“Walking with a friend in the dark is better than walking alone in the light.” – Helen Keller
A few months ago, after a particularly challenging day, I called one of my best friends. Within a half hour he was sitting on my couch listening intently, offering words of support and encouragement while periodically passing me tissues. As we hugged goodbye that night, I said that I loved him and didn’t know what I would do without him. “It’s good then,” he said “that you’ll never have to know.”
Unlike family, friends are the people we choose to surround ourselves with. That is not to say that many people don’t have close, supportive relationships with family, just that friends are the people we cultivate and invite into our lives because we want them to be there. They can be people who resonate with our belief systems, have similar interests, and many times are those who challenge us to be our best selves. Having friends is also related to living a longer, healthier life.
One recent study in the journal Personal Relationships shows the having friends becomes increasingly important to health and happiness as people age, and that having supportive friendships in old age was found to be a strong indicator of well-being. The author, William Chopik, studied more than 270,000 people in almost 100 countries. The findings showed that people with strong family and friend relationships experienced greater levels of well-being. And that as people aged, the link was greater with those who had strong friendships. When people experienced their friends as a source of support, they were happier.
The Eight Dimensions of Wellness describes the social component as “developing a sense of connection, belonging, and a well-developed support system.” Social wellness involves having healthy relationships with friends, family, and the community, and having an interest in and concern for the needs of others and humankind. These strong relationships can bring a sense of meaning and purpose to our lives, and, conversely, these relationships can help us effectively cope with all that life throws at us.
Many of these strong bonds begin in childhood and adolescence. A study published recently in Child Development suggests that bonds from adolescence can play a significant role in a person’s mental health for years. These are the relationships that fuel our emotional development, the ones with history.
I met my friend Jennifer when we were just 5 years old. We went to school together all the way through high school, and kept in touch during college at a time when you had to pay for a phone call and write letters. It took real effort. I can still clearly remember the feel of the airmail paper that I used to write (in the tiniest lettering imaginable) voracious stories on while she was in Florence, Italy for a semester. We were there for each other during breakups, fights with parents, all of the growing pains and awkwardness of adolescence, dating, engagements and weddings. She was there when my sister died suddenly. We had a rich history and helped to shape each other’s early lives.
But friends can be like an old pair of jeans—some days you put them on and they feel absolutely perfect, and then there are those times when you realize that they just don’t fit like they did when you were 15. They can become uncomfortable, and you may even grow out of them. Jennifer and I experienced that in early 2003 when she broke up with me. The details are unnecessary and painful, so let’s just say it was a vast growing experience. I had to learn to live without the person who knew me best.
Several years and major life milestones later (moves, new jobs, births), and honestly when I had given up any hope of a reconciliation, a letter came in the mail. It didn’t matter what had happened, all that mattered to me was that she reached out. I had learned the difficult lesson that life is too short to hold grudges and hold people at arm’s length. We were able to reconnect and continue to cultivate a friendship that has spanned decades.
One habit that I’ve been practicing recently is spontaneously calling someone whenever they cross my mind. Taking time to actually make vocal contact with them. Admittedly, it has been time consuming and my apartment is less clean than it usually is, but the investment has yielded precious dividends. The response has been truly heart-warming and has enabled me to strengthen those precious bonds. It makes me so happy.
This past Christmas Eve morning when I couldn’t sleep, I decided to go through the contact list on my phone and send a greeting of some sort to every person listed. Again, it took a fair amount of time and involved massive amounts of Christmas tree and snowman emojis. But within minutes, and then all day long, each person responded. Some of the messages brought tears to my eyes, others made me laugh. It was truly the best gift ever. My face hurt from smiling. What I realized later was that I gave that gift to myself by choosing to reach out and make those connections.
Dr. Peggy Swarbrick, a leader in the field of mental health and wellness says that, “Wellness is a conscious, deliberate process that requires being aware of and making choices for a more satisfying lifestyle.”
As we move through life we have a conscious choice when it comes to our friendships—we can let our busy lives consume us and lose those important connections, or we can continue to cultivate and nurture them, all the while nurturing ourselves.
 Chopik, W. J. (2017). Associations among relational values, support, health, and well-being across the adult lifespan. Personal Relationships, 24(2), 408-422. doi:10.1111/pere.12187
 Narr, R. K., Allen, J. P., Tan, J. S., & Loeb, E. L. (2017). Close Friendship Strength and Broader Peer Group Desirability as Differential Predictors of Adult Mental Health. Child Development. doi:10.1111/cdev.12905