Adult friendships are a quality of life that perhaps you wouldn't think too much about until you didn't have them. In Peter Attia's (2022) interview with Arthur Brooks, PhD, social scientist and professor at Harvard University, he speaks to the importance of putting effortful work into maintaining adult friendships, particularly amongst men.
How do we define adult friendship?
According to psychosocial researchers, adult friendship is defined as, "a voluntary, reciprocal, informal, restriction-free, and usually long-lasting close relationship between two unique partners." (Wrzus, Zimmermann, Mund, & Neyer, 2017; Perzikianidis et al., 2023; Fehr & Harasymchuk, 2018). Mendelson and Aboud (1999) outlined six "functional components of adult friendship" in their research, which were defined as the following:
- Stimulating companionship: joint participation in recreational and exciting activities; characterized as easy-going and informal
- Help or social support: includes (a) emotional support (i.e., listening, affection, sympathy, encouragement, care, love), (b) instrumental support (i.e., financial support, material goods and services), and (c) informational support (i.e., advice, guidance, or relevant information)
- Emotional security: a sense of safety and reliability to help buffer stressful life events
- Reliable alliance: constant availability and mutual expression of loyalty
- Self-validation: an individual's sense that their friends affirm who they are and contribute to developing and maintaining a positive self-image
- Intimacy: free and honest self-disclosure between friends; when both parties reveal vulnerable or sensitive information [it helps to build mutual trust]
Six Components of Adult Friendship (Mendelson & Aboud, 1999)
What does the research say?
Current research (Pezirkianidis et al., 2023) has supported the positive correlation between adult friendships and wellbeing. Specifically, the quality of friendships, active socializing, number of friends, efforts to maintain friendships, and support for their friend's autonomy were positively correlated with wellbeing. "Wellbeing" was conceptualized as "the presence of indicators of positive psychological functioning, such as life satisfaction and meaning in life, and the absence of indicators of negative psychological functioning."
It was discovered that positive, supportive relationships predicted higher physical and psychological wellbeing compared to other variables. It was suggested that being involved with these types of relationships protected against depression, anxiety, loneliness, alcohol overdose, and other mental health issues (Christakis & Fowler, 2009, 2013) and happiness spread through positive relationships.
Pezirkianidis and his colleagues (2023) conducted a systematic review of 38 studies to explore questions related to adult friendships and wellbeing. Here are key summary points from their findings:
- Friendship quality significantly associates with wellbeing.
- Friendship quality predicts wellbeing levels long-term.
- Stimulating companionship correlates most with wellbeing.
- Perceived emotional or instrumental support offered by friends significantly positively correlates with wellbeing.
- Peer support predicts the provider and recipient's wellbeing levels, which suggests that allowing your friends to help you out might also be doing something positive for them.
- Six friendship variables mediated the association between adult friendship and wellbeing:
- Maintenance of friendship
- Perceived mattering (i.e., your evaluation of whether you're significant to specific people)
- Personal sense of uniqueness (i.e., you recognize yourself as possessing distinctive qualities and feelings of worthiness)
- Friendship quality
- Satisfaction of basic psychological needs
- Subjective vitality (i.e., your sense of aliveness or energy)
Wha do these results suggest?
The bottom line of the research is that adult friendships that are supportive and positive are valuable for our mental health. Ideally, you have a modest network of close, long-term friends that you can rely on to provide a sense of emotional security, cultivate moments of play, fun, shared engagement, and be supported [at least in some way] when it's called for.
Take a moment to guess the average number of close friends people reported having...
...If you guessed "3", you're correct! Is this answer surprising or on par with your expectation?
(Christakis & Chalatsis, 2010)
Given the fact that positive, supportive friendships are beneficial for our mental health, it begs the question, what can we do about that? How can we initiate and develop friendships in our adulthood?
Natural contexts to meet people typically occur in adolescence and young adulthood; as people attend school, start their careers, and form hobbies or routines in their neighbourhood.
What happens if you re-locate later in life or your close friends move away? What happens if you grow apart from those you were once close with?
You're not alone [in that experience] even if it feels that way. As a therapist, this is obvious on an anecdotal level; it's part of the human condition to seek connection and there are plenty of people that yearn for more of it.
9 Tips for Initiating and Cultivating Adult Friendships
- Reflect on the type of people you'd like to be surrounded by.
- What does their lifestyle look like?
- How do they make you feel?
- What parts of yourself do you want to be brought out in your friendships?
- What do you want to gain from your friendships?
- Based on the qualities you described, what environments are you likely to find these people? Perhaps an exercise class, a creative outlet, a sports league, an improv studio, or animal shelter?
- Do some research on these contexts near you. Check in on your willingness to attend these places. If you need help increasing willingness or comfort, you may try:
- Develop an exposure hierarchy with your therapist to gradually lead up to social engagement.
- Work on assertiveness and interpersonal effectiveness skills with your therapist.
- Practice self-acceptance and self-compassion for doing hard things.
- Role play; for example, practice introducing yourself and saying, "Hello," with a friend or therapist.
- Decide when you will explore these places and commit to it.
- Explore these contexts and practice making eye contact and give a nod of acknowledgement to others around you.
- When you decide to engage, you may try to strike up a conversation or give a compliment. For example, "Hey, I'm X. I just started coming here. It's been great so far. How long have you been coming?"
- Know that rejection is part of the experience. Not everyone is on the same journey as you or is open to new connections, and that's okay. Try not to take it personally.
- Focus on quality over quantity.
- Keep putting yourself out there! Take time in solitude as needed.
Tips to Expand Current Friend Networks
- Ask to join group hangs with friends you already have to further develop acquaintance networks.
- Be genuinely interested and curious in your current friends' lives. When was the last time you asked them how they feel about a particular issue in their life? Deepen your conversations by being curious, interested, non-judgmental and open.
- Plan a shared activity that inspires a sense of novelty or connection. Life gets busy with increased responsibility. Perhaps you can't be as spontaneous as you once were, if you want fun things to happen. Calendars are our friend!
Don't forget to remind yourself of what you have to offer in friendships. The only way you make new friendships is by putting yourself out there. It's vulnerable, and if it's important to you then it's likely worth the effort.
- Attia, P. (2022, October 10). The science of happiness [podcast]. Retrieved from: https://peterattiamd.com/arthurbrooks/
- Christakis and Chalatsis P. (2010). Friendship Relationships: Meanings and Practices in Same and Different Gender Friendships. Athens, Greece: Ellinika Grammata.
- Cloyd, C. (2021, March 23). 4 tips for making female friendships as an adult. GoodTherapy. Retrieved from: https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/Tips-for-Making-Female-Friendships-as-an-Adult
- Fehr B., Harasymchuk C. (2018). “The role of friendships in wellbeing,”in Subjective Wellbeing and Life Satisfaction, Maddux, J. (ed.). Routledge. p. 103–128. 10.4324/9781351231879-5
- Fowler J. H., Christakis N. A. (2008). Dynamic spread of happiness in a large social network: Longitudinal analysis over 20 years in the Framingham Heart Study. Med. J.337, 1–9. 10.1136/bmj.a2338
- Pezirkianidis, C., Galanaki, E., Raftopoulou, G., Moraitou, D., & Stalikas, A. (2023). Adult friendship and wellbeing: A systematic review with practical implications. Frontiers in Psychology, 14.
- Mendelson M. J., Aboud F. E. (1999). Measuring friendship quality in late adolescents and young adults: McGill Friendship Questionnaires. J. Behav. Sci.31, 130–132. 10.1037/h0087080
- Wrzus C., Zimmermann J., Mund M., Neyer F. J. (2017). “Friendships in young and middle adulthood: Normative patterns and personality differences,”in Psychology of Friendship, Hojat, M., and Moyer, A. (eds.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. p. 21–38. 10.1093/acprof:oso/9780190222024.003.0002