Saint Thomas Aquinas, the 13th century Italian religious leader and theologian, once said that true friendship was the greatest gift life has to offer. But what is true friendship really all about – and how do we create and nurture true friendships?
There is a world of advice out there on the best ways to meet people and to socialize with a view to making new friends. And this advice is valuable. But what we’re really talking about here is the next stage; what goes in in the human psyche to create lasting friendships? Having said that, we shouldn’t put the cart before the horse here. We do need to meet people first in the right environment.
First, meet the right people
This may be through the usual sorts of channels such as shared interest groups based on things like sport, hobbies, music, study, or anything else you’re interested in. The fact is that if you share interests, you’re more likely to have enough in common with someone to build a lasting friendship. Doing the things that you really love doing - and meeting other people while you pursue that interest - is a logical stepping stone to a potential friendship or relationship.
Neighbors can also become close friends. You have a shared interest simply by virtue of the fact that you live in close proximity and may need one another’s help. This mutual need, as we will find out later, can help create an extremely powerful bond in human relationships. Just tread very carefully here as soured relationships with close neighbors can also work the other way.
Coworkers can also be a good source of friendships, whether directly with a coworker or via their wider social networks. The advantage of these friendships is that you tend to get to know someone in-depth in a professional context, which gives you a good insight into their character, though this has obvious pitfalls if you fall out with each other - so, again, tread very carefully.
Then there are the more direct ways of meeting people. Sites and apps like Badoo offer great ways of meeting new people – whether for friendship or potential romance. The advantage of this method is its candor; both sides know exactly what the score is before you meet, so you’ve avoided much of the awkward small talk and preamble that goes into the opening stages in relationship or friendship-building between people. What’s more, you’ve been able to communicate before you meet to get the basics in place: what your likes and dislikes are, maybe what you do for a living, what you do in your spare time and so on. Therefore, you’re able to move more quickly to the next stage of relationship building. And that’s exactly what we’re really interested in here; the psychology behind what happens next…
It’s all about evolution
So let’s look at our nearest relations from the animal kingdom, the chimpanzees and other primates, to see if they offer us any clues. Simply put - human friendship has its origins in evolution. Several studies have been able to demonstrate that primates recognize others' friendships and that these have a purpose. For males, having strong alliances means they enjoy superior reproductive success and competitive ability, while for females, enduring friendships lead to reduced stress, reduced infant mortality rates and a longer life. Overall, the primates develop closely bonded groups to offer the collective group an improved chance of survival. Working together improved those chances, helped the group avoid being predated, caused mutual success more than groups that cooperated less well – and so led to more genetic success. The laws of natural selection were at work, in other words.
One of the most important ways is in taking time. The observation of monkeys shows that they spend as much as 20% of their waking hours grooming each other. But they don’t groom equally or randomly. Instead, they have chosen friends that they groom much more than others. And this time element is reflected in human behavior. We develop closer relationships with people when we spend time with them, sharing common interests and doing the things we like.
But we may have to be a little indulgent here if we’re keen to make friends. Dale Carnegie once said that we could make quicker and deeper friendships if we spent time actively listening and being interested in the other person than if we try to get that person interested in us. In a similar way, it’s often said that the most interesting people are those who are interested in others. Also, the art of good conversation is often said to be showing a genuine interest in what the other person has to say. So giving of ourselves to be interested in what the other person wants and likes is an important step in developing friendships, particularly in the early stages.
Remember, too, that most communication between people is happening non-verbally. So showing a real interest in the other person, making eye contact and smiling are all important. Don’t worry; this stuff happens naturally when you’re drawn to someone. But this shouldn’t go too far. Real friends cooperate and if a relationship becomes lopsided, it tends to fade away. Again, this is natural; monkeys groom mutually and investing our time in friendship is part of an evolutionary survival mechanism. If the arrangement isn’t reciprocal, the monkey moves on and starts investing its time in someone else.
Trigger the neurotransmitters
OK, triggering the neurotransmitters may sound daunting, but fear not; your good friendship will do this for you. Studies show that when primates groom each other, this releases endorphins and oxytocin, a powerful “neurotransmitter”, a chemical messenger that makes all us primates feel good. It has an important role in many areas of life including maternal bonding, sexual relationships, feelings of generosity and empathy and so on. And it’s a very important part of building and bonding close friendships. But don’t worry, you don’t have to start picking bugs and dirt out of your friend’s hair. Shared activities with friends such as chatting over a cup of coffee, singing, dancing, eating out, and laughing together all have the same effect on us Homo sapiens, producing the same neurotransmitters. Sharing the things that make us happy with a close friend, then, make us happier still. This helps explain why people on their own are far less likely to go to the movies or to see a band they like than they are if they have a friend to go with. We are hard-wired to value companionship - and social isolation tends to have the opposite effect, creating stress.
Being helpful and receiving help in return from your closest friends is the icing on the cake. In many ways, this is the evolutionary endgame that is still at work today. So where the bonding in our primate ancestors may have resulted in them collectively fighting off a threat from another group or even screaming that a tiger was on the hunt, today’s reciprocal help maybe lending an understanding ear, or helping your friend move house. And the reverse is true of course; we give help and receive help. So your friend may help you when you need a lift somewhere, or be able to look after you when you’re ill. This mutual friendship through giving and receiving real help in myriad forms is the final bond in ensuring a really strong and close friendship.
It can also be a true test of the strength of that friendship and, again, may cause the friendship to unravel if it is too one-sided or feels non-reciprocal. If you truly believe your friend will be there for you whatever it takes and that you would do the same for him or her, then you’ve arrived at that special lasting and deep friendship.
Pick five from 150
Finally, who are these close friends going to be exactly? Well, research has shown that, at any given time, most human beings have around 150 relationships going on in their lives. But of course, we don’t assign each of these relationships the same level of importance. And only five of these, on average, will result in a deep mutual bond during the course of a lifetime.
If you think back on your life, depending on how old you are, you will probably be able to identify one or more of these close friends. But what about today’s friendships? Do you feel comfortable in your friendships? Are they equal, reciprocal relationships? And are you doing all you can to nurture and cherish that alliance? After all, being able to count on your closest friend when you need him or her is what it’s really all about from an evolutionary perspective that we aren’t even consciously aware of.