We know that people hire people they know, like, respect and trust. But are those people friends? Not necessarily. They could be acquaintances, allies, associates––all valuable relationships but less sustaining, more superficial than friends. Who cares? We all should because real friends are essential for strong mental health, physical health and well-being. COVID taught us that casual conversation with contacts––online or in person––leads to loneliness not wellness. Friendships––core relationships of support, loyalty, love and empathy––are humans’ basic tool for better living.
Our friends are the strongest influence on our behavior. We tend to think, talk, act and behave like our friends. We seek out people who resemble us in terms of our wants, needs, goals, attitudes and aptitudes. The similarities make us comfortable, but more importantly, they also shape us. According to motivational speaker, Jim Rohn, “You are the average of the five people we spend the most time with.”
The people with whom you spend your time shape your time. The friends you surround yourself with determine your level of success or failure in life. The people you spend the most time with shape who you are. They are the biggest influence on your behavior.
They determine what conversations dominate your attention. This psychological inclination is the basis for deep-seated cleavages in society: radical republicans versus social welfare democrats, pro-lifers versus pro-choice advocates, rich versus poor.
You would think that any influence this important would be a major focus in our lives. It is not. Americans traditionally have prioritized immediate family and work over friends. In this column I look at some factors that work against a focus on friendship and some reasons why you should begin to reconsider your priorities.
Time is finite. You must choose to prioritize your time making and keeping friends. Researchers estimate that to form even a casual friendship takes 40 to 60 hours actively involved with the other person. To move from a casual friend to a good friend takes 80 to 100 hours together. Moving to the deepest level––good friend, best friend, closest friend––takes 200 hours or more.
It is difficult for most of us to add this commitment to someone who is not a family or work priority. You may see people regularly in networking groups, at school sports, in church. Most of them are not friends. They are contacts, acquaintances, allies, colleagues or companions. There is no investment in each other. Do you know their last names? Details about their family life? You recognize them, chat often, but don’t have the emotional closeness that underlies the bonds of valid friendship.
Friendship In Action
Friendship takes so much time because it requires physical proximity and regular interactions. It also involves a willingness to be vulnerable. Our closest friends know our feelings, beliefs, weaknesses and strengths. Our outlook on life, our dreams and goals are compatible with theirs. We are there for each other in good times and bad.
This requires a willingness to overcome the layers of protection we’ve built to shield us in our interactions with others. How do you ignore the sting of snide comments? Put a mental transparent plastic shield between you and others. How do you protect your innermost feelings from being mocked? Keep them inside and converse about weather, food, travel, gossip, work, book club books and so on. We all know how to be interesting and feel safe.
Such protections are unnecessary with good friends. We expect our closest friends to be with us in times of distress. For example, the day my closest friend learned that she had to fly home to bury her mother, I met her at her apartment and made omelets to be sure she ate before she left. Even though she said she didn’t need to eat, she did need the physical representation of my love and support.
Tips For Building Friendships
Be intentional in your choice of friends. If the friends you choose will impact the trajectory of your life, choose carefully. Seek out people you admire, people in positions you would like to be in someday. As they become friends your behavior begins to mirror theirs and you grow in the direction important to you.
Consciously and consistently make time to meet people. Create routines that put you in activities with other people––gym classes, knitting circles, book clubs. Join networking groups where you can make connections with others who can help you grow in your career. Most contacts will not become friends; a select few will. Make time with the few a priority. Share activities you like with them and enjoy their company.
Prepare yourself psychologically to meet others in a positive frame of mind; assume you will be liked. Use your body language to reinforce this intention. Smile, stand tall, look directly at the person you are talking to, listen well. Show you like them by mirroring their behavior––their stance, the tone and cadence of their speech. Lean forward, nod your head and use other physical cues to show you are paying attention.
When you want to move toward friendship with an acquaintance, permit yourself to be vulnerable, to share the person behind the screen. Real, deep friendship builds on authenticity. The process of revealing yourself creates an open-ended, reciprocal, sustainable bond with your friend.
Be kind to yourself. At every age we face a different interpretation of friendship. For example, moving to friendship as we get older is often difficult. There is no past to share, so you must trust that the person presenting themself to you is who they say they are. In addition, the person initiating friendship overtures often worries that they will be rejected. As a senior citizen friend of mine said: “When there is no past there is only a ‘now’ and that can be tricky. To make new friends we need to trust our instincts, know how far we have come, what we have learned and, most importantly, what we can offer.”
Close friends will make your life fuller, healthier and more enjoyable. Try it. You’ll like it.