Friends represent the least well-defined relationships in our lives; they don’t wear our wedding rings, nor do they share our DNA. However, much clinical evidence shows that the strength of these relationships can increase positive emotions and improve our health and wellbeing. We live richer, more fulfilled and even longer through our friendships, say experts.
However, many people tend to neglect the creation and maintenance of these precious resources when other things like family and work require our attention.
Jim Wagner understands how easy it is to lose touch with friends. “You want to have a good life and have friends, but it’s so easy to get lost in what you do at work and days go by and not even be in contact with these people.”
Wagner has three best friends – one of them is his brother, a friend from his first year at university 25 years ago and another friend he has known for almost two decades. “They are important touchstones for me. They help me keep my head straight, ”says Wagner, who works with his wife Nancy Campana at Campana Design in Petaluma, California.
He says he got great business ideas from his friends, not because they’re in the same business – they aren’t – but because they care enough to listen and act as a sounding board. He and his friends also challenge each other to achieve goals and be better people. “I would say these three people are not afraid to shake me up.”
Wagner’s circle of friends is larger than most. According to a study by Duke University and the University of Arizona, most Americans only count two friends when asked how many people they can discuss important things with. Researchers found that the average number of confidants decreased by almost one person – or from 2.94 to 2.08 – between 1985 and 2004. “This change indicates something that is not good for our society. Connections to a tight network of people create a safety net, ”says Lynn Smith-Lovin, professor of sociology at Duke University and one of the study’s authors.
“A true friend is the greatest of all blessings and the one we care least about.”
-François de La Rochefoucauld
Threats to friendships
Longer working hours and the increasing use of the Internet and other communication technologies could be responsible for the decline in relationships between larger networks, the researchers speculate.
Many people feel that the added stress of life warrants spending less time outside of the family, but experts say that it is precisely these stressors that are why we shouldn’t neglect our friendships. Dr. Michael Roizen, chief wellness officer of the Cleveland Clinic, says that while leaders are known to have a high rank when it comes to business and financial success, “almost no one” is happy with friends.
He and other experts say friendships provide a buffer against stress, and people with larger networks of friends generally outlive those with fewer connections and are also happier and more confident. Especially in turbulent times, being connected to people gives you security, even if you never have to ask them for help.
Tim Snow says his friends knew they could call him, ask him to be somewhere at a certain time, and he would be there – no questions asked. You would do the same for him. “Knowing that you have such relationships gives you a feeling of comfort,” he says.
Snow, who runs the George Snow Scholarship Fund in Boca Raton, Florida, named after his father, is very active in local business, charitable, and social circles. “I have a lot of people who I consider friends, but there are far fewer of those who I can pick up the phone and talk to when I really need solid advice. When I was growing up, my father used to say to me, ‘If you can count your true friends on one hand, consider yourself very lucky.’ ”
Snow admits that it takes some initiative to cultivate and nurture friendships. But he says his closest friends are just as busy as he is and they understand when time goes by. “But when we shake hands, it’s almost like we talked yesterday. That connection always seems to be there, ”he says.
Make an effort
Distance and time can put a strain on friendships if you allow them to. “Never be afraid to contact someone after a period of time has passed,” says Keith Ferrazzi, author of Who’s Got Your Back and Never Eat Alone. “Here’s how you go about it: say you are sorry you lost touch, and usually lead with sincere flattery – say that you missed the friendship you had.”
“Connections with a tight network of people create a safety net.”
—Lynn Smith-Lovin, Professor of Sociology, Duke University
For some people, there has to be a decision that is worth making time for friendships and that is just as important as meeting customers and business partners, says Valorie Burton, life coach, speaker and author of numerous books, including How Did I. Be so busy?
“Make the appointment with your friend the way you make appointments for everyone else and integrate it into your appointment calendar. Set limits on your time and make it non-negotiable. That may mean tweaking some things, but that’s a priority, ”she says.
If it’s an excuse to be busy, try replacing the word “balance” with “mixing,” suggests Ferrazzi. For career-conscious Type A personalities, he suggests thinking about how to balance work, hobbies, friends and family. Do the things you love while inviting people who are important to you. Schedule meetings that include children.
Ferrazzi suggests that as you build your social network, you shouldn’t be afraid to share it. Find someone else with similar goals and objectives and say, “Let’s introduce each other; Let’s get together and share the chores and planning. ”Dinner parties are a great way to do this as they can be tailored to suit any financial situation. “Bread breaking has long been a powerful mechanism for connecting people throughout history,” he says.
Some people may have a harder time, possibly out of fear of rejection, fear of being hurt, even a feeling of not being worthy of those relationships, experts say. Avoid doing anything that is too painful, but when reaching out, put aside the fear of feeling uncomfortable. Know that many people are at least a little shy or a little uncomfortable when it comes to reaching out and getting to know others.
People are complex and can sometimes seem more difficult to get in touch with than managing a business or even speaking to a large crowd.
First, put old stereotypes aside. Everyone brings something different, depending on many factors including gender, race, background, and personality. It’s our job to make people feel good, says Ferrazzi. If you ask questions, try to find out who they are and find reasons to take care of them individually. “The basic problem is that we are all different, but we are all the same because we are looking for meaningful connections,” he says.
Who’s got your back
Friends help us know the truth about ourselves and allow us to share the truth with them without fear of the relationship being over, so communication is important. “If someone has let you down or insulted you, in a committed relationship you should be able to say, ‘You told me you would do X and you didn’t. That really hurt me, ‘”says Burton.
Both Snow and Wagner say they share a trust with close friends that allows them to talk about the most sensitive subjects. “It’s good to get input from someone who shares the same values and opinions as you, whether to reinforce your decision or to come up with something you haven’t thought of,” says Snow. “A true friend will give you an honest assessment of a situation, good or bad, and not necessarily what you want to hear.”
Wagner says he values his friends’ life experience and wisdom and knows that they have his best interests at heart. “They are not ‘yes people’. I have to be open to what they say, ”he says, but often the presentation is subtle because they try to be respectful and not hurtful.
In Who’s Got Your Back, Ferrazzi offers insight into how to help friends spot something they need to correct. First, he says, always make sure it’s loving criticism. If it doesn’t and you just want to give your opinion on something, leave it alone. Second, make sure the person feels loved and deeply respected. Third, ask for permission to share your thoughts. Then, and only then, should you deliver your message.
Giving priority to human relationships is critical to both personal and business success as the two areas are increasingly interdependent. Even in difficult economic times, relationships do not cost anything, but they are infinitely valuable. They offer tons of benefits, and yes, everyone needs to have fun every now and then.
This article was originally published in May 2009 and has been updated.
Photo by Ollyy / Shutterstock
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