Good friends offer more than a fun night out or a shoulder to cry on. Good friends also share our values and goals and influence us positively. This is the prime reason an intentional community forms – like the Buddhist community in Thailand I studied. Community members explained that it’s much easier to follow their strict lifestyle when surrounded by yatithaam or friends in Dharma. The Buddha actually advised that before committing to the Eightfold Path, enlightenment seekers should first have good friends (kalyana mitta), embodying exemplary practice and encouragement, to aid their journey.
Of course, you don’t have to be Buddhist to appreciate the value of good friends – friends who can help us to be better versions of ourselves. But to get this positive influence, we’ll need to be more intentional about who we spend our time with. The wellbeing research offers insights on how relationships influence us. I’ve summed up 5 tips to make sure that influence is positive.
Tip #66: Grow with Good Influences
We intuitively understand that good friends are good for us because they make us feel good. While that’s important, what’s perhaps more significant for our overall wellbeing is the way our relationships can influence our lives. Here’s some insight: The lead researcher of a Harvard happiness study, Nicholas Christakis, explored how our social connections influence our habits and behaviors. Take smoking, for instance. A person is 61% more likely to smoke if s/he has a direct connection with a smoker. If a friend of a friend smokes, the likelihood is 29%. Conversely, as smoking becomes less acceptable in one social circle, the bias against smoking quickly spreads to others. So if you’d like to break bad habits (or form good ones), spend more time with those who will influence you in the right direction.
This influence isn’t limited to behaviors, of course. Psychological research shows that significant relationships influence our self-concept as well. Healthy relationships involve self-expansion, meaning we absorb aspects of the other person that contribute to our positive self-growth. When we refer to our partners as our “better half,” this is a good indication that self-expansion is in the works. Our self-concept might also go through a process of pruning: eliminating negative qualities not supported by our partner. With these two processes of self-change, good friends help us grow into better people.
Tip #67: Cultivate Your Inner Circle
Friendships are typically formed through proximity: in school we are more likely to become friends with those whose desks or lockers are closest to us. As adults, we interact most with co-workers in shared space and neighbors within shouting distance. Convenient friendships can certainly be positive ones—I look forward to chatting with my neighbors as I take out the trash. But these relationships may not be the ones that will help us to be our best possible selves.
If we want relationships that influence us positively, then we need to cultivate our inner circle—those individuals we interact with most frequently. Motivational speaker Jim Rohn made popular the idea that we are the average of the five people we spend the most time with. Rohn made this statement based on his entrepreneurial instinct, so it’s perhaps more common sense than science. Nevertheless, there’s plenty of research now demonstrating the power of peer influence (such as a 2013 study at Duke University that shows strong-willed friends help us to resist temptation). By all means, continue to be friendly with those whose paths you cross. But when it comes to choosing good friends, compose your inner circle not by convenience but by qualities you admire.
Tip #68: Diversify Social Engagements
You’ve heard the saying “birds of a feather flock together.” The same is true for social relationships – we tend to gravitate toward people we perceive to be like ourselves. The term for this is homophily. While it may be comfortable, homophily can actually influence us negatively. University of Arizona sociologist, Miller McPherson’s research shows that homophily has significant potential to bias the information we are exposed to, our attitudes, our perceptions of others, and the quality of our social interactions. This dynamic stymies our potential and capability for self-growth.
To free ourselves from the limiting, narrow bias of homophily, we need to first diversify our social engagements. This involves “putting ourselves out there” to meet individuals who have different life experiences. You might attend a conference, check out a new group activity (like retired folks who gather weekly to play ukulele at the local community center), or pick up a regular volunteer gig (strong connections can form while working together on a shared concern). Meeting new people is the first hurdle. Then we can open ourselves to the possibility that those who are so different from ourselves can in fact be good friends if we let them.
Tip #69: Pick Pro-social Groups
When Alexis de Tocqueville came to the US in the 1830s, he was most impressed by Americans’ proclivity for civic association. Unfortunately, group membership has declined steadily since 1975. Robert Putnam, author of Bowling Alone, documented a 48% decrease from 1975 to 2000, and organizations like Rotary report further shrinking memberships in the last two decades. De Toqueville would say that the reduction of civic associations is bad for democracy. At a more fundamental level, it’s bad for humanity, which survives and thrives in groups.
Our concern here is forming relationships that will have a good influence on us, so we would be wise to pick pro-social groups to join. Pro-social groups are ones with positive social values or perform actions meant to help others. Luckily, opportunities abound: neighborhood civic associations, local organizations with a structured volunteer system, or national organizations with local chapters (like Rotary Club or Dining for Women, which holds monthly potluck dinners and raises grant money for development projects that empower women). Even if you think you’re not a “joiner,” this is a tested means for making good friends.
An urgent caveat: drawing lines between what sociologists call “in-group” and “out-group” has resulted in the darkest chapters of human history: the Holocaust, apartheid, the Rwandan genocide. But the opposite is also true. Identifying with a pro-social group can have the net positive effect we’re looking for. Namely, a wellbeing boost for ourselves, other people, and the planet.
Tip #70: Seek Spiritual Fellowship
I grew up going to church every Sunday, and while I no longer consider myself religious, I still value the church’s influence on my upbringing. I sometimes wonder now if I should reconnect with a local church or Buddhist community. Would this give me greater wellbeing?
As it turns out, yes. Numerous studies indicate that religious people have higher wellbeing than non-religious ones. In the US, annual Gallup polls consistently find that Americans who identify as very religious have the highest life satisfaction. The reasons are still unclear and often depend on demographics, geography, and socio-economic situation, among other factors. But we can at least point to a few likely explanations. First is the social nature of most religions, which provides members with regular opportunities to learn, practice, and celebrate together. Second is the sort of “insurance policy” for adherents when they face some sort of crisis (like a global pandemic). There’s great peace of mind in the faith that [insert name of god] will protect and provide. And third is the sense of purpose and connection to something larger than oneself.
So if you’re still thinking about what kind of group you’d like to join, you might just follow the Buddha’s advice about good friends and seek out some spiritual fellowship. You’ll not only have higher wellbeing; you’ll be well on your way to becoming a better person.
Teens are most in need of good friends, and they need more help in making them. Next week we’ll explore 6 ways for the adults in their lives to support their social life. See you then!