How Do Friendships Impact Our Happiness?

Friendships and Happiness

We’re social creatures

It’s true what they say. Human beings need social bonds not only to thrive, but also to survive. People’s motivation to form and keep social relationships is basic. It’s not a derivative or a byproduct of some other motive or need (Deci & Ryan, 2000). We just need to be social. 

And as you’ll see in this article, pulling that off has major implications for our well-being! We’ll cover:

  • Having strong social relationships isn’t just good for your mental and emotional well-being, but for your physical health as well!
  • Not all social relationships are created equal. So which ones should we have?
  • What can I do about it? How do I take advantage of this research and build great friendships?

Let’s get started!


Having healthy social relationships is good for our well-being

Out of all of the aspects of life, healthy social relationships are actually one of the best predictors of happiness (Campbell, Converse, & Rodgers, 1976). Among other things, they’re positively correlated with the experience of meaning in your life (Krause, 2007; Steger, Kashdan, Sullivan, & Lorentz, 2008; Hicks & King, 2009).

You can expand your resources, perspectives, strengths, and skills by including other people within your self-concept (Aron & Aron, 1996). Your goal pursuits are more efficient and effective with a strong tribe. And with a tribe, it becomes easier to fulfill basic psychological needs for belonging, competence, and autonomy (Deci & Ryan, 2000)

By contrast, social isolation is correlated with depression, schizophrenia, personality disorders, and substance abuse. (e.g., Akerlind, Hörnquist, & Hansson, 1987; Helliwell & Putnam, 2004; Neeleman & Power, 1994; Overholser, 1992).

So maybe that’s pretty obvious, right? When you’re with a good friend, you’re happy. Of course! But did you know that good social relationships are also good for your physical health? Let’s dig in.


A lack of social relationships is even bad for our physical health

A lack of strong social ties carries a mortality risk on par with smoking (House, Landis, & Umberson, 1998). Among the socially isolated, disease instances are higher, recovery is longer, and relapse is greater (Steptoe, Owen, Kunz-Ebrecht, & Brydon, 2004; Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2003). 

Social isolation is associated with all sorts of higher health risks in the cardiovascular, endocrine, and immune systems (Hawkley & Cacioppo, 2003; Uchino, Cacioppo, and Kiecolt-Glaser, 1996; Wilson et al., 2007).

Wow, so there it is. TONS of reasons to maintain friendships! But not all relationships are created equal. Here are some of the implications of a bad friendship.


But it’s not just having them, they must also be quality relationships

When you have quality relationships in your life – ones that are warm, supportive, and trusting – you’ll have higher overall life satisfaction and self-esteem. 

When you’re social relationships are hostile, conflictual, insecure, or cold, this is associated with depression, anxiety, and substance abuse (e.g., Davila, Bradbuy, Cohan, & Tochluk, 1997; Holmes, 2002; Whisman, Uebelacker, & Settles, 2010).

Those with poor social connections have a 40% higher mortality rate than those with positive and supportive connections (Holt-Lunstad, Smith, & Layton, 2010).

How could this be? Overall, it has a lot to do with when things go wrong. So let’s spend some time digging into that.


There are some pretty well-understood reasons for why this is

For one, when we’re in social groups, we tend to pay less attention to more minor threats in our environment (Beckes and Coan, 2011). We just sorta go blind to them because we feel safe in our tribe. These things are constant for the socially isolated! Not noticing them lets us turn off that micro-stress in our life, relax, and enjoy. 

When negative events indeed do happen to us, having a friend nearby helps. In fact, whether they actually help us or not, just KNOWING that we have friends who can help us actually makes it less painful (Kaul & Lakey, 2003).

When it comes to actually GETTING help from friends, this can be a mixed bag. Obviously if the help meets certain criteria, everyone wins. But it depends on what kind of support they give you and how it makes you feel. It could leave you feeling indebted or incompetent, or be a blow to your self-esteem because it highlights a weakness of yours, for example. Or their help might draw more attention to the problem. 

It turns out the best kind of help here is known as “invisible support.” Basically, when you get help from your friend without even knowing that you got it.

What does “good” help look like? For one, when getting and giving help, the most important thing is that the giver is responsive to the receiver’s needs (Maisel & Gable, 2009). 

In her book The Gifts of Imperfection, Brené Brown has some criteria to add. Here’s the kind of “help” you should avoid: (Brown, 2010)

  • Avoid sympathy. The “I feel sorry for you” or “you poor thing” or “bless your heart” people. Sympathy over empathy creates distance.
  • Avoid shame confirmation.
  • Avoid disappointment. The “you let me down” people.
  • Avoid those who just want to assign blame, whether it’s to you or to someone else.
  • Avoid people who minimize and avoid.
  • Avoid comparing and one-upping. “If you think THAT’S bad…”
  • Avoid advice-giving and problem solving.

That certainly rules a lot out! According to Brown, what’s in then? For someone to just be with us in that moment. Someone who embraces us.

So we now know how relationships are good for us, and what kind of relationships we should seek and maintain, but just how do we do that?


So having a great tribe is amazing. What now?

For one, assume a position of gratitude regarding your friendships. Not just generic happiness. Gratitude is different and more specific. Gratitude promotes relationship formation and maintenance by signaling to us which people would make great friends (Algoe, 2012). 

How this works is referred to as the “find, remind, bind” model. This is how it works. When you FIND and REMIND yourself of the qualities about the person that you’re grateful for, this makes you want to spend more time with them (BIND).

Next, when good things happen to you, tell a friend who will also be positive about it. This is called “capitalization” and it brings even more joy above and beyond the original positive event! (Gable et al., 2004)

For more guidance on how to find and maintain great friendships, join our program and we’ll provide even more tools for success in this super important domain.



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