Since the mid-2000s the number of people who say they have no one to talk to has doubled. The lack of social contacts and social support, despite our technological advances over the past few decades, is one of the downsides to the huge transformations that have taken place in our society. Despite the advent of email, the internet, cell phones and social media, people today have fewer meaningful social contacts than they had in the past. We have traded our face-to-face contacts for technological forms of communication. We tend to drive alone, work alone, eat alone, and live alone more than we did in the past. Our public presentation may reflect less about who we are on the inside than on our ability to conform to the latest look that we pick up from the all pervasive media. We go to the gym and work out alone to the beats stored in our iPods. We go for coffee and immerse ourselves in our laptops. And we do not talk to strangers, who may, as many believe, pose a danger to us. Yes, we have changed. Friendships are harder to come by. It is more difficult these days to get to know who another person really is, or for them to get to know who we are.
Research studies have shown repeatedly that friendship and social support systems have many psychological benefits. Social support cuts off the dysfunctional cycle of stress, which produces physiological responses such as increased heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure. Just having another person nearby will reduce stress when people perform difficult tasks.
Spending time with a good, supportive friend will calm us and uplift our mood. We feel better when we talk things through with a trusted friend. When we hear ourselves talk, we can often get to the root of what is bothering us without the listener having to say a word. Social support validates us. We do not feel so alone when there is a trusted friend nearby to say that the same things have happened to them or who merely says, “I understand.” Social connections help us to feel better about ourselves. Good friends make us feel good and we feel that we are a part of a larger whole. When we have a supportive social network, we can face life’s everyday problems with the feeling that we have the backing of others who care about us.
Social support also has physical benefits. People who have social connections bounce back more quickly from surgeries and illnesses than those without support. A study of people with heart disease found that people with a good friend to confide in, lived substantially longer than those who did not have a social support network. Research has also found that social support can increase your body’s natural immunity. A well known study found women with advanced breast cancer who attended a weekly support group lived twice as long as those who did not. It has also been found that lonely people sleep less soundly, wake more frequently during the night, and has less regenerative deep sleep than those with good social support networks.
One important component of friendship is that money cannot buy friends. True friendship depends on much deeper features than the superficial act of buying things for people. In fact, it has been found that we value a friendship more if we give to another person rather than receiving from them. Perhaps by doing something for someone else, we enhance their value in our eyes in order to justify why we have given to them. Giving makes us like the other person more and allowing them to give to us makes them like us more. The American statesman, Benjamin Franklin, used this idea in dealing with people. When someone was antagonistic toward him, he would ask them for a favor. This led the other person to change their perception of him in a more positive direction. Giving, in any case, is more effective as a life strategy than receiving.
The best friendships are those where the two people support each other’s social identity. We value the place we have in society, whether it is a job or an important marker in our status, such as being a good partner, student, or team member. Our true friends are those who support the social identity we have established for ourselves. We tend to withdraw from people who fail to support what we are or what we do in the world. We may believe that we like our friends because of who they are as people, but the research indicates that we like them because they support who we are.
Another feature of a good friendship is that things tend to stay positive. Although self disclosure is an important component of a friendship, when people constantly talk about their problems or use the friendship as a place only to vent their lie frustrations, the friendship is put under strain. When one person stays negative within a friendship, the other person might start avoiding the interaction. The intimacy of friendship has to be enjoyable. The more we feel good about the other person, the more likely we are to invest the time to keep the friendship alive and thriving. A good friendship is exciting, and it is fun!