Friends are the key to health and happiness. Here’s how to make and keep them.

As Americans’ precious social time erodes, friendships help stave off loneliness, build connection and cultivate a healthy “social biome.”

By Star Tribune Staff

Illustration by Matt Chase Special to the Star Tribune
February 16, 2024

Friends are the key to health and happiness. Here’s how to make and keep them.

As Americans’ precious social time erodes, friendships help stave off loneliness, build connection and cultivate a healthy “social biome.”

By Star Tribune Staff

Illustration by Matt Chase Special to the Star Tribune
February 16, 2024

The Loneliness Cure

Maggie Fazeli Fard didn't go to kindergarten in Minnesota, unlike so many of us here. So when she moved to the state in 2013, at age 30, she deployed a multi-pronged friend-acquisition strategy.

Previously, when she lived in Washington D.C., Fazeli Fard waited for others to reach out, which left her feeling lonely. "I was sort of an observer of the world and not having a ton of close connections and feeling a little bit like an outsider," she recalled.

In Minneapolis, Fazeli Fard positioned herself among groups of people: She arrived early to her office, joined a small gym, volunteered and lingered in public spaces. Then, crucially, the natural introvert acted like an extrovert. She initiated plans and aggressively acquired phone numbers.

Now, a decade later, Fazeli Fard has a large social circle, which has helped her feel like she's thriving. She's formed bonds that are casual, close and, sometimes, rather unexpected. Take the case of the guy she once dated who helped make a feline love connection. "There wasn't really any chemistry with him and there was not a friendship connection, but I ended up adopting his two elderly cats," she said with a laugh.

Our relationships with others provide more than just companionship. Science shows that friends can boost our happiness and self-confidence, support self-improvement, reduce stress and help us cope with challenges and loss. Copious research — including Harvard's Study of Adult Development, which has followed hundreds of men for more than 85 years — suggests that having positive close relationships is the primary driver of one's happiness and health.

As the demands of work and allure of electronic devices erode our precious social time, experts say it's important to keep making and maintaining connections. Seeking, deepening and rekindling relationships (as well as pruning the negative ones) promotes psychological and physical health. Friends, as the old Swedish proverb puts it, halve our sorrows and double our joy.

The fraught state of friendship

Though American culture prizes romantic relationships, platonic love can be just as fulfilling — lifesaving, even. A 2006 study of female nurses with breast cancer found that women with 10 close friends had four times the chance of surviving the disease as those who were socially isolated. (Notably, having a spouse was not a protective factor for survival.)

Despite the benefits of human connections, Americans don't always prioritize their relationships. Time-use surveys show that on average we spend only half as much time socializing each day as watching television. Even before the pandemic, Americans spent substantially more time by themselves and less time with friends than they did two decades earlier.

American lifestyles are increasingly isolated, at home and in civic spaces. Family sizes are smaller and people are marrying later. (About 25% of Americans live alone, up from about 8% in 1940.) Compared to recent generations, Americans are working more and when we're out in public — riding transit, at coffee shops — we're often on our devices, leading to fewer spontaneous interactions. Spending too much time with our social media "friends," can atrophy our interpersonal skills, lower self-esteem and give a false sense of connection.

Though there's no optimal number of close friendships, many who study the subject suggest a range of 3 to 5. That's enough to provide support in a time of need and also bring out different sides of our personalities.

But many Americans are running a friend deficit. In a 2023 Pew survey, 8% of respondents said they had no close friends outside their family; another 21% had only one or two.

Friendships of all types

Close friends were all once strangers. And we can't go from acquaintances to besties overnight. Jeffrey Hall, a professor of communication studies at the University of Kansas, says it takes about 50 hours to form a casual friendship and 200 hours to become good friends.

In studying what he calls the "social biome," which encompasses our different relationships and interactions, Hall has found that social health relies on feelings of connection and a lack of loneliness. While engaging with others fills us up, he said, feeling comfortable being alone suggests satisfaction with current social connections.

Different types of connections have distinct benefits, he noted. And a healthy "social diet" has variety — small talk, deep conversations and time with ourselves.

Chatting with a cashier, for example, can be energizing and make us feel connected to our community, heightening a sense of trust and camaraderie. Acquaintances and casual friends can provide networking opportunities, expose us to new information and provide low-stakes companionship during shared activities. But close friends offer judgement-free listening, comfort, advice and accountability. And lifelong friends can offer security, shared memories and a deep sense of belonging.

Hall says people feel satisfied when they have close relationships in which they can be responsive and supportive. That happens by engaging in vulnerable conversations, showing affection or joking around, for example. "These 'socially nutritious' interactions allow us to feel cared for and valued by another person," he said. But they also take a lot of energy. "It is taxing on us, but in some ways, it is the very essence of making a relationship more satisfying in the long run," he said. "Great relationships only come when we're willing to really put a lot of energy into another person."

Making and keeping friends

While people who seek the counsel of Nina Badzin, a local advice columnist and host of "Dear Nina: Conversations about Friendship," don't often use the word lonely, many say they don't feel close to anybody. "But it is loneliness when you feel like you can't really connect," Badzin said. "Like somebody isn't really seeing you for all you are."

Badzin attributes some of this disconnect to political polarization in recent years that has made people hesitant to have real conversations. "People kind of pick up their head and go, 'Everything feels kind of shallow, I haven't actually connected with someone because we're being so careful,' " she said.

Though Badzin laughs along with the memes about staying home in pajamas and being happy when friends cancel, she finds the trend a bit alarming. "That attitude is so pervasive now that it's like, 'Haha!,' except everyone's lonely," she said. "It's not that funny. You have to leave your house."

Friendship tips

Badzin offers these tips to making and keeping friends.

It's not too late. "There are still pockets of people you haven't met," said Badzin. "You have to do something. You have to join something. You have to show up at some place."

Be casual. "Don't be looking for a new best friend. You're just looking for new friendships that may eventually deepen. Looking for your soul person is too much pressure for both people."

Initiate. "If texting comes easy to you, be the one who texts first. I like to tell people: It's always your turn. If we're keeping score, then nothing ever gets to the next level because you're always worried, 'Oh, does the person like me as much as I like them?' "

Call or meet up. "There's just that connection of someone's voice. It doesn't have to be an hour. I always say, a walk with a friend for 45 minutes is worth 1,000 texts."

Take a risk on rekindling. If you have a friend that drifted, consider reconnecting. "It never hurts to try. I think we have to be less scared to have our feelings hurt."