We all want good friends. Having healthy, supportive relationships is the key to making it through even the toughest of times. We also want to be good to our friends and often worry about whether we are good enough.
Chances are that if you are worried about that, you are a good friend. It shows that you value your friendships and want to be a supportive companion. But of course, different people have different needs and expectations for their friends and being a good friend to someone doesn’t guarantee that you’re a good friend to everyone.
In this article, I’ll take a closer look at the science of friendship and how to be the best friend you can be.
- What makes someone a friend?
- What makes someone a good friend?
- How to be a good friend
- Closing words
Developing (and maintaining) happy relationships is a crucial step towards long-term happiness. But this is just the tip of the iceberg. This topic is covered in more detail in the biggest guide on how to be happy in the section Social Happiness.
What makes someone a friend?
Friends and friendship are difficult to define. Just think about your own friends – what makes someone your friend? Chances are that you don’t have a single, concise answer to that and neither do psychologists and philosophers.
There have been attempts to define friendship. For example, psychologist Robert B. Hays defines friendship as “voluntary interdependence between two persons over time, that is intended to facilitate socio-emotional goals of the participants, and may involve varying types and degrees of companionship, intimacy, affection and mutual assistance”.
In layman’s terms, this means that on the most basic level, friendship is a close, supportive relationship between two people, but the details are different for everyone.
An earlier definition comes from Aristotle. In The Nicomachean Ethics, he writes:
To be friends, then, they must be mutually recognized as bearing goodwill and wishing well to each other.
Aristotle also divided friendships into three categories:
- Friendships of utility are based on certain advantages that one can attain from one’s friend. For example, you might be friends with someone because they have professional connections that are beneficial to you.
- Friendships of pleasure are friendships we form and maintain because of the pleasure we get from our friend’s company. For example, your friend and you have a mutual hobby or interest.
- Virtue friendships are based on a mutual admiration of your friend’s character and sharing the same values. Virtue friendships are considered to be the highest form of friendship, and also the most lasting one because these relationships are based on internal factors, not external ones.
If you think about your own social circle, you probably have friends from all of these categories. And although virtue friendships might be the most important and durable, it’s good to have different kinds of friendships, because they all serve us in different ways.
What makes someone a good friend?
Since friendship is difficult to define, so is a good friend. To an extent, it’s completely fair to say that the definition of a good friend is different to everyone and leave it at that.
For example, I value friends who are there for me when it really matters. For someone else, having daily contact might be the biggest indicator of good friendship.
However, there are some things that people seem to value more than others when it comes to friendships.
Studies on friendships
In a 2011 study, researcher Christopher P. Roberts-Griffin reports that people look for trustworthiness, honesty, communication and similarity in a friend, while attractiveness and physical proximity (for example, living next door) are less important. In the same study, men were found to value shared activities and problem-solving in friendships, while women value emotional support and mutual love between friends.
Similar results were found in a 2010 study by Jeffrey A. Hall, who reports that both women and men expect trust, commitment, loyalty, and genuineness from their friends. However, women seemed to again place more importance on emotional intimacy, while men valued the status of their friends more.
All of these qualities – honesty, loyalty, genuineness, etc – can sound a little abstract. For example, just how honest should a good friend be? Should a good friend tell you if your new haircut doesn’t suit you or should they avoid hurting your feelings, as long as they are honest about the big, important things?
Factors of being a good friend
To make them more practical and actionable in your day-to-day life, counseling professor Suzanne Degges-White, Ph.D. has listed 13 essential traits of good friends:
- Honesty with others
- Being very dependable
- Loyalty to loved ones
- Ability to trust others
- Experiencing and expressing empathy for others
- Being non-judgemental
- Being a good listener
- Supporting others in their good times
- Supporting others in their bad times
- Being self-confident
- Being able to find humor in life
- Being fun to be around
These 13 qualities and traits make up the basics of a good friend. While some are very logical, like being dependable and empathetic, others sound a little more far-fetched. What does self-confidence have to do with how good of a friend you are?
People with low self-confidence or unstable self-esteem often doubt the security of their friendships and although they might not let it show, their inner struggle still affects the quality of their relationships. Being insecure stops them from trusting people fully, which makes it hard for them to find good friends and to be a good friend themselves.
How to be a good friend
As stated before, a good friend is a very individual concept and although there are some central traits that are more important than others, there’s no one-size-fits-all formula. Despite this, there are some things you can do to be the best friend you can be.
1. Communication is the key to good friendships
This holds true for any kind of relationship, and friendships are no exception. If you want to be a good friend, it’s important that you communicate your needs clearly, and make sure that you understand your friend.
Communication doesn’t just mean staying in touch with your friend. It means being honest and clear and really taking the time to make sure that you and your friend are on the same page.
Make sure you listen to your friend and don’t be afraid to ask for clarification if you’re not sure what they mean. Don’t be afraid to touch difficult topics and be assertive when your friend has done something that hurts or disturbs you.
A good friendship isn’t one entirely without conflict but rather one where conflicts are resolved constructively and effectively.
2. It’s okay to have different interests
While you probably have a lot in common with your friend, you probably also have things that set you apart from each other. For example, while you may enjoy chess, your friend might find it boring.
Being a good friend doesn’t mean you should try to like the same things your friend does or that you should convince your friend to like what you like. Instead, good friends should accept and respect each other’s differences and be supportive of the other’s pursuits even if they themselves don’t find it interesting.
For example, if your friend loves tennis, you don’t have to play tennis with them to be a good friend. Simply listen to them when they talk about the game and go see them play a couple of times.
Similarly, don’t expect your friend to become a football fan just because you are one. If they’re willing to listen to you recount the highlights of last night’s game, they’re already a good friend.
3. Make time for your friend
We all lead busy lives, but friendships do not maintain themselves. Make sure that you’re making time to meet up with your friend. If you’re going through an especially busy time, then it’s important to let your friend know, which is also a part of communication.
Meeting up to see a movie, have a coffee, or just talk is an important part of maintaining your friendships. If meeting up isn’t an option, set time aside to call or chat over text. An uninterrupted hour a week can work miracles for the quality of the friendship.
High-quality friendships are based on trust. One of the best ways to build trust is to share personal topics.
This doesn’t mean that you should disclose all of your deepest secrets when you’re not ready to. Only share the things you feel comfortable sharing and don’t pressure your friend into telling you more than they’re ready to.
Over time, you will find that this kind of mutual sharing is freeing and it will do wonders for the friendship.
5. Be yourself
We often feel the need to hide our true selves and act in a certain way. While it may be necessary for certain contexts, friendships aren’t one of them. You should be comfortable with being yourself with your friends.
Pretending that you’re someone else isn’t what makes you a good friend. Being your true self does. Since good friendships are built on mutual honesty and trust, you should let your friends see you just as you are, with all your quirks.
This goes both ways – if you want your friends to accept you as you are, you have to accept them.
The recipe for a good friend isn’t as clear as we’d like. While there are certainly some things that are more important than others when it comes to friendships, everyone has their own needs and expectations. Still, there are some universal things, like trust and communication, that you can work on to make sure that you are the best friend you can be.
Do you think you’re the best friend you can be, or can you think of a way to improve your friendships by following some of the tips in this article? I’d love to hear about your experiences in your friendships. Leave a comment below to join the conversation!
Maili TirelSchool psychologist
School psychologist, teacher and internet counselor from Estonia. Passionate about coffee, reading, dancing, and singing in the shower, much to the neighbors’ dismay. Counseling catchphrase: “It’s okay!“