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Kathy Whelan

Posted on May 11, 2023

The health benefits of social connectedness are well-established. The longest scientific study of happiness ever conducted, the Harvard Study of Adult Development, shows that good social relationships – strong connections to family, friends and community – keep us healthier and happier. The CDC warns that “lack of social relationships can be as harmful to your health as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, or physical inactivity.”

Given their importance, our friendships warrant our attention; without it, they may atrophy like unused muscles. But with only so much time and energy, which friendships should we nourish?

Robert Waldinger, MD, the current director of the Harvard Study, and Marc Shulz, Ph D, write in The Good Life that the quality of our relationships is more important to social connection than the number of friends we have. They recommend prioritizing relationships we find energizing rather than depleting. Friendships in which we can be authentic, even vulnerable, are ones we should value. We can determine our best relationships by asking ourselves how we feel when we spend time with a person. The strongest friendships, according to these authors, are those that “flow both ways” (which doesn’t necessarily mean each person gives the other the same thing at the same time). Unfulfilling or one-sided relationships not only waste our time and energy but also can lead to loneliness that impairs our health.

Evaluating friendships this way can challenge us to look at the whole notion of friendship differently. If we count as “friends” everyone we connect with on social media, for example, we are not focused on the quality of each relationship. And no number of such relationships will give us, without more, the benefits of a single good friendship.

Even very good friendships, though, need to be evaluated from time to time because of another pillar of whole health: personal growth. The sense that we are continually developing and learning through new experiences, realizing our potential and gaining self-knowledge, is an important dimension of psychological wellbeing, the feeling that life is going well. Our friendships can encourage and promote personal growth, or they can stifle it. Friendships that trap us in outgrown roles may cause stress and resentment. And setting new relationship boundaries can be painful. If a friend is unwilling to accept us as we are now, it may be time to marginalize or end the friendship.

The pandemic took its own toll on friendships as each connection with another person prompted a risk-benefit analysis. Different coping styles confronted one other. Forced to prioritize our relationships in a new way, we put certain friendships on hold, intending to return to them later. At some point, we look at these relationships and ask ourselves what’s next: shall we revive them or leave them dormant?

A construct that may be helpful here comes from a poem often attributed to Brian A. (“Drew”) Chalker, which says in part: “People come into your life for a reason, a season or a lifetime. When you know which one it is, you will know what to do for that person.”

When someone enters your life “for a reason,” it’s usually in response to a need of yours. Maybe you’re new in town and someone reaches out and connects you to others. Or you’re bedridden after surgery, and a neighbor offers to help. Once your need is met, the relationship may or may not endure.

Friends “for a season” might be colleagues at work, roommates at college, or those with whom you shared a particular interest at a certain time. Maybe you can’t imagine having gotten through that “season” without them. If these friendships feel expired yet it seems difficult to end them, it may help to focus on, and even express, gratitude for what these friends gave you as you passed through one phase of life.

Lifetime friends see each other through different stages of life. They are curious, empathetic and supportive of one another’s growth and development. Being with each other is a priority as is being mentally present when together. These relationships thrive on a mutual commitment to being friends. It can be painful and cause grief when one friend no longer considers the friendship “for a lifetime,” but, even then, it can be valued for what it was while it lasted.

There is no longer any doubt that good friendships are not just nice to have; they are essential to whole health and happiness. When we give them our best, the rewards will be well worth our effort.

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