Do you have a best friend? Friendships are very important to our well-being and happiness. This blog takes a look at friendship research and highlights the qualities that are needed to maintain and deepen close friendships. Research has found that there are four qualities that are needed to maintain a friendship: Positivity, Supportiveness, Openness, and Interaction. When we have friendships that have all four qualities regularly implemented, the friendship is likely to be a close one.
Who is classed as a close friend?
For those who are familiar with the work of developmental psychologist Uri Bronfenbrenner, you will know the ‘ecological systems model of development’. The model recognises that we don’t operate in isolation; instead we are part of a social ecological system. Within the ecological system there is a micro system: made up of people, their activities, their relations with one another, and the roles they play. We each have our own unique ecological system that overlaps with other ecological systems (Shelton, 2019).
Within the micro system we have family, spouses and friends. Friendships have been defined as a relationship based on mutual respect, appreciation and liking. Some of our friends are closer than others. Friendships are voluntary and have a vulnerability of deteriorating or ending. However these friendships are very important to our mental well-being. If you think over your lifespan you have had many friends, some of which may still be in your life years later, others long gone from your birthday card list. Some have a best friend, others have many close friends. Importantly, the closeness of our friendships is dependent on what we need emotionally, as we all have different subjective thresholds regarding when we feel emotionally connected or emotionally lonely (Caccioppo & Patrick, 2009).
Those with a best friend feel less lonely than those without one. However when one friend takes more than they give, it creates weaknesses, and when the maintenance of the friendship is a strategy of effort rather than a natural inclination to prioritise the friendship, this can also have negative connotations.
How we maintain (or not) our friendships
Research by Oswald (2016) looked at how we maintain our friendships. It has been found that there are four key maintenance behaviours that sustain and deepen a close friendship:
Friendships that regularly and instinctively apply these forms of maintenance have the strongest friendship and emotional intimacy. Let’s look at each of these qualities:
This is where the relationship is rewarding because there are positive emotions, conversations, behaviours and activities that are beneficial to both friends. It has been demonstrated that everyday interactions with another person results in positive outcomes such as feeling comfortable and being emotionally positive, which buffers the impact of stressful situations (Holt-Lunstad, 2016). Additionally, it is our best friend that we want to tell when something positive happens to us, which creates a convergence of emotions, where the friend also gets a boost of positive feelings (Anderson et al. 2003). This is what is called “emphatic happiness”, when there is a common bond of achievement (Mikulincer & Shaver, 2014).
Friends provide assurance and are there for us when we need someone. This is important as it allows the friendship to deepen in quality. It has been found that best friends share the support equally, which creates a self-other agreement: when each friend perceives their friend as part of them (Oswald, 2016). They supply us with functional social support which gives us resources, emotional support, informational support, tangible support (material aid), and belonging support (Holt-Lunstad, 2016). Importantly, it is the perception of social support that counts, as simply believing that support will be there enhances satisfaction and well-being (Lakey, 2014).
This is when both friends feel safe to disclose information to one another that is personal and sensitive. Best friends can be authentic with one another. Authenticity is important as studies have found that we can subtly tell when someone has an authentic smile and behaviour than those that are not authentic. This either triggers a message that we can trust the person (who is authentic) or we should be cautious (Keltner et al. 2018). When people report having a best friend, but does not report a tendency to be open and intimate with them, they have a higher rate of depression (King, Russell, & Veith, 2016).
This is to spend time together, doing joint activities. Friendships that have very little interaction do not last and weaken over time. Being physically in the same place is important for friendships as this is when the other qualities can be used to their maximum. When people have best friends, research indicates that they are more comfortable with people and have higher interpersonal happiness than those with mental health problems who find friendships less easy to make (King, Russell, & Veith, 2016). When two people interact and are similar in their regulatory processes, they both will feel similar emotions (Lakey, 2014). Therefore, best friends will gain more enjoyment when being together than two people who are not friends and do not have the same regulatory processes.
Anderson, C., Keltner, D., & John, O.P. (2003). Emotional convergence between people over time. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 84 (5), 1054-1068
Caccoippo, J. T. & Patrck, W. (2009). Loneliness: Human nature and the need for social connection. New York, USA: W.W. Norton & Company
Holt-Lunstad, J. (2016). Friendship and health. In M.Hoijat & A. Moyer (Eds.). The Psychology of Friendship. Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2016.
Keltner, D. Tracy, J., Sauter, D.A., Cordaro, D.C., & McNeil, G. (2018). Expression of emotion. In L. Feldman Barrett, M. Lewis, & M. Haviland-Jones (Eds.). Handbook of emotions. New York, USA: The Guildford Press
King, A.R., Russell, T.D., & Veith, A.C. (2016). Friendship and mental health functioning. In M. Hoijat & A. Moyer (Eds.). The Psychology of Friendship. Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2016.
Lakey, B. (2014). Perceived social support and happiness: The role of personality and relational processes. In S.A. David, I. Boniwell, & A.Conely Ayers (Eds.). The Oxford handbook of happiness. Oxford, UK: Oxford University press
Mikulincer, M. & Shaver, P.R. (2014). Adult attachment and happiness: Individual differences in the experience and consequences of positive emotions. In S.A. David, I. Boniwell, & A.Conely Ayers (Eds.). The Oxford handbook of happiness. Oxford, UK: Oxford University press
Oswald, D. L. (2016). Maintaining long-lasting friendships. In M.Hoijat & A. Moyer (Eds.). The Psychology of Friendship. Published to Oxford Scholarship Online: November 2016.
Shelton, L.G. (2019). The Bronfenbrenner Primer: A guide to Develecology. New York, USA: Routledge
About the author: Lisa Jones
‘We Are The Positive Psychology People’