster, loss of a loved one, personal injury, accident, or assault, people with a higher level of social support in the form of friend and family relationships are much less likely to develop PTSD. We're not talking about friendships merely helping you whistle while you work: PTSD is a serious condition that, when left untreated, can lead to a lifetime of nightmares, terrors, an inability to engage in the normal daily routines of life, and not uncommonly, suicidal behavior.
Not only do solid relationships make us less likely to be afflicted with these and other psychological disorders, but they often make us more likely to recover from them quickly and smoothly if they do occur. Quality friendships can be both the apple and the antibiotic—a medley of prevention and cure.
Consider, also, the ways that friends themselves can encourage us to get proper health treatment. From the coworker who won't stop harping about that strange mole on our arm to the buddy who suffered from depression but shared the experience of how he got better, friends who have our best interests at heart can often push us in the direction of health. Certainly, for instance, if a loved one goes to therapy and extols its virtues, that destigmatization can do much more than any magazine ad ever could.
Friendships also affect our physical health in a more intangible way. Experiencing emotional intimacy in the form of positive relationships can help boost our immune system to better fight and heal from infection. As anyone who's tried to ignore a particularly bad itch most definitely knows, it can be virtually impossible to distinguish between mind and body. If that smells too much like patchouli for you, consider this: Social support has a significant effect on the prognosis of someone who has been diagnosed with HIV. We're talking about actual life spans here, affected directly by whether or not someone feels they have friends they can count on. Research upholds similar results for cancer, heart disease, and diabetes—and that's probably just the tip of the iceberg.
It's pretty amazing, really: all these physical and mental phenomena, determined in part by the simple idea of what we visualize when we think of our friendships. It sounds too simple. Just how is it that these relationships can do this?
There are quite a few ways. As therapists know, there is much to be gained from sharing your emotional experience with another person. Doing so can provide meaning, insight, and a sense of perspective that simply can't be gleaned from speaking into a mirror while wearing a disguise. (Believe me, I've tried.) People all over the world have learned that spilling their guts to another human being (even if, in the case of the Internet, that human being is pretending to be a twenty-five-year-old Catharine when he's really a forty-seven-year-old Roger) can have a magical effect. Why else would it be that often our automatic response, for better or for worse, when someone is going through pain is to say, I know how you feel? Is it really a surprise that one of the most affirming phrases in the English language (other thanYour car's engine is fine!) is I know what you mean? Similarly, one of the most prized attributes that a woman tends to list in a man (even if she ignores that list and goes instead for the beer pong champion) is that he is a sensitive listener.
Indeed, people often describe profound relief when finding someone who can really hear what they're saying: it's validation to its highest power. The sense of euphoria that comes from connecting with another person who truly "gets" your experience—whether that experience involves growing up one of fourteen children or wanting to gag when smelling cilantro—can change one's life. People are prone to waxing poetic when they find it: it's the Church of Emotional Intimacy. They once were lost, and now they're found.
So many of our feelings can be made so much easier to manage, and perhaps more fun to experience, just by saying them aloud and letting them build a bridge between us and another person. Exposing our fears makes them much less frightening; affirming our triumphs makes them much more real; revealing our grief relieves us of carrying the burden completely alone. A compassionate and empathetic friend, much like a therapist, can give us and our emotions a foundation to cling to. It's the reason that merely having someone listen can be such a powerful experience, even if that person was secretly paying more attention to the cheerleaders at the halftime show. All jokes about therapists' fees aside, it is no shame that part of their ability to help lies in just being there, in the moment and attuned—those nods can be meaningful. A quality friend understands this and runs with it, knowing just how to validate their buddy's emotional state—whether that state stems from a hard-won personal triumph or just a particularly arduous commute home.
But another way that our platonic relationships wield such power is much more quantitative: Friends help us shape our identity. For all the emotional intangibles, they can also serve (like that infernal and unyielding doctor's scale) as a rather cold-blooded yardstick. Think of how often you view yourself—and even define your existence—through the "relativity perspective" of your friends, learning important clues about what you'll eventually believe yourself to be. I feel shorter around my taller friends, more outgoing among my wallflower ones, and, unfortunately, more gargoyle-esque around the ones who look like sitcom stars. This mosaic of comparisons shapes our core beliefs and often our self-esteem, and can help us figure out exactly where we stand in the world.
Perhaps this is one aspect of why the loss of a friendship can be so complex in the pain that it brings. It's not just that Sheila never returned our favorite cardigan. It's that we feel less funny, or less popular, or less knowledgeable of the ins and outs of Lost trivia when she, who was the audience that made us feel that way, is no longer there. Many people don't realize that the end of a meaningful friendship can literally signify the loss of a piece of their own identity. Such relationships can be the landscape background of our self-portraits; they provide the context of our traits, and when they disappear, those traits have no home. To paraphrase the old quandary, if a tree falls in the forest and there's no friend around to say, That must've hurt! does it still make a sound?
Friends themselves—especially that loudmouth Sarah you've known since she got banned from the slumber-party circuit—also give us even more direct feedback. Their reactions teach us what they appreciate about us, and they also are all too willing to let us know what we do that drives them up the wall. All these pieces of information, whether we like them or not, give us an enormous amount of insight into ourselves. We know we can be anal because our roommates used to resent our chore wheels; we know we sometimes interrupt because we notice others rolling their eyes; we know we're generous because we've heard our amigas extol the virtues of our cookie-gifting habit. It's our friends who give us daily feedback about the characteristics that make us who we are, and it's these assessments that stick with us when we define ourselves internally and externally. Life is full of constant pop quizzes about how we're doing as people, and often our friends are the only ones doing the grading. (And you thought your econ professor held a lot of power!)
There's also an incredibly profound and positive aspect of feeling that you're not alone. Existential psychologists have long known that fear of being and dying alone is one of our most primal anxieties, and it drives a host of human endeavors. Much of the world's greatest art, poetry, music, and storytelling (sorry, Tucker Max, you just missed the list) can be attributed on some level to our attempts to fight the angst of being by ourselves, literally and metaphorically. Human beings are born to connect with other people, and this need for affiliation is evident from our first infant clamors for a warm body to our later preference, confirmed for decades by social psychologists, for being in the presence of others when we are scared or anxious about something.
And the friendship gift, like the person who made too much fruitcake, just keeps on giving. Friendships also greatly increase the breadth of our interactions with the world around us. They might introduce us to a new philosophy, melody, perspective, or just a new thing to put in a pita. Of course, they might even be partly responsible for an addiction, an eating disorder, or a history of self-hatred. Therein lies their power. But when done right, they help us learn, they add laughter, and they further expand our world, giving it a depth that consists of anything from one more Italian restaurant to a lot fewer Saturday nights alone. On a grander scale, they can give us a whole new way of viewing the world.
Indeed, some of the habits we pick up from our friends are almost scary in their power. And we're not just talking about eating right from the peanut butter jar or overusing the phrase train wreck—friendships to some extent can determine our weight, our diets, our sleep habits, our levels of aggression and impatience, and our choices about smoking, drinking, and drug use. Experts who work on major public health campaigns are beginning to rely heavily on the fact that altering social norms—that is, how you expect your friends to behave—is one of the most direct routes to changing unhealthy habits. If your fellow carpooler of two years doesn't buckle her seat belt, chances are you will gradually be less likely to as well. If your circle of college friends never worried about safe sex, then I'm betting you weren't appearing in ads for Trojans. If your best girlfriend always blows her nose using the cover of a magazine, then chances are … (Okay, some habits are, thankfully, unlikely to gain additional followers.)
If friends are so influential, then what about friends' money? With a nod to the almighty dollar, it's no secret to those who work in advertising that peer pressure is king. And it's no surprise to anyone who's literally paid the price for a friend's expensive taste in pinot noir that who you hang out with has a major impact on your finances. Imagine how many levels of your monetary life your friends can affect: There's the obvious, like dragging you to bars and clubs whose cover charge could feed a pack of pubescent football players for a month. But then there's the less obvious, like the fact that friends help determine your standards about what kind of job you're willing to take, what kind of city you're willing to live in, and whether you consider living in a group house with a 1930s unrenovated bathroom an unacceptable example of "slumming it" or a downright artistic and jovial experience. Indeed, peer pressure, which tends to connote pimply preteens whose parents are on vacation, is far from absent in adulthood. Arguably, the fact that "grown-ups" have more spending money—as long as they didn't major in philosophy—means that your friends can have an even bigger effect on your bottom line.
In turn, our financial resources can then affect our physical and emotional health. From not having enough cash for that copay to being paralyzed with stress from living paycheck to paycheck (or, on the opposite end, being saddled with the guilt of having too much when so many have so little), the money we do or do not have can play an extremely large role in our fitness. And once again, it's friends who keep this cycle going.
Clearly, these attributes of friendship are so powerful that I no longer sound like a carnival huckster (or its modern equivalent, that overly polite e-mailer from Nigeria) when I say that friendship is associated with significant increases in psychological and physical health. More interesting still is that this is true even for "perceived" friendships: merely the idea of having friends can help someone get over a trauma more quickly and serve as a buffer against depression and anxiety.
Certainly, different people have different definitions of the word friend. Some people are downright overzealous with the term, bestowing it on everyone from the dude who suggested you switch to Verizon to the woman who twice rung you up at the Container Store. Others won't call you a friend unless you've twice posted bail. Surely there are pros and cons to each of these approaches, and the healthiest balance lies somewhere in between. Nonetheless, the science does back up that the perceptions of these connections matter.
And here's the kicker: overall, there's evidence that in the United States, we're identifying ourselves as having fewer and fewer friends. How can this be, with millions of people online literally collecting friends on social networking sites? If your average college student has enough Facebook friends to fill an Australian rugby league, why do we seem to be getting lonelier at the same time? Are "friends" as we know them losing their quality? Are we becoming the equivalent of what would have been called—in the days of poodle skirts and drive-in movies—friendship "tramps"?
BFF CULTURE: REPRESENTATIONS OF FRIENDSHIP IN CELEBRITY LAND
Certainly, there seems to be a cheapening of friendship in many aspects of pop culture. For every Carrie–Miranda–Samantha–Charlotte solid-gold bond, there's a set of starlets who are branded BFFs simply because they designed a line of nail polish together. Surely their destiny isn't really to be eating the early bird special together fifty years hence. (In fact, I'm betting instead it's to be brawling it out for the paparazzi, with or without underwear, in just a few flashbulb-filled months from now.)
Even the term BFF itself, when used for adults, was started sardonically, as a mocking takeoff on that overly optimistic promise scrawled in 1991 yearbooks everywhere—that we'd be Best Friends Forever. As grown-ups, we learned just how tall and naïve that order was: things would eventually get in the way. From incompatible homeroom schedules to arguments about the merits of Richard Marx, the odds were against those pairings lasting into one's golden years. We use BFFnow all over the place, almost tongue in cheek, to refer to friendships ephemeral, superficial, even ridiculous—or so it started out. But here's the head-scratcher: many women have nothing but these high-flash, low-substance connections. The drama of their BFF breakups and makeups is actually the foundation of their platonic relationships. It's like a person who uses a vending machine for their three square meals a day—they're confusing junk for substance.
I'm pretty certain (even without Googling it!) that the changing ways we use technology have also had a profound impact on every aspect of our relationships. And this is undoubtedly part of the problem. Don't get me wrong: advances in computers and cell phones (we've come a long way since Pong!) have helped us immensely, and they've arguably done a great deal for friendships. But the technology appears to be growing faster than our ability to adapt to it; the social kinks appear more quickly than we can work them out. This means that we're using some of the old rules for new types of relationships, and some of the new manners (or lack thereof) for old, golden friendships. No wonder we're screwing up so many of them!
No doubt, different friendships serve different purposes. And not every one is meant to be profound or long lasting, though they all still have value. The woman who helped you get through that awful temp job was just not meant to become your maid of honor; that guy you count on for sarcastic fashion analysis would certainly be a poor choice to help you move. (Has he ever lifted anything other than a martini?) But no matter what exact way they fit into our lives, our friends' roles couldn't be more important to who we are. And the friendship problems that are so frequently experienced—the problems that I've spent years witnessing as a therapist, advice columnist, and professor of psychology (not to mention as, occasionally, a human)—can be downright toxic to our daily lives. I hear the worries all the time:
• I'm a grown woman, but I don't know how to make new, quality friendships.
• I just can't seem to trust anyone.
• I need to "break up" with a friend. Where the heck is my manual?
• I feel like I always give, and never get, in my relationships.
• I'm in a new school/city/job, and I can't seem to meet new friends. Please tell me I don't need to play softball!
• All my friends are in couples/getting married/having babies. How do I stop feeling like the odd one out?
• My friend betrayed me, and I can't stop hurting.
• I seem to have plenty of friends. So why do I feel so lonely?
• I want the best for my friend—so why am I always jealous of her?
• I'm bored and feel stalled in my friendships, and I can't figure out if it's them or me.
• I have real trouble opening up and showing the "real me" to people.
• This friendship is growing stale, but I can't figure out whether to let it go.
• I'm worried about a friend, but I don't know how to bring it up.
• My friend and I are always competing. Can this be a good thing?
• A friend hurt me, but I don't want to make her mad by confronting her.
• I can't seem to balance friendship and my classes/my boyfriend/my job/my Jack Russell terrier.
• I never know how to ask for help when I need it.
• I'm still wounded from a long-ago ex-friendship.
We've all been there. Some of us thousands of times, actually, if you count the vicarious experiences that are responsible for the wrinkles on my forehead. And whether you're male or female, single or coupled, fresh faced or battle worn, chances are there's been plenty of drama regarding one or more of these issues in your life. Most likely, that drama is only getting more intense, as we are spending more of our time and emotional energy with friends than ever before.
HOW FRIENDSHIP IS CHANGING IN THE AGE OF THE QUARTERLIFE CRISIS
This is especially true for young adults, who appear to be experiencing a longer adolescence than they did fifty years ago. No, it's not some miracle of hormonal science, but rather the advent of the quarterlife crisis. As much as some may scoff at that idea, the truth is that there are far fewer twenty-five-year-olds who are married and mortgaged now than there were when the Beatles—or even Duran Duran—ruled the airwaves. And while many people would consider this far from a crisis (especially those who can't commit to a wool coat, let alone a person), there appears to be a marked increase in aimlessness and discontent among those in this age group, especially when it comes to their lack of stability in careers and romantic relationships.
The reasons are varied: as college has gotten paradoxically more expensive and more necessary in order to make a living, it has become less typical to strike out on one's own and "settle" down by one's mid-twenties. Instead, those student loans might lead someone to bunk in Mom and Dad's basement until they've got a gray hair or two themselves. And while in the past it was one's spouse who tended to fill the role of confidant, dinner companion, and person to argue with over who screwed up the plane tickets, it is now much more likely to be one's friends. (Once again, the entrepreneurs are on the case: even the tiny vacation destination of Chincoteague, Virginia, boasts "his and hers" getaways for people who would rather kayak and drink wine with their friends than with their lovers.)
Perhaps most ironic, even weddings have grown to be extravagant celebrations of one's … friendships. They now make greeting cards to formalize the process of asking someone to be your bridesmaid; people broadcast the history of how they met the members of their wedding party in wedding programs and on wedding Web sites. Whole industries have been built around putting together bachelorette and bachelor parties, many of them entire weekends in exotic locales whose meticulous planning and spare-no-expense exuberance rival those of the honeymoon. Friends often shape the mood of the entire rehearsal dinner and wedding receptions, for better ("What a lovely toast, full of such sweet sentiment!") or for worse ("Is that your best man dirty dancing with Aunt Phyllis?").
Indeed, a young woman's number one man is much less likely to be a romantic partner now than he used to be. With the increasing role of coed friendships, many women do have a constant male companion—he just didn't happen to stand next to her in a tuxedo and wipe buttercream frosting from her face.
Clearly, friends are the new family. They can be the new bliss, the new laughter, the new meaning, and the new passion that give our lives purpose. They can also be the new migraine that's so bad we can't open our curtains. What separates the two scenarios is, at its most basic, the ability to choose good, healthy friendships and to get the most out of them.
So therein lies our task: to learn about what friends are good for us, and to figure out how to be good to them. To make sure that our friendships (with apologies to the U.S. Army) can help us be all that we can be.
Just how do we do this? Read on, my friends. (Yup, when it comes to defining the F-word itself, I'm one of the overzealous ones.)
Copyright © 2011 by Andrea Bonior, Ph.D.