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Friends with Benefits

It can be hard to manage friendships as an adult – all too often romantic partners, family, and children take priority over friends. While those relationships are equally as important and critical to our lives, it’s actually scientifically proven that friendships provide certain benefits to us that other relationships simply don’t. We’re going to take a look at why friends are so important, especially in an often busy and stressful world.

Susan Krauss Whitbourne (PhD) of Psychology Today magazine took some time to review her colleague Carlin Flora’s book called “Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are.” As a researcher and doctor, Whitbourne was disappointed in the lack of research about friendships in adults and later-life; most research done on friendships focuses on children, which negates the obvious importance that friends play in adult lives. Flora’s book, though, shines modern light on this often overlooked subject in the realm of psychology. 

The word Friendfluence was invented by Flora while writing the book, and seeks to capture the effects that friends have on our lives, throughout our entire lives: “Friendfluence is the powerful and often unappreciated role that friends—past and present—play in determining our sense of self and the direction of our lives.” 

One of the first and most obvious ways that friends impact our lives that Flora outlines in the book is by bringing us happiness. Humans are biologically social creatures, and interacting regularly with friends has been studied to show that people who make time to spend with friends are less prone to developing anxiety or depression disorders. Sharing social time with our friends helps our brains behave in a way that prevents us from developing what are, in today’s society, common mental health issues. The simple feeling of support that comes from being around friends is verbalized as a common sentiment linked to this occurrence; simply feeling supported relieves stress which can help control triggers for mental health issues. Thanks, friends!

Flora goes on to write about how childhood friendships help determine how we learn, and teen friendships shape how we approach romantic relationships later in life. 

Other benefits she outlines for adult friendships include definition of perspectives and priorities (which help determine our purpose and sense of self), social and professional advancement, strong support networks during life changes, combatting loneliness during familial changes, and a source of reality to keep you in check. When approached in the right way, all of these benefits are appropriate to explore within your friendships, and many will come naturally as your relationships grow. 

Interestingly, online friends impact us as well. Although the nature of the relationship is qualitatively different than in-person friendships, online friends still prove to steer thoughts and behaviors just as effectively, as shown in recorded research. In addition, it’s been observed that people with close online friends often have deeper relationships with their in-person friends, as well. Most people might believe the opposite, but not being able to interact in-person with online friends actually encourages deeper interactions with one’s in-person friends, fueled by gratitude and a lack of restriction in the relationship. In both circumstances, gender doesn’t seem to matter much; but restricting yourself to friendships solely with people of the same gender creates weaker bonds than those who openly socialize and create relationships with individuals of all genders.

Friendships are even observed to effect romantic relationships: maintaining separate friendships helps couples maintain a sense of self and individuality. On the flip side, having “couple friendships” together can help guide relationship outcomes in favorable ways. Balancing time for both is a key when romantic relationships start taking priority. 

In terms of physical health and well-being, our friends encourage us to engage in physical activity and variable activity, which keeps us healthy. Exposure to new movement and culture via friends helps keep our minds and bodies sharp. Those who engage in physical activity alone are recorded to find less enjoyment in it, and also have poorer results when measured. 

One of my personal favorites from Flora’s book resonates deeply with how a lot of my friendships have started: banding together with friends invokes altruism and social change. Talking to friends is often the first step we take when we feel inspired to make a change in our world, and Flora studied the effectiveness of social movements started by a group of friends versus those started by an individual. While there are some exceptions, statistics pointed to friend-involvement being a major variable in the success of social movements. “At a less grandiose level, people are more likely to engage in altruistic behavior at the urging or example of their close friends.”

Our adult friends, overall, contribute significantly to our happiness, professional and social success, and mental and physical health. Being a good friend attracts good friends to you, so you can benefit and also provide those benefits to others around you. Cultivating a meaningful bond with someone is a unique, but often easy, endeavor. Flora encourages us to look for quality over quantity, though, when it comes to adult friends: “pruning your friendship tree” as you get older is a healthy practice to be sure your friends align with your lifestyle and priorities, and support your other relationships.  

“The upshot is, you need friends and they need you. It doesn’t take much skill to cultivate this close and fascinating type of human bond, but it does take some effort. As Flora shows us: that effort will clearly pay off in helping you lead a more fulfilling life.”

For another perspective on adult friendships, visit “Why Friends May Be More Important Than Family” by TIME Magazine.