There’s more to a healthy life than workouts and a balanced diet, and that’s something called friends.
Friendships are not just fun and comforting, they’re also fundamental to our wellbeing. Researchers have actually found that the health risks of prolonged loneliness can be as toxic as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
Friendships should be a priority in our lives, but recent data suggests we have fewer close friendships than we once did.
In the United States, for example, the share of people saying they have no close friends at all went up from 3 per cent in 1990 to 12 per cent in 2021, according to surveys by Gallup and the Survey Center on American Life.
Similarly, the number of respondents said they could count 10 people or more as their close friends went down from 33 per cent in 1990 to 13 per cent in 2021.
Interestingly, the share of people saying they had a smaller group of close friends (one to four) grew from 32 per cent to 48 per cent.
The rise of more close-knit friendships could be a question of quality versus quantity, yet only half of Americans reported feeling satisfied or completely satisfied with their number of friendships (51 per cent).
The Survey Center on American Life report blames the COVID-19 pandemic as the most likely culprit for the national friendship decline in 2021. However, it also points to lifestyle changes that may have played a role.
Americans, like Europeans, are getting married later than ever, which makes them more “geographically mobile than in the past,” a trend that is strongly associated with increased rates of self-reported social isolation and feelings of loneliness.
This phenomenon is also affecting romantic relationships: Tinder found in a 2018 survey that 72 per cent of Millennials had “made a conscious decision” to be single to focus on themselves, their career and their independence.
In the US, as in many other countries, the amount of time parents spend with their children has also been increasing. The trend, wonderful on its own, could be crowding out other types of relationships, and that includes adult friendships.
In the UK, 58 per cent of Britons say they have no more than 10 friends. Seven per cent of Britons say they don’t have anyone they could call a close friend, according to a 2021 YouGov studies.
Half of them say they have friends but none they consider close, a quarter says they struggle to make close friends, and another quarter says they fell out or lost touch with people with whom they used to be close.
What is the state of friendship in Europe?
Although there are no general figures on the state of friendship in the European Union, nor on how many friends people in each country have on average, some figures allow us to get a picture of how social Europeans are.
One such figure is the frequency with which Europeans see their friends.
According to Eurostat, the EU’s statistics office, Mediterranean countries tend to be the most social: in Greece, Croatia, Cyprus and Portugal, about 40 per cent of people surveyed say they meet with friends on a daily basis.
The countries where people see their friends the least on a daily basis are Poland, Austria, Latvia, and the Netherlands, where only about 7 per cent report daily gatherings.
Sweden, Netherlands and Belgium top the list of weekly meet-ups, and Poland, Latvia and Lithuania make space for their friendships about once a month.
On average, over 15 per cent of the EU population reports seeing friends daily, over 37 per cent weekly, and over 12 per cent once a month.
Traveling to see friends: How do EU countries compare?
Another interesting figure shedding light on Europeans’ commitment to friendship is the number of trips they dedicate each year to visiting friends and family.
In the bloc, the populations that travel the most to visit friends and family have been the same since 2012: France, Germany and Spain.
In 2021, those who traveled at least to visit friends and relatives lived in the Czech Republic, Italy and Romania.
Seeing our friends often: why does it matter?
In 1938, a group of Harvard scientists started a research program called the Harvard Study of Adult Development. The study, which followed young boys into late life and death, has since become the longest-running research program in social science.
When Robert Waldinger, the current director of the study, was asked to summarize the biggest findings from the decades-long research for a 2015 TED talk that has racked up over 44 million views, he said connections were one of the most important factors to determine people’s happiness and health.
“Those who kept warm relationships got to live longer and happier, and the loners often died earlier,” he said.
Few friends? No problem
Having many or few friends does not appear to affect our ability to become happy and healthy individuals. Rather, the magic equation appears to lie in how often we are able to interact with the friends we do have.
Comparing self-reported happiness among those with and without frequent social interactions allows for determining a raw correlation between happiness and social relations across different societies.
And unsurprisingly, studies have shown that in most countries, people who see their friends at least once a month report being happier than those who don’t.
“Don’t wait for calamity to rock you into realizing friendship is priceless,” psychologist Marisa G Franco wrote in her latest book, ‘Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make – and Keep – Friends as an Adult’.
“Engrave friendship on your list. Make being a good friend a part of who you are, because a deep and true core that needs to belong lies within us all”.