Friends and Happiness - Why More Isn't Necessarily Better

By Janie McMahan, LMFT

Long before friend became a popular social media verb, it was the noun that described our most significant non-family relationships.

Friends and happiness are a long-cherished combination. We’ve made incalculable movies and TV shows about friendships. And, who knows how many friend-related songs and books exist?

But, having friends is more than just a part of our cultural life. It’s also good for your health!

Researchers in 2015 compiled a meta-analysis across 70 previous studies—involving 3.4 million people—and found a correlation between loneliness and obesity. For people of all ages, a lack of social connections is a bonafide health risk. And by “health risk,” we mean something akin to that of smoking 15 cigarettes a day!

Among other positive physical outcomes, those with healthy support from friends experienced:

  • Strong immune and hormone function
  • Decreased inflammation levels
  • Lower blood pressure

Having at least a few good friends also carries some abstract benefits by providing:

  • Prevention against loneliness
  • Increased self-esteem, confidence, and social skills
  • Help and support as you cope with life’s inevitable traumas
  • Company with whom to celebrate the good times
  • Someone to call you out if you should slip into unhealthy lifestyle habits
  • A strong sense of belonging

Conversely, stressful relationships can lead to negative biological outcomes which seem to point us towards the benefits of “quality over quantity” when it comes to friendships.

Friendships: More or Less?

The advent of the internet in general, and various social media trends, in particular, have skewed our perspective on friends and happiness. We log into Facebook and almost immediately see an exact tally of how many “friends” we have—a number that we can then compared to others. At what other time in human history could we quantify our social life in such a way? And what does it mean for our health and well-being?

For one thing, it means we might be mistaking transient social connections for friendships and therefore, keeping score in the wrong game.

There is no precise way to know how many friends is “right” for each of us. But, there are many ways to know who your friends are. Here are six such ways to help you get started on your own list of true friend qualities:

1. Defying Time and Distance

Friends move away, temporarily lose touch, or make other friends. However, when you meet up again, you pick up the conversation exactly where you left off! It’s as if no time at all has passed.

2. In Case of Emergency…

Who’s your “in case of emergency” contact? Who are you certain would drop everything to be there in your hour of need?

3. Beyond Ideology

Here’s where you separate the “real life” friends from the “virtual” friends. Ideology helps connect individuals. Passion for a cause can create friendships. But what happens if you re-think some of your beliefs? Do your ideological friends remain? Your real friends love you for being you—not for your diet, your political party choice, or your religion.

4. Honesty is the Best Policy

We can care deeply for someone yet tip-toe around them on certain topics. Then there are those friends who can handle bluntness and brutal honesty…even when it hurts.

5. Healthy Boundaries

Let’s say you set a boundary. For example: Please don’t tease me about my hair loss in the company of strangers. A real friend doesn’t take this boundary personally. A real friend respects boundaries. If they have a concern about such boundaries, well, refer back to #4.

6. They “Get” You, the Real You

In a close, bonded friendship, it almost feels as if you’ve invented your own language. Maybe even your own mini-society. Friends and happiness happen together when two people truly get one another. It transcends description yet remains wholly recognizable.