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What’s the purpose of friends?

One of the most painful aspects of moving is the distance between friends. For years you rely on them being there. You enjoy their company, and suddenly they are all gone. Still only a phone call away, but part of the friendship has changed

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It’s a bit weird writing about such an essential topic as friends from a cold, transactional, economic perspective. Do friends need to have a purpose in our lives, or can they “just be”? Do we need to attach a value to friendship and figure out why friends are good for us, or can we just have friends and not worry about these questions?

But let’s keep going. Asking questions is always good.

The only sort of economic, transactional reason I can think about for having friends is this: Friends make you feel less lonely, which is good for your mental and physical health. But that is not enough to have long-lasting friendships.

Friendships are voluntary (compared to being a sibling or daughter/son). They are also reciprocal. Both people need to want to be friends. This makes them a special relationship, different from the other relationships in your life.

How many friends should you have?

If you use social media, have a look at the number of “friends”. Without looking at their profile, do you know where they are currently living? What are their hobbies? I, for sure, I’m not in frequent contact with most people on my social media account. The label friend is misguided. They are more like acquaintances, fleeting connections.

Generally, people interact a lot with around 5 people. Some of these 5 people are family members such as your partner, parents, or siblings. Beyond 150, the famous Dunbar’s number, you can’t remember their names or faces.

Your top 5 friends are your closest people. You see them nearly daily
Your top 15 friends are those with whom you interact weekly
Your top top 50 friends are those with whom you interact monthly

When live events disrupt your friendship circles, most people rebuild them. But the size remains more or less the same. Going to university, moving to a new city have a similar impact on your friendship circles: Some faces disappear, new faces appear. But how many friends you have remains stable.

What impacts the size of your friendship circle is your age. Or better, how many years do you think you still have to live. When you are young, you want to experience lots of things. You purposefully seek out and build a giant friendship circle.

But over time, you begin to appreciate more and more the value of having someone to discuss life with. Someone who helps you to regulate and deal with emotions. The friendship circle becomes smaller as you spend more time with these close friends and lose contact with others.

There is a theory called social-emotional selectivity theory. It tries to explain people’s motivation for having friends depending on their age. The main idea is that friends can be either “givers of knowledge” or “regulators of emotions”. If you think you have many more years to live, you value knowledge more than regulating emotions. That leads to the large friendship circles typical of younger people. When the time on earth is seen as short, people value having someone who helps them regulate their emotions. That’s one of the reasons why you see friendship circles dwindle with age.

On companions and confidants

Every friendship looks different. We have periods when we are the friend who always reaches out, makes sure others are ok, and organizes get-togethers. At other times, it’s others who are doing that. Who is doing what in a friendship is not crucial. Roles change over time, and that’s ok.

But what’s essential about friendships is companionship and intimacy. Companionship is about “walking together for some time”. It’s sharing part of your life with someone, having shared experiences. This sounds like a partner but doesn’t have to be. A typical example of companionship is going to university together, getting your first job, getting married, and having your first kid. Fellowship is about sharing these experiences with others by celebrating with them or seeking out your friends when something doesn’t go as planned.

Companionship can also happen at a somewhat superficial level. This is in contrast to confidants. Confidants are friends with whom you share everything. There is a massive amount of trust between you. A confidant is someone with whom you can talk about everything: What makes you happy and sad, your struggles, what you are afraid of. Confidants make you feel understood, valued, and accepted.

What type of friend are you? As with everything in life, take a moment to reflect on your friendships. How do you enrich people’s lives, and how is your life enriched by others. Remember that friendships are two-way relationships. If you are new to reflection, check out our free course.

How can you help your friends? Challenge 1. Help out a friend this week without him/her asking for it. Cook a meal, babysit the kids, bring some flowers. It doesn’t have to be much, just a little gesture showing that (a) that you know the person’s needs & struggles and (b) that you care about them.

Reconnect with others. This is your second challenge. Every day, write one message to someone with whom you haven’t talked for some time. Text is ok, voice is better, video is fantastic. The more of you you can put into the message, the more it will connect.

So what’s the purpose of friendship? To have people who understand who you are, accept who you are, and help you live life. One is enough.

Let us know how the challenge is going!


Tiny tips

1. Self awareness

Reflect on what type of friend are you? How do you enrich people’s lives, and how is your life enriched by others.

2. Be there for friends

Do little gesture to show that (a) that you know the person’s needs & struggles and (b) that you care about them like cooking a meal, babysitting.

2. Reconnect 

 Write a message to someone with whom you haven’t talked for some time. Text is ok, voice is better, video is fantastic.

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