We all want good friends. That’s a given.
No, we all need good friends. Whatever our difficulties or joys, it’s the interest of those who care about us that makes all the difference. From earliest childhood on, our social instincts make it essential that we engage with real interest and concern with other people. We may be shy or even reclusive, yet our happiness will depend to a great extent not on the number but on the quality of our friendships.
Work also matters to us. So does intimacy. But even here friendship plays a vital part. The healthiest intimate relationships include shared and individual friends. And at work even a quite routine or stressful job is transformed when people take a warm interest in one another. In fact, one of the most keenly felt losses when work disappears is the loss of comfortable familiarity with workmates.
Children’s happiness at school is also largely determined by whether they feel liked and supported by their peers. For those who have “lots of friends”, school is almost always a time of intense pleasure. For those shut out from easy friendship, school can be a nightmare. Whatever our age, friendship protects us from the devastations of loneliness. In adult life it makes us far less dependent upon a single intimate relationship, if indeed we have one. This is because friendship builds our feelings of inner reality and self-acceptance as much as our capacity to be open and accepting of other people. We literally find it easier to like and affirm ourselves when that’s the way others also perceive and respond to us. With friends we discover who we are.
Habits of friendship can be re-shaped for the better at any time throughout a life. Common interests, and a willingness to risk a lively, consistent yet respectful interest in others, are the friendship basics. Listening well, offering and accepting support, valuing and encouraging who the person is and not simply their “usefulness” or status, are immensely attractive qualities that enhance any deepening of friendly communication. Loyalty is also crucial. Making time for friends, keeping your word, respecting confidences, never taking advantage of any personal or intimate knowledge you may have are key qualities that develop our own self-awareness and character as much as our friendships.
Because friendship is so critical for our inner wellbeing and resilience, we ought to see it as a priority. Some may feel awkward about making themselves open and vulnerable to caring. Some may tell themselves they have no time. Yet friends truly are not an option in a rounded life. If we are parents, we will teach our children most about friendship through how we treat our own friends. Showing children that we take friendship seriously also benefits us. And if our children are navigating those vital and vulnerable school years, we can encourage their teachers to offer discussions about the values as well as the value of friendship, while having similar conversations at home. For many children and adults alike, it’s quite natural to be loyal, good humoured, encouraging and trustworthy. But those values can’t flourish when insecurity or criticism dominate. Or when friendship comes a poor second to power plays and getting ahead. Making friendship’s values explicit helps people of all ages to realise them. And to see how being the best friend that we can be to others will enhance our old friendships and make new ones possible.
This is basic to emotional intelligence as well as social adroitness. It is easier for some to learn than others but risking more and deeper friendships always expands our inner horizons and makes our wider world far more interesting and caring. Regardless of other factors, a life without friends is impoverished. A life with friends is ceaselessly rich.