In the midst of busy life, it can be easy to neglect our friendships. But if the past year has taught us anything, it’s to prioritise and appreciate loved ones. However, the restrictions and social distancing have made sustaining friendships hard, and that can be bad news for our health.
"The quality and quantity of your friendships can be the biggest predictor of mental and physical health," says Professor Robin Dunbar, evolutionary psychologist at the University of Oxford, and author of Friends. He explains that enjoying time with friends encourages our brains to release endorphins, which produce opiate-like effects of relaxation and warmth. "Laughter, singing, dancing, eating and drinking together, and telling emotionally rousing stories can all trigger the endorphin system," he says.
And the more relaxed and calm we feel, the greater our resilience to stress. Studies have shown that friendships can not only help you cope with stress better, but also lower your chances of feeling strung out in the first place.
Alongside making you feel great, endorphins have another important function that is particularly relevant now. "Endorphins seem to trigger the immune system, helping to pump out white blood cells, which can help destroy viruses," says Professor Dunbar.
In fact, solid friendships have even been proven to increase your life expectancy. A study found that those with stronger relationships had a 50% lower mortality risk. Loneliness, meanwhile, increases the likelihood of mortality by 26%, and a 2010 study found it can be as bad for you as smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Worryingly, the number of people who feel lonely (lacking deep social bonds) has been at a significant level for some years now; in 2017, research found that 1 in 20 adults feel lonely ‘often’ or ‘always’.
So, if you feel constantly lonely, you need to address it. "Loneliness is like a signal that something is wrong," says Professor Dunbar. "It’s like a flashing light on your car dashboard that signals the oil levels are low in the engine. It’s telling you to get out and do something about it."
And that ‘something’ means prioritising your social connections. According to Shasta Nelson, friendship expert and author of The Business Of Friendship, it’s not just about surrounding yourself with people, but creating meaningful bonds. "When most of us feel lonely, it’s intimacy we crave, not just interaction," she says.
So how can you build intimate friendships that can support your mental and physical wellbeing? Well, it turns out that both quality and quantity matter. From his research, Professor Dunbar has found that the optimal number of close friendships is five. "Any less than that, it can start to bite," he says. "More than five can also have a negative impact because you’re spreading your social load thinly, so the quality of the friendships decline."
These close friends should be the kind of people you can be yourself around; where you enjoy their company, and you know they’d drop everything to help you if you needed it. Once you’ve figured out who those people are, it’s important to maintain consistent relationships with them.
"Ideally, you’d see these people once a week," says Professor Dunbar. "Less than that and the quality can drift downwards."
Seeing friends that often can be a pipe dream for many of us, even in normal times, let alone in current circumstances. Professor Dunbar admits that the modern world has made maintaining friendships more challenging. "Most of us no longer live in tight-knit communities where everyone knows each other," he says. "We move around a lot, too, which means our networks become fractured."
Nurturing our friendships has been even more difficult since we first went into lockdown. According to Nelson, we might feel increasingly disconnected or lonely if our friendships pre-pandemic revolved around social activities. "Friendships reliant on being in the same shared space, such as work or religious organisations, have suffered," she says.
But there is some good news: friendships built on talking and sharing may have become stronger. "Many people have been going deeper with their closest friends, prioritising those they have chosen to stay in touch with," says Nelson.
Although meeting up in person hasn’t always been possible, Professor Dunbar’s research has found that communication, such as texting, phoning or video-calling, can still be effective for maintaining friendships. "It papers over the cracks, slowing down the rate of decay," he says.
Nelson agrees, stressing that conversations are vital in making us feel close to others. If we can hear our friends’ voices, confide in them and feel reassured, this helps increase our social connection and, as a result, boosts our wellbeing.
How to keep your friendships strong
If you want to reap the rewards of great friendships, it’s vital to nurture them. Nelson recommends working out who to prioritise by writing down a list of names. "Ask yourself: who do I want to feel close to?" she says. This will help you decide who to invest your time in, so you don’t spread yourself too thinly. According to Nelson, there are three essential qualities in friendships: consistency, vulnerability and positivity. Without one of these, closeness can slip.
CONSISTENCY: If you’re not able to see your friends in person, find new patterns so you can communicate regularly. For example, you might speak on the phone at the same time every week. "I sometimes prefer phone calls to video calls as they require less energy and you’re less focused on appearances," she says. You could go for a walk while you talk on the phone, as being surrounded by nature can counter the negative effects of being digitally switched-on.
VULNERABILITY: This means having deeper, more meaningful conversations where you feel seen, heard and known. "Practise mutual vulnerability," says Nelson. "Make sure you’re listening to your friend and their life, but also sharing your own life. Don’t wait for them to ask – just share what you want to share."
POSITIVITY: It’s hard to be positive when the world is consumed with so much negativity. "When you see or speak to your friend, think: how can I contribute positive emotions? How can we both feel good when we leave?" says Nelson. Even if the subject matter is difficult, you can find ways to leave your friend feeling uplifted and, hopefully, they will return the favour. Try to combine all three qualities. "When I have my weekly Zoom call with my female friends, we take it in turns to share a highlight and a lowlight from the week," says Nelson. "It’s meaningful as we can say something that feels good, but we also show our stress and vulnerability. We all end up affirming each other and laughing, so we leave feeling loved and accepted."
How to reconnect with old friends
If you feel lonely, Nelson recommends getting in touch with someone you miss seeing. "One study found that it takes 200 hours for us to feel best friends with somebody, so it makes sense to invest in friendships we’ve already made rather than starting at the beginning," says Nelson. If you’re nervous about making the move, she suggests these simple steps:
Manage your expectations. Remember that it’ll take time to build up a meaningful connection between you and your friend again, so go slowly.
Find an excuse to reach out, such as a meaningful event – a birthday, or the anniversary of a trip you took together. You can use a Facebook Memory as a spring-board to reminisce.
Keep it short and sweet. Write a brief, warm note to say you’ve been thinking about them, acknowledging that it has been a while, and letting them know they are missed. End by asking a question about what they’ve been doing.
Don’t feel disheartened if they don’t respond in the way you’d like. Even if they don’t write back, don’t take it personally – everyone has a lot going on now and it might not be the right time. Remember that, no matter what, you’re letting another person know you’re thinking of them. That’s a beautiful gift.
How to make new friends
Not every friendship was built to last for ever – and that’s okay. "Research shows that we replace half our close friends every seven years throughout our lives," says Nelson. But, while younger people find it easier to replace friends they’ve lost, it can feel more challenging when you’re over 40. "There can be a motivational and energetic problem with replacing lost friendships, and losing friends without replacing them means the number of friends you have declines much faster," says Professor Dunbar. The truth is, you’re never too old to start forming new bonds. Here are a few ways to do it…
Lend a hand. Volunteering can be a great way to get to know empathetic, giving people, and can also put you in touch with your local community. Visit do-it.org to find volunteering opportunities nearby.
Download a friendship app. Finding love via an app is common now, so why not try it for friendship? Patook is a strictly platonic friend-finding app, while Hey! Vina helps women connect, and Peanut is tailored for mums. All are available on your smartphone’s app store.
Meet your neighbours. Finding friends in your local community is ideal for forming consistent connections. Join your local neighbourhood group on nextdoor.co.uk to find out what’s going on in your area.
Do what you love. Getting involved with a hobby can be a good way to meet like-minded people. Find groups of dog-walkers, hikers, painters, wild swimmers and more near you on meetup.com.
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