Monday 24 October 2016

Friend benefits: We should foster friendships that nourish our every aspect

Published 29/09/2015 | 02:30

Dan Buettner author of The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People.
Dan Buettner author of The Blue Zones Solution: Eating and Living Like the World's Healthiest People.

The mainstream media always has plenty of advice to offer on the subject of relationships. The trouble is that it's all too often on romantic relationships, as opposed to familial and platonic ones.

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Occasionally I'd like to read a piece on '10 Ways to Become a Better Sister', or 'How to Find the Perfect Friend'. I'd like to see less attention given to romantic partners and more to our extended social networks.

Just as we know what we want in a potential partner, we should know what we want in a friend. Just as we are taught to widen our net when looking for a partner, we ought to be advised to widen our friendship circles so that every aspect of our personality is nourished.

We generally take the other direction, though. According to a study published in the Psychological Bulletin in 2013, our friendship networks peak in early adulthood before dwindling as we approach the end of our twenties.

We also have a tendency to give the 'best friend' title to our significant other. Yet the more roles we give to our partner, the greater the chance the relationship has of becoming codependent.

We leave ourselves in a precarious position when we allow our romantic relationships to fulfil our needs for friendship. To give a romantic relationship the best possible chance, make sure you have a diverse group of friends. Better still, have friends that you don't share with your partner.

The first friend that everyone needs is a trusted confidante. We all need someone to lean on, even Type A/Alpha personalities... especially Type A/Alpha personalities...

The confidante is perhaps the friendship role that is most commonly thrust upon a romantic partner.

The problem is that we can get into a habit of only opening up over pillow talk and over-sharing at the beginning of a relationship. More to the point, a confidante teaches us how to be vulnerable, so we cheat the system by making it an in-house vacancy. A non-romantic confidante makes for a healthier, and much more secure, proposition.

A strictly platonic opposite-sex friendship is also important. Yes, staying "just friends" can be difficult, but the dynamic is worth the challenge.

It is in these relationships that we gain a better understanding of the opposite sex and the balancing of male and female energies.

It's important for men to know what it is to be nurtured outside of a romantic relationship, just as it is for women to know gallantry with no sexual undercurrent.

Generation gap friendships are invaluable too. We all have a tendency to form friendships in our peer group, but friendships with younger and older people have plenty to teach us.

I'm convinced that we start getting old the day we start believing that we have nothing to learn from younger people.

A recent study of 700 healthy centenarians bears this out.

Researchers attempting to find out what the world's oldest people had in common discovered that centenarians didn't like to keep company with what they call "old people" (many of whom were actually younger than them!).

Older friends and mentors are invaluable too. As the saying goes: "The young man knows the rules but the old man knows the exceptions". Older friends have wisdom to share and potholes to point out.

"Whatever you do in life, surround yourself with smart people who'll argue with you," said John Wooden.

Indeed, we all need at least one friend who is smarter, just as we need friends who are braver and more successful. They spur us on to greater work...

We should also have at least one friendship that isn't entirely based on commonalities. We all have a tendency to forge friendships with those that we resonate with.

However, there is no learning curve in having our opinions validated.

It can take a little bit longer to tune into the frequency of someone with whom we don't have instant rapport, but it's always worth it.

In fact, these friendships can often be the most enduring - familiarity breeds contempt and all that...

If you're trying to lead a healthier lifestyle or break a habit, remember that your social network can be a support system or an everyday temptation.

As Blue Zones author Dan Buettner writes: "The people you surround yourself with influence your behaviours, so choose friends who have healthy habits."

The final friend that we all need is a four-legged one.

Animals teach us compassion and help us master non-verbal communication.

Granted, a carefully curated group of friends may sound a little ambitious.

At the very least, though, it's wise to be mindful of the friends that don't elevate your mood.

Likewise, while old friends are comfy and cosy, they often keep us locked in the old patterns of a shared history.

It is through new friendships that our personalities evolve so if you want to make a new start, make a new friend.

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