The psychology of friends

On International Friendship Day we trawl our archive for insights into why friendship matters and how we can connect safely during the pandemic.

‘Friendship is the single most important thing affecting our psychological health and wellbeing, as well as our physical health and wellbeing.’ Spending time with our friends releases endorphins in the brain, and makes us happy. This is Professor Robin Dunbar’s response to the Wellcome Collection’s latest exhibition On Happiness’, and there is a wealth of research that might back up his statement. 

Indeed, good friendships may be essential for wellbeing at every stage of life. Making friends is crucial for children in their development and ability to form later relationships. And the bedrock of childhood friendships may start with play – which hones social and communication skills.

The way we connect with our friends may change as we get older, or as technology opens up new ways of connecting. Teenagers today can harness social media to communicate with friends in a way previous generations could not. They may have different types of friendship, with online and offline groups of friends – that may or may not overlap.

Social connectedness and depression

Many studies suggest that having healthy friendships could have a protective effect on health, and help us age better. Some research has examined whether social networks could influence mortality, heart attack survival, depression and anxiety. Our social networks (the ties we have) can affect our moods, with some evidence suggesting that feelings such as happiness can spread through a network.

Being a member of a social group, for example a book club or sports team, may carry its own health benefits. This is because the sense of belonging and friendship may be key to our social identity, which in turn can influence health. For example, studies show links between social connectedness and depression. Being a member of a low-status or stigmatised group may harm health, but at the same time this group membership can counter negative health effects, for example by providing social support.

Contact theory

Friendship may also be pivotal in boosting societal harmony. Contact theory - the idea that positive contact such as friendships between different groups can promote positive attitudes, has been studied as a way to reduce prejudice towards immigrants and promote intercultural relations. For example, studies in children have shown that white British schoolchildren with friends of south-Asian origin tended to have more positive attitudes towards those of south-Asian origin.

We also value friendship in our cultural life. The book, Dr Who Psychology, looked at the ideal sidekick for the Time Lord Dr Who, and suggested that as well as being highly empathetic and resilient, they might have traits in common with polar explorer Ernest Shackleton’s ideal travelling companion too. The developing friendships of children also provide fascinating fodder for TV, inspiring programmes such as The Secret Lives of 4 Year Olds.

The flipside of friendship

But are there downsides to friendship? Certainly, feeling socially-rejected can be painful, especially for teenagers. And one in three children may experience the flipside of friendship – enemyship or ‘antipathetic relationships’, at any given time according to research. Teen friendships can be complicated, with former friends or current ‘frenemies’ more likely to bully within their own social circle.

The current Covid-19 pandemic means that reinvigorating our social connections may be especially important, particularly for new mothers. Psychologists have been aware of how children may have been impacted by time away from friends and have called on the UK government to prioritise play for children. Lockdown loneliness may have particularly profound effects in older adults, especially those with dementia.

Repeated lockdowns have made us rethink the ways we stay in contact with friends. While social media is one way of keeping in touch, some people have discovered the value of online games such as Among Us and Animal Crossing to connect with friends.

Over on our Research Digest we’ve summarised lots of studies on friendship:

Are you addicted to spending time with your friends? Study satirises measures of social media addiction – Matthew Warren

School-age kids, but not preschoolers, understand that divulging a friend’s secret could damage the friendship – Emma Young

We prefer to experience good – and bad – events on the same day as a friend – Emma Young

How sharing a toilet helps students make more friends – Alex Fradera

People prefer strangers who share their political views to friends who don’t – Emily Reynolds

Struggling to stick to a workout routine? Copying your friends might help – Emily Reynolds

We’re worse at remembering exactly what we’ve given to friends than what we’ve given to strangers – Emma Young

Here’s why we eat more when we’re with friends and family – Emily Reynolds

Kids As Young As Five Underestimate How Much Their Peers Like Them – Emma Young

The “liking gap” – we tend to underestimate the positive first impression we make on strangers – Emma Young

Find more using the search function on the Research Digest

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