Why We Should All Focus More on Friendship

As the month of January drew to a close, I started to become increasingly paranoid. “No lover this Valentine’s Day?” read one PR pitch in my inbox. “How to banish bad breath just in time for Valentine’s Day,” read another.

I bought some Tic-Tacs and considered the situation. As anyone’s who’s recently strolled the aisles of CVS is well aware, love is in the air. Love: the mushy, heart-y, chocolate-and-flower-y romantic kind that’s so good you don’t even need to bathe in supposed aphrodisiacs like pumpkin pie and lavender.

my singledom

Romantic love can certainly be wonderful, and there’s no shame in aspiring to it. But there are other kinds of love and relationships that too often get ignored—at least by mainstream media and retailers. In particular, we rarely hear about platonic love or the importance of BFF-ship for a person’s health and happiness. That’s why this year, on Valentine’s Day and in the days that follow, I’ve decided to focus on friendship, making an effort to value the people and relationships I frequently take for granted. Just because the repertoire of things we do together doesn’t (usually) include getting naked doesn’t mean those connections aren’t incredibly important. And there’s science to prove it.

You’ve (Sort of) Got a Friend in Me: The Decline of Close Friendship

Last year researchers at the London School of Economics conducted an experiment to see what kinds of activities and interactions made people the happiest. No surprise: Sex topped the list, while being sick in bed was way at the bottom. But when it came to the people who made participants happiest, friends were number one (they increased happiness by 8.2 percent), followed by spouse/partner (5.9 percent) and family (just 2.9 percent). Other research suggests people are wired to be social, and that interpersonal relationships (not just romantic ones) are a crucial part of human life.

There’s reason to believe that virtual connections simply aren’t as fulfilling as real-life relationships.

Given these stats, it would seem wise for everyone to spend as much or more time cultivating their friendships as they do strengthening their bond with romantic partners. But, according to one survey, American adults today say they have fewer close friends (an average of 2.3) than they did in 1985 (when they had an average of 3). Recent research also lends credence to the premise of the popular “bromance:” Certain groups of American men want close friendships, but can’t seem to make any. Among women, it’s becoming more common to judge one another based on how many people you’ve slept with or how much you weigh than to bond over some good old girl talk.

One possible explanation for the dwindling number of close friends we have is the fact that we’re now looking to “friends” on social media for the kind of support we used to seek in real-life pals. But there’s reason to believe that virtual connections simply aren’t as fulfilling as real-life relationships. Especially for those who are single, face-to-face friendships make us significantly happier than participating in online social networks.

25yoF SEEKING BFF: Romance vs. Friendship

For today’s tech-savvy 20-somethings, these findings are especially meaningful. Many people in this age group connect daily with 50-plus followers on Twitter and Instagram, sharing their musings on the sunrise and photos of their home-cooked meals. At the same time, the Internet is filled with stories from those in their 20s and early 30s who report a profound sense of loneliness—either because they’ve recently graduated from college, moved to a new city, or started a new job.

Beyond the problems 20-somethings have forming new friendships, it’s also possible they don’t put enough effort into strengthening old bonds. As people graduate from college and pursue new jobs and romantic relationships all over the world, maintaining friendships sometimes (perhaps understandably) falls to the bottom of a long to-do list. And while it seems reasonable to use social media as a way to “follow” each other’s lives when we’re separated by thousands of miles, some find it frustrating that we no longer bother to pick up the phone to find out what happened at that last job interview or birthday party.

Perhaps the bigger problem is that few 20-somethings really want to admit they’re starving for friendship. It’s becoming increasingly acceptable for people in this age group to join online dating sites, sometimes meeting potential romantic partners several times a week. But the popularity of terms such as “friend crush” and “man date” suggests we think of efforts to foster new platonic connections as something silly, or at least not fully understood. Apps such as Playdope—which allows users to make friends by playing online games with fellow commuters on the New York City subways (and eventually meeting them in person)—are still somewhat of a novelty.

What would happen if we valued friendships, and put as much effort into forming them, as we do romantic relationships? Would there be dozens of sites using fancy algorithms for matching potential pals? Right now it’s possible to sign up for a Meetup or a class on Skillshare and hope to make some connections, but these services aren’t as straightforward as online dating programs, since their intended goal isn’t necessarily to spark friendships. If friendship sites did exist, perhaps “online friending” would go through the same cultural transition as the one online dating is currently facing: from taboo and whispered-about to an inevitable subject of loud conversation at every dinner party.

True Love: A Case Study

A few weeks before V-Day, I celebrated a college friend’s bridal shower in New Jersey. The bride’s family had arranged a whole weekend of events, and a few of my girlfriends were staying overnight in my apartment. Even in spite of my epiphany in the drugstore, I spent most of the time telling them how scary it was that one of our friends had actually put a ring on it, and complaining that I’d never do the same.

On Sunday afternoon, my friends prepared to drive back to Washington, D.C.. I stood at the curb and watched them pull away in the gray minivan my friend had borrowed from her mom for the trip. Suddenly I felt the onset of stomach pain, and began to worry that perhaps I’d overdone it on the cake at yesterday’s shower. By the time I returned to my apartment, the pain had become a dull ache throughout my whole body. I opened the door to my now-empty room, the Cosmo on my bed still open to the page where we’d been reading sex tips aloud, and though I couldn’t say exactly why, I started to cry.

For all my fretting about needing to be in a romantic relationship, I’d forgotten the most important relationships I’d already formed. By now I’d read enough romance novels to know what it meant to experience abdominal pain and tears when you find yourself suddenly alone: It was love.

Originally posted February 2014. Updated February 2015.