In a world of many predetermined things, friends are the family we choose for ourselves. Often, their presence is what keeps us going. In Vital Friends, Tom Rath says that many of those who end up on the streets, divorced, or addicted to overeating, struggle with inner demons precisely because they are alone. They feel excluded, abandoned, unloved.

No matter how much we try to surround ourselves only with compatible people, circumstances often decide for us. Objective factors such as geographical position, proximity, activities or events around which we gravitate shape our circle of friends. However, subjective factors are equally important—social skills, openness towards others, similarities and differences between us, as well as personal preferences.

For example, similarities reduce the risk of interpersonal conflicts, so we prefer to connect with those similar to us in terms of lifestyle.

Surprisingly, physical appearance also matters when we choose our friends. Studies show that it is easier to make friends with people who are attractive or similar to us in terms of attractiveness, if they show special social skills. Beautiful faces give us a sense of trust, arouse feelings of familiarity and create the impression that their owners share our attitudes and values.

However, real friendship transcends the superficiality of packaging. Mutual respect, emotional support, commitment, the joy of being in each other’s company, regardless of eye colour, job, or money in the account, are the pillars of a genuine connection.

Maintaining friendships

Just as the ending “and they lived happily ever after” indicates an oversimplification of the life of a couple, it would be an exaggeration to say that success comes naturally between friends. Friendship requires attention, effort, involvement, altruism, and quite possibly even sacrifice. Not every friendship passes the inevitable test of time, or the primary test of all interpersonal relationships: showing up.

The first lesson in the lasting friendship handbook should be: Make time! The saying, “Out of sight, out of mind” rings true, and rightly so. In the absence of time spent together, alienation gains ground.

Empathy also works wonders between emotionally connected people. The saying that a friend in need is a friend indeed is true. In the face of life’s challenges, each of us seeks support from people who are able to understand us. Being on the same wavelength as the other, for better or for worse, strengthens the foundation of our relationships.

Science has demonstrated that we can show high degrees of empathy in relation to those close to us. A group of researchers at the University of Virginia, USA, analysed the brain activity of 22 people under the threat of low-intensity electric shocks, administered either to themselves or to their friends. The results showed no difference between how the brain reacts to its own danger versus how the brain reacts when a loved one is in danger.

Friendship means, above all, intimacy. In front of friends, the daily masks come down, and the walls between us and the world gradually crumble. Openness comes naturally and prevails within the boundaries of the trust that is established. Over time, it enables a level of transparency that is impossible to establish with strangers. It makes us vulnerable, but also happy, through the freedom of being ourselves.

Intimacy starts from the ability to know and let ourselves be known, and from the ability to actively listen. Active listening is an art that can be mastered through repetition. It means being 100% involved in the conversation, seeing reality through the eyes of the other.

This type of communication comprises eye contact, nonverbal messages, lack of value judgments and a general attitude that expresses what everyone longs for, regardless of age, experience, or status: acceptance.

Friends and well-being

Although it is beneficial, it is not always easy to stay close to the people with whom we have developed strong attachments. Family life, work schedules, and daily demands can keep us from the oasis of peace and comfort felt around friends. Psychologists say that the success of lasting friendships lies in the quality, not in the quantity, of interactions. Neither does success lie in a multitude of friends in the virtual environment, which do not automatically belong to the real social network as well.

Even if technology allows the extension of the circle of acquaintances to a huge number of individuals, the average person can count on the fingers of one hand the number of their true friends. These are the ones we need to take care of like fragile plants. Why? Because friendship translates into a number of extraordinary benefits for those who experience it.

The first and most important advantage is related to an essential aspect of human existence: health. Whether or not we have social support significantly influences our physical and mental health. Research in the field claims that the emotional, moral or material support of loved ones reduces the risk of cardiovascular disease, accelerates the recovery process after severe health challenges such as cancer, and ensures the longevity of direct beneficiaries.

According to data collected from 6,418 elderly people, camaraderie ranks second, after marital attachment, in terms of maintaining mental health.

Very often, friends outperform the role of family members and form a complete package: company, psychological and instrumental support, common activities and interests, increasing independence. Without their input, the social needs of seniors remain unfulfilled, accelerating the general decline of the person.

Loneliness and isolation do not take age into account, so friends matter at any stage of life. They help to reduce stress, to increase self-confidence, to strengthen the feeling of belonging and even to adopt healthy habits.

Birds of a feather flock together. It’s a proverb, but also the conclusion of a study led by Tom Rath, director of the Gallup Organization. Trying to identify how good habits are transferred from one friend to another, the study revealed the following statistics: if your best friend eats healthfully, the chances of you adopting a balanced diet is increased five-fold.

The same research correlates involvement in professional activities with the work environment. Employees who feel close to colleagues tend to get involved 9 times more in the given tasks, being more productive than those who do not feel close to colleagues.

Human connections are a real shield of protection against anxiety and depression, as the National Medical Association points out, based on research conducted at a clinic in Buffalo, New York. Moreover, they help us to cope well with difficult situations, regardless of their nature (job losses, family problems, identity crises, lack of a partner), and to manage overwhelming trauma by offering trust, affection and meaning—precious resources in the healing process.

Toxic friendships

The most convincing benefits of attachment are those you experience yourself. Unfortunately, there is also the flip side of the coin, a possibility of side effects, transposed into real life, when “friends” do more harm than good.

According to psychologist Erin Graham, low self-esteem and a personal history marked by dysfunctional relationships can make us tolerant of toxic friendships, defined by regular ill-treatment such as: neglect, emotional manipulation, betrayal of trust, lack of affection, criticism, verbal abuse, etc.

At the same time, the fundamental need to belong creates the premise for accepting limiting situations and emotional investments that consume us excessively, without any relevant advantage.

Transgressions can also occur in balanced relationships, says clinical psychologist Gillian Needleman, but the difference is that, in those cases, selfish behaviours do not spoil the positive aspects of friendship, but are overcome by joint efforts. In toxic cases, collaboration and common goals are replaced by a glaring imbalance of needs—an obvious disproportion, when one side wants to receive everything without offering anything, and the other offers as much as possible, just so they can say they have a friend.

Needleman concludes that such compromises give rise to serious emotional consequences. To avoid them, psychologists urge us to practice self-knowledge, self-appreciation, and to follow some guiding principles in terms of friends and friendships. We cannot share ourselves with people without remaining true to ourselves. In this way, we have the chance to be our best version for others, receiving back what we offer: love, devotion and respect.

Genia Ruscu holds a Master’s degree in counselling within social services.