Friendships are important to our health and well-being—research proves it. In fact, an analysis of 148 studies showed that people with strong social relationships actually live longer. “Friendships can contribute to and increase a young person’s capacity for resilience, self-esteem, and sense of belonging,” says Lydia X. Z. Brown, a writer, activist, and speaker who speaks out about disabilities, gender issues, and discrimination.
Building and maintaining friendships is huge for your mental, physical, and academic health.
“Friendships at any age are essential for positive mental health,” says Dr. Marjorie Hogan, a board-certified pediatrician in adolescent medicine in Minnesota. “A basic human need is acceptance and the sense of belonging to a group bigger than oneself. Friendship provides this basic need.”
Research shows a solid correlation between friendships and physical activity. A 2013 analysis of multiple studies showed that the more active a student’s peers were, the more active they were likely to be. “Friends can make it much more fun to be physically active by providing us with encouragement, advice, and guidance on how to be active,” says Dr. Yvonne Laird, a research fellow at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland who has studied how social groups affect activity levels in teen girls. “This support from our friends can make us feel more confident and motivated to be active.”
Having social support from peers was associated with higher GPAs in a 2010 study of Australian teens. And the types of friends you make matter: A 2011 study of 1,278 middle schoolers found that students with high-achieving friends tended to do better in school.
Since the beginning of our existence, humans have depended on groups to survive and thrive. While this once meant we needed each other to help find food and shelter, research shows that we still gain a lot from our membership in groups. Back in the ’90s, researchers revisited the importance of belonging to groups and found that it’s still a fundamental human motivation because—in short—our friendships make us happier. “Friendship (and belonging to a group bigger than oneself) can be a constant in a world that may seem to lack control,” says Dr. Marjorie Hogan, a pediatrician specializing in adolescent medicine in Minnesota. Having a solid community—or even just one close friend—can help make all the changes and challenges you face in high school more manageable.
Quality and authenticity are the most important parts of friendship
There’s no “right” number of friends to have. Science shows that quality is just as important as quantity. In fact, research has demonstrated that adults with high-quality social connections are more likely to live longer, even when they have significant health problems. Research also shows that your brain isn’t designed to keep up with more than five BFF relationships anyway, so having a few close friendships is probably more important than trying to be friends with everyone.
At the core of making and maintaining those high-quality friendships are authenticity, vulnerability, and honesty.
These are the things that bond us together and help you form the relationships that will last into college and beyond. “A true friendship could be defined as (almost) unconditional,” says Dr. Hogan. “Because a friendship is valuable and is an investment, true friends will work to maintain a relationship that is honest, reciprocal, and based on trust and genuine affection.”
In her famous TED talk on vulnerability, researcher Dr. Brené Brown talks about the importance of authenticity—her research found that dropping the act and being your true self is essential for forming solid relationships. “You absolutely have to do that for connection,” she says.
Not only are we attracted to authenticity in our friends and relationships, but being yourself leads to greater well-being as individuals. A 2014 review of multiple studies concluded that high authenticity levels correlate with higher levels of satisfaction with yourself and with your life.
Whether you’re kicking off the year at a new school or returning to a bunch of familiar faces, here are eight research-backed ways to make (and keep) real, fulfilling friendships.
Nobody’s perfect—and trying to be might actually make you less likable. Researchers found that people tend to like others more when they slip up—it’s called the pratfall effect. Being vulnerable and not being afraid of your flaws is key to embracing your authenticity. Don’t be afraid if you say something at lunch that gets some weird looks, crack a joke that falls flat, or trip on the basketball court—if anything, the realness will probably win you points.
Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “The only way to have a friend is to be one.” Science backs him up on this. A 2010 study that looked at conversation dynamics found that when you ask follow-up questions, people are more likely to want to engage with you again. So before you start talking about yourself, listen to your potential new friend and ask the kind of questions you’d want to be asked. Just be sure to “skip the interrogation,” says Edward, a junior in Winnetka, Illinois. A few follow-up questions are good, but don’t fire the questions so rapidly the other person feels like they’re being asked to deliver a speech.
With all that listening, you’re sure to notice some things you have in common—point them out. Another 2010 study found that in both male and female friendships, pairs liked each other more when they had similar attitudes. If your potential new friend is talking about how they’re nervous for track tryouts, chime in with how anxious you were about making the team last year.
A 2008 study of college freshman found that potential friendships are a matter of proximity—in other words, you’re more likely to make friends with the people you sit next to in class or work with at the same after-school job. “Start off by talking to people in your classes,” says Susan, a junior in Kettering, Ohio. “Ask them what their schedule is like, and see what classes you have with them.” Try hanging out in places where you might find people with common interests. For example, showing up to the same yoga class every Saturday puts you in a position to make friends with the person on the mat next to you.
You can also be more intentional about meeting people by joining an organized group. “My advice would be to try out different activities—anything from sports clubs, drama, or music, and find something that you enjoy,” says Dr. Laird. “Doing a hobby as part of a group or club is a great way to meet new people with similar interests.” There’s research to back this up: A 2016 study found that the more groups you’re a part of (including family and friends), the happier you feel.
When you’re trying to make friends at the start of a new school year, don’t forget about the friends you already have, or even those you’ve lost touch with. A 2011 study on relationships found that reconnecting with old friends can be a source of valuable advice and rekindled trust. Try reaching out every couple of weeks to keep those relationships strong. “Some ways to stay in touch that my friends (especially those who don’t live in the same place) have used are forwarding news articles of interest, sending small gifts or souvenirs after a trip, occasional FaceTime chats, arranging to meet for coffee or lunch while in the same town, and participating in projects together,” says Brown.
You don’t have to have pom-poms. In The Myths of Happiness: What Should Make You Happy, but Doesn’t, What Shouldn’t Make You Happy, but Does, author Sonja Lyubomirsky says that the strongest relationships are those in which couples cheer each other on. Same goes for our friends. When something good happens, show them how excited you are for them with a kind gesture, such as sending them a congratulatory text or decorating their locker.
Happiness and excitement spread just like laughter—it’s a concept called emotional contagion. Essentially, we have a tendency to unconsciously and automatically mimic those around us—so if your lunch buddy is in a bubbly mood, you’re likely to perk up too, according to research. Smiling helps too. In 2013, researchers looked at how we respond to genuine and polite smiles and found that not only are people likely to return your smile with one of their own, but genuine smiles are more rewarding.
Striking up a conversation with the guy in math class might be no sweat for some people, but for others it can feel scary, overwhelming, or confusing. For example, a student may be autistic and may not feel as comfortable connecting with others when the outcomes are uncertain or the expectations for how to approach the person are unclear.
If you meet someone with a disability and aren’t sure how to act, Brown says there are a couple of things to remember: “It’s okay to openly acknowledge a person’s disability and to ask them respectful questions if that person is open to responding, It’s also okay to remember that there are many facets to the person in addition to their disability.” Invite them to a party or school event, but be mindful if they seem uncomfortable in the social setting. “Be on the lookout for signs that your potential new friend would rather not be at the party, talk, or hang out so you can either try to make the environment more approachable or figure out if there’s another time that would work better for getting to know them,” Brown says.
Above all, never treat your friendship as charity. “Like all people, we want to have friends who genuinely care about us as human beings, who share something in common with us, and who think of us as equal contributors to a relationship, instead of feel-good points for someone looking to do a good deed for the day,” says Brown.
Whether you have a physical or mental disability, social anxiety, or feel like a social outlier in other ways, there are still ways to connect.
If you find it hard to connect with people face-to-face, start by reaching out to new friends through social media—early conversations via text may be easier than talking in person, says Brown.
If you want to find other people who “get it,” looking for support groups is a great place to start. Check online for support groups in your area or connect with a disability services office in your school or community that may be able to connect you.
If you’re feeling stuck, ask for an introduction. “Sometimes teachers or other school staff can suggest groups for teens to explore. Many schools have friendship groups meant to kindle relationships between adolescents,” says Hogan.
Most importantly, “Embrace what makes you different from the norm. You can’t really hide it, and it just might be the basis for some of the most meaningful and important friendships in your life,” says Brown. “Whether it’s your abiding love for Dungeons and Dragons, your path to discovering your authentic gender expression, or your budding environmental activism, you might make the best of friends with others who share your interests or experiences.”
Yvonne Laird, PhD, research fellow at the University of Edinburgh in Scotland.
Marjorie Hogan, MD, pediatrician, University of Minnesota.
Lydia X. Z. Brown, activist, writer, and speaker in Boston, Massachusetts.
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