Friends: How Important Are They?

In 1985, when the General Social Survey polled Americans on the number of confidants they had in their lives, the most common response was three. In 2004, the same survey indicated that the most common response was zero.

After completing research for this book I suggest that we pay as much attention to the state of our relationships with our friends as we do to our diets and also suggest that having bad friends or very few friends or bad relationships with appears to be as bad for you as a bad diet.

The role that friends play in our lives has only recently became more prominent in the psychological world. Historically, most  of the research regarding friendship relates to children and adolescents. Adult friendships have been grossly under researched. More recent research indicates that humans  are social creatures and our relationships with our fellow humans are critical to our well-being.

The causes of many social problems such as divorce and homelessness and obesity are often considered to be related to poverty, stress or unhappiness. Of course, this may well be correct. However, some researchers have suggested that friendship may also be playing a significant role.

The philosopher Aristotle said “in poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of mischief: they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds.”

(8.6) Friendships take time to develop and effective friendships cannot be artificially created. The benefits of friendship do not come from people that you simply know. They only come from relationships with people that you consider to be real friends. What is a “real friend” as it relates to the impact that the friendship has on your well-being?

The Gallup Organization’s director, Tom Rath, researched friendship for his book “Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford To Live Without”. He makes the point that when homeless people were asked about why their marriages failed or why they overeat, a common response was the poor quality or lack of friendships. They felt like outcasts or unloved.

Rath’s research was conducted alongside several other researchers and this resulted in some interesting statistics. For example, if your best friend eats healthily, you are five times more likely to have a healthy diet yourself; married people say that friendship is more than five times as important as physical intimacy within marriage; those who say they have no real friends at work have only a 1 in 12 chance of feeling engaged in their job; on the other hand, people that have a best friend at work are seven times more likely to feel engaged in their job. The idle chatter among friends at work is likely to be a good predictor of happy and productive employees. This is the opposite of behavior that was encouraged in the industrial age where employees were encouraged to effectively “shut up and get on with their jobs”.

Rath recommends conducting a “friendship audit” in order to recognize which friendships provide you with the different things you need and consider how to work on improving these friendships. In the meantime, it’s not necessarily appropriate to judge friends in a detached “what can you do for me” type way. Friendship is not necessarily bad simply because you can’t identify obvious rewards that flow from it. In some cases, the benefits of friendship may not be identifiable. The fact that you cannot identify any benefits to a relationship does not mean that the relationship has no benefits. It may mean that you simply cannot identify them. Many close relationships are valuable for absolutely no reason other than the fact that they are close.

Aristotle made the point that it is better to give than to receive in a friendship. He also believed that friendship can only arise indirectly and that it comes with living, what he called, a good life – life that included strong personal values like honesty, character, and passion. The industrial age has skewed our views to overemphasize commercial matters but, as I’ve mentioned several times in this book, the industrial age is behind us. 

The philosopher, Epicurus, said, “the noble man is most involved with wisdom and friendship.” Oscar Wilde emphasized the altruistic aspect of friendship when he said “anybody can sympathize with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathize with a friend’s success.”


The limited research that has been completed on the subject of loneliness has revealed the health risks of loneliness and the benefits of strong social connections. Laura Carstensen, Ph.D., who directs Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, says that “for years and years… People speculated that if you felt alone or lived alone or you were alone a lot, you wouldn’t eat good meals, you wouldn’t exercise as much, nobody would take you to the doctor. But I think what we’re learning is that emotions cause physiological processes to activate that are directly bad for your health.” 

A minimalist social circle is considered to be a significant health risk according to some research. In one meta-analysis of 148 studies that included more than 308,000 people, a Brigham Young University psychologist found that participants with stronger social relationships were 50% more likely to survive over the studies given periods than those with weaker connections. This risk is comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and double that of obesity. The researchers suggest that the risks are likely greater because their analysis did not consider the quality of the participant’s social connections. According to a meta-analysis of more than 177,000 participants, people’s personal and friendship networks have shrunk over the last 35 years. 

In another study (8.7) conducted by Andrew Steptoe, Ph.D., of the University College London, which tracked 6,500 British men and women aged 52 and older, the researchers found that both feeling lonely and being socially isolated raised the risk of death. 

However, psychologist John Cacioppo, Ph.D., co-author of the 2008 book “Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection” researched data from a 2012 study involving 2100 adults aged 50 and older. He discovered that, over a six-year period, feelings of loneliness were correlated with increased mortality. Further, marital status, the number of friends and relatives living nearby and health factors such as smoking did not impact the results. Cacioppo says “it’s not being alone or not” that affects your health, “you can feel terribly isolated when you’re around other people.” 

Other research conducted by psychologist Lisa Jaremka, Ph.D., and colleagues at the Ohio State University involved studying 200 breast cancer survivors and found that the lonely women experienced more pain, depression, and fatigue than those who had stronger connections to friends and family. 

Psychologist Steve Cole, Ph.D., at the University of California, Los Angeles suggests that genes may play a role in how our social lives impact our well-being. His research team analyzed the gene expression profiles of chronically lonely people and found that certain genes in certain white blood cells were associated with feelings of loneliness. 

Friends in adulthood

If you are in a situation where you have very few friends or the relationships with the friends that you do have are somehow inadequate or potentially damaging you need to establish new relationships with new friends. There is research being conducted to examine how adults make new friends. The research indicates that the following actions can be helpful:

  • Being familiar. A 2011 study led by psychologist Harry Reis, Ph.D. at the University of Rochester, supports the idea that we are attracted to familiar people. In one experiment same-sex strangers rated how much they liked each other after several structured conversations while another group talked freely in an unstructured way online. In both cases, the participants reported liking each other more after becoming more familiar with each other. 
  • Reveal something personal. Research by Stony Brook University professor Arthur Aron, Ph.D., indicated that having deeper conversations that reveal more about who we really are causes people to like us more in as little as 45 minutes. The more we know about somebody the more connected we feel to them.
  • ’Loneliness is in your head. Remind yourself that loneliness is a subjective experience that can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Cacioppo says “when people feel isolated, the brain goes into self-preservation mode”, meaning that they become preoccupied with their own welfare. Although this response developed in order to protect us from threats, it harms physical and mental health and overall well-being over time. It causes us to interpret everything with a more negative perspective. It can cause you to seem cold, unfriendly, or socially awkward. However, your self-awareness of the fact that this is a subjective experience allows you to observe it and prevented it from spiraling in the wrong direction.

Other benefits and risks

A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a circle of friends were 22% less likely to die during the study. And those with fewer friends. A 2007 study revealed a 60% increase in the risk of obesity among people whose friends had gained weight. Research conducted by Harvard indicated that strong social ties could promote brain health as we age.

Bella DePaulo, a visiting psychology professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, focuses on the health effects of single people and their friendships suggests that friendship has an even greater effect on health than a spouse or a family member. In one study of nurses with breast cancer having a spouse was NOT associated with survival.

There is less research on men than there is on women however, a six-year study of 736 middle-age Swedish men showed that attachment to a single person didn’t appear to affect the risk of heart attack or fatal coronary heart disease but having friendships did. The study also indicated that only smoking was as important a risk factor as the lack of social support.

I think I have made the point regarding the importance of friends, particularly as it relates to our mental and physical health. However, I will leave you with one final piece of research that indicates that the benefits of friendship extend even further still.

Another study conducted by researchers at the University of Virginia involved asking 34 students to stand at the base of a steep hill while wearing a weighted backpack. The students were asked to estimate the steepness of the hill. Some of the students stood next to friends while others stood alone. The students that stood next to friends gave lower estimates of the steepness of the hill further and the longer the friends had known each other the less steep the hill appeared. 

It appears that being among friends makes challenges appear to be easier! If perception is reality then the challenge is easier.

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