The Science of Friendship—And Can Hoarding Be A Good Thing?

“The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” ~ George Vaillant

FriendsThose of us into simple living or minimalism knows that identifying and eliminating any thing superficial and nonessential in life is critical.  In fact, the television show “Hoarders” illustrates weekly the extreme burden that too much stuff can bring to a person’s life. But I’ve just come to realize that there is something that actually should be hoarded—and that “thing” is a friend.  Actually, an abundance of research now shows that finding, keeping and appreciating friends is good for our physical and mental health, good for our occupations, good for our creativity, will add years to our life, and enrich our experience in every way possible.  If we are willing to accept that as true, then understanding the science of friendship is one of the most important actions each of us can take to create a life of happiness, meaning and purpose during our time here on earth.

As I mentioned in my last post I’ve been reading the book The Happiness Advantage by Shawn Achor.  In the book he lists the seven principals of positive psychology that fuel success and performance at work.  Cultivating friends, or “social investment” as Achor calls it, is one of them. What it boils down to is the value that friends have on our health and well being at home, at work and at play.  Achor says that based upon his investigation, “social support was a far greater predictor of happiness than any other factor, more than GPA, family income, SAT scores, age, gender or race.”   However, I’m also reminded of how easy it is to take friendship for granted and suggest instead that we should put it on the top of our list of things to appreciate each and every day.

Even more compelling information about the value of friendship throughout a person’s lifetime comes from the director of the famous “Harvard Study of Adult Development.”  That director, Dr. George E. Vaillant, spent 40 years gathering information from the seven-decade, multi-million dollar project that explored the lives of 268 Harvard men looking for the key ingredients to a “good” life.  His conclusion?  He says,  “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.”   Even better, he continued with, “Happiness equals love—full stop.”

Apparently Dr. Vaillant took some criticism for those statements because a number of people felt he was being sentimental and using his heart rather than science to arrive at those conclusions.  But, Vaillant argued that the original purpose of the study begun in 1937 was to identify leaders and potential officer candidates for the military and spent very little effort looking at relationships.  Using criteria such as intelligence, body build, physical constitution, ability to persevere and social class, the study planned only to predict the successful life outcomes of these individual men.  The first data gathered contained very little relationship data except for the cohesiveness and harmony of personal home-life and each individual’s coping style along with his ability to address serious challenges.   It was only after the men were between 30-47 that they began collecting “object relations” questions like whether they were, or had been married, had children, contact with family of origin, number of friends, and whether they were members of clubs or other organizations.

Besides recognizing the high value of relationships to a good life, Vaillant found after 40 years of following these men:

#1 Very little of the original criteria of intelligence, body build, physical constitution, perseverance and social class had much to do with happiness and overall life success.

#2 Those with the best scores for “object relations” were three times more likely to experience career achievement, occupational success and higher income. On the other hand, those with the worst scores for “object relations” earned less than half the income of those in the highest category, with much less career achievement.

#3 Those with the most mature (empathetic) coping style earned the most income while those with the most immature (narcissistic) coping style earned the least.

#4 The most detrimental practice to good relationships, good health and a long and happy life is alcohol abuse.

Another great study that points out the high value of friendship is the Research Report, Very Happy People by Ed Diener and Martin E.P. Seligman.  This report compared the upper 10% of consistently happy people, with average or very unhappy people, and came up with the following.

A. Very happy people were highly social and had stronger romantic and other social relationships than less happy groups.

B. These very happy people were more extraverted, more agreeable and less neurotic.

C. The happiest respondents did not significantly exercise more, participate in religious activities, or experience more objectively defined good events.

Want even more proof?   Time Magazine reports that, “Those with poor social connections had on average 50 percent higher odds of death … That boost in longevity is about as large as the mortality difference observed between smokers and nonsmokers…” In addition, a 10-year study in Australia involving over 1,500 people over age 70 showed that participants with a large circle of friends were 22% less likely to die during the study period than those with few friends.  Plus, in 2004 a study of 944 pairs of identical twins showed that those individuals who claimed a “strong supportive community” around them reported much better health than their sibling who was more isolated and alone.  If you take the time to look you will find study after study that indicates the high value to your physical and emotional health that happens as a result of creating and maintaining good friendships.

But again, it’s not just your physical and emotional health that benefits by having friends; there is also evidence that friendships boost your productivity, creativity, income and overall life satisfaction as well.   Large employers around the world (like Google, IBM, UPS and others) are learning the value of encouraging friendships and good relationships among employees and their bosses because research shows that it is profitable. Studies show that employees can work for longer hours, with increased focus, endure more challenges and difficult work conditions, report less absences with less employee turnover if they are better equipped with strong social support systems—and that of course, is good for business.  Shawn Achor says, “It is clearly in the best interest of everyone involved—the boss, the employee, and the organization as a whole—to prioritize relationships.”

Of course, as we all know, making friends and keeping friends requires effort.  An interesting new body of research shows that the depth and quality of all relationships can be tied to how we support one another in good times as well as bad times.  Sharing upbeat news with a good friend is called “capitalization” and it can help to multiply the benefits of the event as well as strengthen the bond between the friends.  According to Shelly Gable, study author and leading psychologist at the University of California, there are four responses that are typically offered when a person shares good news.  Unfortunately, only one of these contributes in a positive way to the relationship.

  • Active and constructive.  This response offers enthusiastic support and shows that you not only care about the other person but you know that this “event” was important to them as well.
  • Passive.  This response is neutral—like saying “that’s nice” and nothing more, and seems mildly uninterested.  Studies show that this response can be as harmful as a negative response.
  • Blatantly negative.  Responding in a demeaning way to upbeat news shared by a friend gradually erodes relationships.
  • Ignoring the news altogether.  By far the worst, this response shows no caring on the part of the other and indicates a deep lack of quality relationship.

Gable’s study shows that the active and constructive response to good news shared by a friend is the only response that promotes personal well being and higher quality relationships.  Actually, when this happens, both people experience positive emotions from the outcome, feeling validated, understood and cared for as a result.   Interestingly enough, the response of a person’s good news to their friend was significantly more important to their overall well being than how that same friend responded to a negative event.  In other words, we each gain far more when our friends acknowledge and celebrate our good experiences, than when they lament and support the bad or sad things that occur.

Okay, so say you agree with me that friendships are very important.  But what happens if you have a hard time making and keeping friends?  I think the familiar statement, “To keep good friends we need to be a good friend” is the best advice.  No matter how busy or distracted we are, we simply must take the time and make the effort to let our friends know we care for them and they are important to us.  In fact, I think it is necessary for us to at least occasionally go out of our way to ask about what is happening in their world, why they care, and if there is anything we can do to support them.  And as the above mentions, we should always help them celebrate their successes.

Another important step is the awareness that as we age we need to continue to make a conscious effort to rebuild and maintain our friendships.  As Vaillant says, “In the same way you exercise, pay your taxes and eat a healthy diet, you need to start replacing friends as soon as you lose them, particularly around retirement age.”  Vaillant is convinced that a healthy and happy aging require good relationships.  He continues with, “You must have somebody outside yourself to be interested in — not hobbies or crossword puzzles or your stock account — but flesh and blood. That’s why volunteerism is so important — the only way to stop thinking of your own unique wonderful self is to think of others.”

Many of us in recent years are making a shift away from accumulating stuff and focusing on what is really important in our lives.  Those of us into minimalism spend a lot of effort focusing on what we can eliminate to enhance our peace and sense of well being—but friendships shouldn’t be included. Actually, when you think about the evidence, we would all be SMART to concentrate on making and maintaining our friendships rather than a disproportionate amount of time and effort on diet, exercise, education and making money.  After all, if someone like George Vaillant can say after a lifetime of studying what makes for a good life, “The only thing that really matters in life are your relationships to other people.” –and, “Happiness equals love—full stop.” Maybe we should be paying more attention?


Filed under Aware, Meaningful, Sustainable, Thankful

6 Responses to The Science of Friendship—And Can Hoarding Be A Good Thing?

  1. I nearly went into tears as i remembered the only real friend i ever had had already passed.Thanks Kathy for that article,makes me value people close to me a lot.

  2. I made four very close friends while we were going through our masters degree program together. Two of those have passed on. I treasure friendship with the remaining two even more. I am fortunate to also be close to my three sisters. As I age, I am even more aware of how much value these close relationships add to my life. Thank you for emphasizing the measurable value with this article!

    • You are so welcome Nancy! This is another one of those things that I can’t be reminded of enough–and I’m just glad that some of you feel that way too. As you say you are VERY fortunate to be surrounded by such a loving and supportive group!

  3. Cheryl

    So true Kathy. My life is so full and enriched by close friends such as yourself!

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