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Imagine living in a waterfront house on a peaceful Pacific island. Every morning, you stroll along the sandy beach and enjoy the ocean breeze. You feast on fresh fish and tropical fruits. At night, you gaze at the stars and fall asleep by the fire. Sounds like heaven, doesn’t it?

In the movie Cast Away, Tom Hanks plays the role of Chuck Noland, a FedEx executive who finds himself stranded on a deserted island after his plane crashes in the South Pacific. From one perspective, Chuck has it all—no bills to pay, lots of healthy food, and plenty of free time. But what good is paradise if there’s no one to share it with? Chuck becomes so lonely that he starts talking to a volleyball, which he names “Wilson.” For 4 long years, Wilson is Chuck’s only friend until he escapes from the island and returns to society.

Humans are social creatures. We have a fundamental need for friends and family. In this article, we’ll learn how to forge friendships that last a lifetime.

No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
-John Donne

Statistics show that school-aged children, adolescents, and young adults have an average of 3–5 close friends1. Newlyweds have an average of eight close friends, and this declines to five by middle age. In retirement, people have about six close friends. In terms of companionship, teenagers spend about 29 percent of their time with friends, compared to 7 percent for middle-aged adults. This rises slightly to 9 percent for those over the age of 65.

You are the same today that you are going to be in five years from now except for two things: the people with whom you associate and the books you read.
-Charles “Tremendous” Jones

Opposite-sex and Same-sex Friendships
In preschool, about one-third of friendships are between boys and girls, but by age 7, these opposite-sex relationships are almost non-existent2. Young boys form groups that encourage risk-taking, pushing the limits of rules, and sexual talk. In contrast, girls prefer one-on-one interaction, self-disclosure, and intimate gestures such as braiding hair. At this age, girls find boys annoying, and boys find girls dull. Boys and girls who do become friends are teased mercilessly.
In young adulthood, opposite-sex friendships become more common as people search for mates. They decrease again after people get married. Women believe that the main benefit of opposite-sex friendships is the opportunity to interact in a more masculine style. Men value opposite-sex friendships because of the emotional support they don’t get from other men.

For same-sex friendships, women’s relationships are characterized by talking, and men’s relationships are characterized by doing. For example, women visit and chat for hours, whereas men bond while golfing or fishing. Researchers from the University of North Carolina asked college students if they would rather talk or engage in an activity with a same-sex friend. Women were three times more likely to choose talking, whereas men were twice as likely to select an activity.

Friends with Benefits
In a study from Pennsylvania State University, 58 percent of heterosexual college students said they had been sexually attracted to opposite-sex friends, and 51 percent had engaged in sexual activity3. Thirty-two percent of the sexual encounters occurred when one of the friends was dating someone else. Around the country, other studies have reported rates of 11–19 percent for sexual activity in opposite-sex friendships. Contrary to popular opinion, sex with friends does not always harm the friendship—67 percent reported that it actually increased the quality of the relationship. After engaging in sexual activity, 44 percent of friendships went on to develop into romantic relationships.

Finding Friends
The most desirable attributes in a friend are warmth, kindness, expressivity, openness, and a good sense of humor4. Where can you find people like this? In a British survey, the source of best friend changed with time5. From ages 16–25, about 20 percent of best friends were relatives, 20 percent were romantic partners, and 60 percent were unrelated. From ages 36–45, 15 percent were relatives, 60 percent were partners, and 25 percent were unrelated. In the 76+ age group, about 50 percent of best friends were relatives, 30 percent were partners, and 20 percent were unrelated. When it comes to friendship, it seems that blood is thicker than water. Stay on good terms with your siblings because you’ll probably grow closer as you grow older.

Birds of a Feather
In addition to family ties, friendship is strongly influenced by the principle of “homophily.” You tend to associate with people who are the same as you. High school is full of homophilic friends. Teenagers naturally separate themselves into cliques of jocks, nerds, cheerleaders, and goths.

Researchers have found that friends and spouses share a similarity of about 60 percent for demographic variables such as age, ethnicity, and educational level6. There is a similarity of 50 percent for opinions and attitudes, 40 percent for IQ and cognitive ability, and 20 percent for personality traits and physical characteristics7. Apply the principle of homophily in your life by associating with people who believe in self improvement. Over time, you’ll influence each other to reach your potential.

Recognize the fortunate so that you may choose their company, and the unfortunate so that you may avoid them. Misfortune is usually the crime of folly, and among those who suffer from it there is no malady more contagious.
-Baltasar Gracián

Even if you share the same interests and values, it’s easier to be friends with someone who lives in the same geographic area. In a study of 1.3 million bloggers in the LiveJournal online community, researchers found that the average user had eight close friends8. The probability of friendship was much higher if they lived within 1,000 km of each other. Even though the Internet makes it easy to meet people from around the world, it seems we still prefer friends in our own backyard.

How to Make Friends
Your best chance of making new friends is finding people just like you.
  1. Join a local club, team, or group that is organized around your favorite hobby or sport, and is targeted to your age and background.
  2. Make a special effort to meet group members who share your interests and values.

At First Sight
Have you ever met someone and immediately known you were destined to become friends? Researchers at the University of Minnesota randomly paired undergraduate students on the first day of class, and told them to get acquainted for 3 minutes9. Afterward, students were asked to predict how the relationship would develop in the future. They chose from the following categories: nodding acquaintance, casual acquaintance, close acquaintance, friend, and close friend. Nine weeks later, students reported the type of relationship that actually developed. Results showed that first impressions accurately predicted the type of relationship that actually developed.

Do identical twins end up with the same types of friends and lovers? Researchers from the University of Western Ontario administered questionnaires to hundreds of pairs of identical twins, non-identical twins, spouses, and best friends6. They found that identical twins were almost twice as likely as non-identical twins to choose best friends and spouses who were similar to their co-twins. Researchers estimated that 34 percent of the twins’ preferences were due to genetics, 12 percent due to shared childhood environment, and 54 percent due to non-shared environment. In other words, twins will be attracted to similar girls at a bar, but who they end up dating will be mostly influenced by their individual actions. 

Friendship Satisfaction
Once you’ve made a new friend, how do you keep the relationship strong? Researchers from Texas A&M University found that the strongest predictors of friendship satisfaction were openness and enjoyment10. Openness, or self-disclosure, is sharing personal information such as hopes, dreams, fears, disappointments, and what you like or dislike about yourself. Enjoyment is how fun or rewarding it feels to spend time with a friend. In general, women value openness more than men, and men enjoy common interests and activities more than women.

Reciprocity is another factor in friendship satisfaction. Friends are expected to do things for one another. But it’s important that the exchange of favors is roughly equal. No one likes a freeloader. On the other hand, scorekeeping and tit-for-tat exchanges are harmful to friendships. You need a balance between giving and receiving.

My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.
-Henry Ford

Friends Forever
How can you tell which friends will stay with you for life? In a study from Purdue University, researchers followed 45 pairs of friends for 4 years11. There were no significant predictors of friendship closeness for female-female or male-female pairs. For male-male friendships, men were more likely to remain close friends if they had previously been roommates, shared similar social status, or if they were comfortable discussing sensitive topics.

A friend is one who knows us, but loves us anyway.
-Jerome Cummings

Social Graph
In February 2004, Harvard student Mark Zuckerberg started an online service for keeping track of friends, which he named “The Facebook.” Within a month, more than half of Harvard’s undergraduate students had registered for the service12. Realizing he was on to something big, Mark moved to Silicon Valley and raised money from investors. By 2008, Facebook had signed up more than 50 million users, and was valued at more than $15 billion13. Not bad for a company started out of a dorm room.

Mark believes that the secret of Facebook’s success is its “social graph”—the network of connections and relationships between users. Mark says, “As Facebook adds more and more people with more and more connections, it continues growing and becomes more useful at a faster rate. We are going to use it to spread information through the social graph.” Nurture your social graph, and expand the power of your network.

Friends for Life
In addition to social benefits, friendship is important for health14. Studies have shown that people with close friends and family have a lower risk of death, and a better state of mental health. They have lower resting heart rates, and lower systolic blood pressure. They also have stronger immune systems, and lower levels of stress hormones such as cortisol and norepinephrine.

In California, the Alameda County Study measured the strength of people’s social ties and participation in church and other social groups. Over a 9-year period, men with the fewest social connections were three times more likely to die than those with the most connections. People with strong social ties were also less likely to become depressed and suffer from mental illness.

Friendship is an important part of a healthy and balanced life. In this article, we learned how to make friends, and how to keep them. But perhaps the best advice comes from Ralph Waldo Emerson: “The only way to have a friend is to be one.”

  1. Hartup WW, Stevens N. (1997). Friendships and adaptation in the life course. Psychological Bulletin. 121(3):355–370.
  2. Reeder HM. (2000). ‘I like you…as a friend’: the role of attraction in cross-sex friendship. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 17(3):329–348.
  3. Afifi WA, Faulkner SL. (2000). On being ‘just friends’: the frequency and impact of sexual activity in cross-sex friendships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 17(2):205–222.
  4. Sprecher S, Regan PC. (2002). Liking some things (in some people) more than others: partner preferences in romantic relationships and friendships. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 19(4):463–481.
  5. Pahl R, Pevalin DJ. (2005). Between family and friends: a longitudinal study of friendship choice. British Journal of Sociology. 56(3):433–450.
  6. Rushton JP, Bons TA. (2005). Mate choice and friendship in twins: evidence for genetic similarity. Psychological Science. 16(7):555–559.
  7. Gibbons G, Olk PM. (2003). Individual and structural origins of friendship and social position among professionals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology. 84(2):340–351.
  8. Liben-Nowell D et al. (2005). Geographic routing in social networks. PNAS. 102(33):11623–11628.
  9. Sunnafrank M, Ramirez A. (2004). At first sight: persistent relational effects of get-acquainted conversations. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 21(3):361–379.
  10. Jones DC. (1991). Friendship satisfaction and gender: an examination of sex differences in contributors to friendship satisfaction. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 8:167–185.
  11. Griffin E, Sparks GG. (1990). Friends forever: a longitudinal exploration of intimacy in same-sex friends and platonic pairs. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships. 7:29–46.
  12. Wikipedia. Facebook. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Facebook
  13. Farber D. (2007). Facebook’s Zuckerberg uncorks the social graph. ZDNet. May 24.
  14. Seeman TE. (1996). Social ties and health: the benefits of social integration. AEP. 6(5):442–451.

Copyright © 2009 by Paul Lem, M.D.
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