“Friendship doubles the joys and divides the anguish in half,” said Francis Bacon. And he was not wrong since some of our most intense emotions are deeply connected to the quality of our interpersonal relationships.
Science suggests that social connections help us to be happier, healthier, and even live longer. The largest study to date on personal development by researchers at Harvard University, confirmed that maintaining good relationships reliably predicts our level of happiness and well-being over time.
And it’s not just about couple relationships, close friendships also have a strong impact on our lives.
The power of friendship in action
We all know that friendship is important, but we are not always fully aware of its powerful influence. Researchers at the University of Virginia set out to discover how friendship influences the attitude with which we approach the challenges of everyday life.
In one experiment, they asked 34 people to go up a steep hill to walk up the trail carrying a backpack that weighed about 20% of their body weight. After putting it on their backs, the researchers asked them to estimate how difficult the climb would be.
The people who had to climb alone, perceived that the hill was steeper and thought that it would be more difficult to climb carrying such a heavy backpack. On the other hand, those who were accompanied by a friend, believed that it would be easier to climb and estimated that the slope was less steep. Interestingly, the longer the friendship, the less steep the hill seemed.
This experiment shows us that the support provided by friendship can indeed improve our attitude towards challenges and boost our self-confidence. For this reason, International Friendship Day is an excellent opportunity to discover what characterizes healthy friendships, those that bring stability and happiness to our lives.
5 Key Ingredients of healthy relationships
Good friendships resist the passage of time and distance. They help us withstand life’s blows and are by our side when we need it most. They become an anchor in the middle of the storm, a source of support and security. But they are not only a sympathetic ear or a shoulder to lean on, they also encourage us to grow and face reality, however harsh. In fact, healthy relationships share five essential characteristics:
1. Mutual trust
Trust is the cornerstone of any healthy relationship. The foundations of friendship are built with large doses of honesty and loyalty. Knowing that we can trust each other is what allows us to lower our defenses and speak from the heart. Thus we connect at a deep level in which interactions and conversations become more and more sincere, shedding that layer of social varnish that normally covers relationships and marks a psychological distance with others.
2. Unconditional support
On the Japanese island of Okinawa, one of the areas with the greatest longevity in the world, people have fed an ancient social network called moai since time immemorial. Composed of a group of five friends, they offer each other social, emotional, logistical and even economic support throughout their lives. Everyone benefits when things go well and supports each other when they go wrong. Healthy friendships provide that unconditional support, either through that unspoken feeling of support or through more active forms of helping.
3. Don’t judge
Healthy friendships are built on implicit acceptance. Good friends don’t judge each other’s decisions. They just stay, stay close and listen. That doesn’t necessarily mean that we like their choices or approve them, just that we don’t judge them harshly because we know their life story and are able to put ourselves in their shoes. Such an attitude banishes rejection and invalidation, allowing us to feel comfortable enough to show our most vulnerable side and share our shadows.
4. Promote personal growth
Carl Rogers found a paradox: we can only change when we accept ourselves as we are. The same is true in friendship. When we feel unconditional acceptance from our friends, we feel freer to grow and explore new versions of ourselves. Healthy friendships become that security mesh that we all need to face new challenges. Of course, friends also help us grow through constructive criticism and honest comments that make us rethink our attitudes and decisions, thus encouraging us to adopt a more mature and balanced stance in life.
5. Set healthy boundaries
Healthy friendships have healthy boundaries, which are essential to protect one’s relationship and ensure the freedom we all need. In this type of relationship, each one respects the other’s space and privacy because they are aware that friendship can be wonderful, but it is only a part of life. These limits are based on mutual respect and understanding, so that the relationship does not become suffocating, but rather offers each person the psychological oxygen they need to be themselves.
Of course, healthy friendships don’t come out of nowhere, we must cultivate them. Unfortunately, many times when we think of a balanced life, we focus only on two areas: work and family. However, a truly balanced life also includes self-care and friends.
In fact, positive relationships are a pillar of the PERMA model that Martin Seligman developed to help us understand what our well-being depends on.
When interpersonal relationships are respectful and satisfactory, they generate a common ground to enjoy the experience of interacting and sharing with other people. To the extent that we are more skilled at building and maintaining interpersonal relationships, anticipating and acknowledging the preferences of others, appreciating them and being willing to satisfy them as much as possible, the other people will be more willing to maintain that relationship and we will create a virtuous circle of which we will all benefit.
Fernández, C. et. Al. (2023) The Effect of Social Relationships on the Well-Being and Happiness of Older Adults Living Alone or with Relatives. Healthcare (Basel); 11(2): 222.
Mineo, L. (2017) Good genes are nice, but joy is better. In: The Harvard Gazette.
Saphire, S. et. Al. (2013) Close relationships and happiness. En I. Boniwell, S. A. David, & A. C. Ayers (Eds). Oxford Handbook of happiness (821–833). Oxford, England: Oxford University Press.
Schnall, S. (2008) Social Support and the Perception of Geographical Slant. J Exp Soc Psychol; 44(5): 1246–1255.