Research has found that having social support plays a vital role in mental health, so building a network that includes family, platonic friends, and other loved ones can be important for our overall wellness. [American Psychological Association. Manage stress: strengthen your support network.]
But before we get into the ways a strong social network promotes health and well-being, it’s important to point out that not all relationships are equal. Just like you can make unhealthy choices around diet and exercise, you can certainly make unhealthy choices when it comes to your friendships and relationships.
This August, CLS welcomed Destaney Sauls, visiting assistant teaching professor from Oakland University. Destaney’s research interests include ways that individual differences shape our interpersonal interactions. Specifically, her focus is on how personality traits (e.g., narcissism or narcissistic traits) shape and are shaped by different sustained interpersonal interactions (e.g., platonic friendships). With over 30 journal articles and conference presentations on the subject of narcissism and social connection, we tapped into Sauls’ knowledge on the subject in the days leading up to October—Mental Health Awareness month.
Joining us in the conversation is Amber Bennett, CLS adjunct assistant professor. Amber is a licensed master social worker in the State of Michigan and a mental health professional at the Copper Country Intermediate School District. Her teaching experience includes Psychology of Trauma and Abnormal Psychology.
Now let’s jump in . . .
Q. From your research experience, what have you found is the connection between friendship, social interaction and overall health and well being, and why should we be aware of its significance?
A. I think it is pretty easy to overlook our friends and how important they can be. We have quite a lot of friends over the course of our lives, but their rules and their roles, even how they start and how they end, tend to be a lot less clearly defined than in other kinds of relationships. I actually think we might be unappreciative of our friends, simply because we have so many! I think that tends to make them a little less “flashy” than other kinds of relationships, even though they are just as important.
From an evolutionary perspective, friendships don’t always make a ton of sense – why are we so inclined to invest significant amounts of time and resources into a relationship with someone we’re not related to, when we’re not clearly getting something out of it?
But it’s the fact that it doesn’t make sense to invest in an unimportant relationship that means that friendships have to be important. But it probably isn’t one single thing that makes our friends important – it’s the combination of benefits.
Friends do provide a lot of tangible benefits – they provide support when we need it, whether that be emotional, mental, or physical. People with good friends typically have better outcomes – they’re happier, more stable, and in some cases even physically healthier. Some work even suggests that people with good friends might have better immune systems and better life expectancy. Our friends make us feel good, and they really seem to be good for us in a lot of ways.
But unfortunately, the opposite is also true. A lack of friends, or a lack of social connections, appears to be really detrimental, especially for our own sense of mental well-being. We knew this, of course, but it became really obvious in the Covid-19 pandemic when we really needed to be more isolated from each other. If you look up “social isolation” you will probably find a lot of articles talking about the Covid-19 pandemic and the well-being of isolated people. They’ll talk about protective factors – for example, things like physical exercise seemed to lessen the impact of being cut off from our social relationships, but the conclusion seems to be that social isolation is extremely detrimental, especially to our mental health. Even being isolated for as little as a couple of weeks seemed to impact our mental health in some pretty harsh ways. Friends, and social connections generally, are really good for your health, but I would be remiss not to mention how detrimental a lack of these relationships may be.
Q. What do you feel is the definition of friendship?
A. This is actually a somewhat complicated question! In the world of research, it is important to have a clear definition of different terms, but the problem with a word like “friendship” is that it can be so personal – so easily influenced by our experiences and personal perspectives. Hruschka, who has contributed some really interesting ideas to the friendship literature, defined friendships as “long-term relationships of mutual affection and support”. For the purposes of my own research, I typically say something long-winded and specific about what a friend is, like “a friend should be defined as someone with which we share a close, platonic, pleasant, sustained, and voluntary relationship – and someone to whom we may be consistently loyal or committed”. That’s definitely a mouthful just to say what a friend is! But you have to be specific in research – what I really think is important is that “voluntary” piece of the relationship. Friendships are special, and I think a big part of that is that you choose your friends. Why did you choose them? Because you love them. I don’t know if it always has to be more complicated than that.
Q. What are some indicators that a friend may have narcissistic traits?
A. Narcissistic individuals tend to believe they are the most “special” person in a room, and depending on the “kind” of narcissism, this can mean they are going to try and convince their friends to lift them up, or they are going to try and tear their friends down. Either way, narcissistic individuals in a friendship tend to be trying to get something out of it. They prefer friendships that offer avenues to things like power, or influence. But the good news is that most of the time, it does look like the people they are interacting with do get a sense of something being “not quite right” and they do tend to react accordingly.
Q. How can a friendship with a narcissist affect our mental well-being?
A. Friendships with narcissistic individuals tend not to end well. They are often very charming at first, but some research suggests it only takes a handful of short meetings for their interaction partners to begin to dislike them. It’s possible this is at least partly because of how the narcissistic individual acts in the relationship – they tend to try and boost themselves up, and this can often mean they derogate others, or engage in inappropriate self-promotion, or even become aggressive when they feel that their status is threatened. For the vast majority of people, friendships with narcissistic individuals probably end fairly quickly, likely because these friendships tend to be fairly unpleasant.
Interestingly, the people who might get along with a narcissistic individual the best might be other narcissistic individuals! Research around friendships suggests that we really like friends who are similar to us, even in terms of personality traits like narcissistic traits. They appear to recognize, at least on some level, the similarity in their traits and are able to at least tolerate them.
Q. How is social media influencing our social connections and friendships?
A. I actually think social media use is unfairly stigmatized, especially for younger generations. We can’t really expect something like friendships on social media to behave in exactly the same way that friendship might in real life, but I don’t think this necessarily makes them “bad” or “less than” in-person friendships. There are some issues with social media – it is pretty easy to curate an image online that is very different from who you actually are, and it is even easier to add “friends” that you have no real connection to.
However, there is also a good chance that social media presents unique opportunities to connect with people in a way that we don’t really fully understand. The Internet and social media are still so new in terms of our evolutionary history that we just don’t really know how they are going to impact us in the long run, but the fact of the matter is they are probably here to stay. I think instead of villainizing social media and the Internet, we should instead recognize it for the tool that it is. Is every friendship online going to be absolutely worthwhile, or even comparable to in-person friendships? Maybe not! But at least some of them might be.
Some researchers have argued that social media is simply changing the way we form social networks, but it is not necessarily making them worse – there does appear to be an upper limit to how many meaningful social relationships we can maintain, and that appears to be about 100 to 150. Social media isn’t going to change that, but what it has changed is the sheer amount of options that we have for those social connections. Historically, we have been pretty limited in our options for social relationships simply because we needed a certain amount of physical proximity. Now, if you want to have a best friend that lives on the other side of the world, it is pretty easy to do so. Some work suggests that this might be leading to a kind of “customized sociality” where there is more of an individualized social network centered around the individual.
It’s easy to see social media and think it has a lot of “cheap” or “shallow” relationships, and to a certain extent that might even be true. But it certainly is not all that social media and friendships can be, and I think this is really a tool that we need to be making the most of. And that will probably start with a focus on the quality of our online relationships, which can be difficult when we are so often focused on the quantity.
Q. How can we take our relationships to the next level? What tips would you like to share for forming and keeping healthy friendships/relationships?
A. As adults, we probably need to dedicate more time to the maintenance of our friendships. Friendships, especially their beginning and end, can be “fuzzy”. This makes the consequences of not putting work into your friendships hard to spot, even though there are definitely consequences. Sometimes it is difficult to dedicate resources to those friendships that are worth maintaining, while letting go of those that just aren’t. In the research world, you’ll hear people refer to “tend and befriend” – if we want to really foster good relationships, it is incredibly important that we don’t neglect that “tend” part. In the busy chaos of our everyday lives, it can be easy to think that the message you’ve been meaning to send to your friend but haven’t quite gotten to it yet isn’t a big deal. But the little things might be more important than you realize, because suddenly you might look up and realize you haven’t spoken to that friend in a year. Put work into your friends. Especially the people who love you enough to put work into you.
Q. How can a person find and make new friends as an adult?
A. It can be really difficult to make good friends, especially as an adult. When we’re younger, we tend to have a lot more “ready made” friend groups – our classes, our teams, etc. When we get older, those easy friendships tend to be harder to come by, but unfortunately our friendships don’t become any less important. I think the best advice that I can give is to find people who have similar interests and try to build a relationship step-by-step. Don’t force it – that’s when things get a little uncomfortable. But trust yourself. You’ve made friends before, you have friends now, and you know what kind of friends you like even if you don’t really think about it that explicitly most of the time. Be open to friendships, and I would say to even pursue them and put work into them. Let them form naturally and those will be your best relationships. Find reasons to interact with people – especially reasons that you enjoy, like a hobby, etc. – the rest will work itself out.
Q. Some say our experiences of connection or disconnection are deterministic—predicted by our previous experiences of connection. How does our personal baggage affect our relationships?
A. Human connection is a fundamental aspect of our health, well-being, and overall quality of life. While there are documented cases of individuals who live in solitude, as humans we are hard-wired to seek out companionship. In fact, interacting with others is inherent to our ability to survive – physically, socially, and emotionally. It may seem as though relationships should be easy by virtue of them being so critical to our existence. Yet, I would argue that interacting with others is amongst the most challenging aspects of our daily lives. Relationships are hard because they are complicated. We are not simple creatures, and we tend to bring the history of our past relationships into our current ones.
Our sense of belonging and connection – or relationship – with those around us is largely influenced by our history of bonding with our primary caregivers and then later in life by experiences with our peers. Yet, these experiences are not always positive or healthy representations of relationships. These early memories influence our conceptualization of connection and often lead to similar behaviors with others as we grow and mature. In order to shift to a healthier approach we must recognize what was first modeled for us, be aware of what we have experienced within our own history of connection with others, and be willing to take ownership of and action in shifting the role we play in our current relationships. Again, easier said than done. However, setting healthy boundaries for ourselves, establishing open and honest communication, and remaining our authentic selves can set the stage for improving our connections with others.
This story has been written in recognition of World Mental Health Day, October 10, 2022. The faculty and staff of Cognitive and Learning Sciences at Michigan Tech extends compassion to all who have experienced the darkness of mental health issues, whether it be with ourselves or through our loved ones. Let’s shine our light on the subject. Let’s find and use the tools we have available—even if it is just our own breath, or a friendly smile. Let’s “Make mental health for all a global priority”.
Resources shared by Amber Bennett
Brené Brown: The Call to Courage (2019) available on Netflix
Podcasts (links in Spotify)