At the end of this lifetime, my hope is that my tombstone will say, “A good friend to many.” I hope that my actions and spirit live up to this message.
Friendship is important to me and to many people I meet. Cultivating strong friendships and a sense of community are key factors to living a long and happy life. Residents of Okinawa, Japan, have the highest life expectancy in the world. The key contributing factors of their longevity and happiness are diet, movement/exercise, and having friends and community.
So, what’s the secret to building friendship and community? Consider this friendship formula I came up with:
Aligned values x Goodwill x Time x Vulnerability x Presence = Friendship
Every ingredient in the formula is a multiplier, because if any of the factors is zero, the result for friendship is zero. At the same time, each factor exponentially multiplies the depth and speed of forming true friendship.
People are always looking for their tribe – the group of people who share their values. It’s more important that we find friends who share our values than even our beliefs or interests. I notice that I am more likely to reconnect with someone who demonstrates genuine kindness than a person who shares my political viewpoint or my passion for yoga. Make sure you are choosing your friends based on aligned values, rather than proximity, convenience, or superficial affiliations. As the old saying goes, “You are the average of the five people you surround with.” The friends you choose have a great influence over your mindset, habits, and thus, your life trajectory.
True friendship is possible when both parties come into the relationship with positive intent – the intention to be of service instead of to gain something from the other person. The depth of friendship increases with the generosity of goodwill.
Even though most of us don’t consider ourselves as people who approach relationships with a transactional mindset, we often find ourselves assessing whether the relationship is fair. For example, we may wonder if the exchange is fair in the amount of money we spent on shared meals, the number of times we initiated a get-together, or the amount of time we gave to help our friends. A friend who is generous, who does not keep a tally to make sure exchanges are fair, is rare in a modern world that places a heavy emphasis on pursuing self-interest at all costs. The fear of being taken advantage of is real for most people - myself included! However, if we can push through our fears and be generous, we will be rewarded with friendship that has the goodwill and strength to sustain us long-term through the ups and downs of our lives.
A friendship grows with each shared experience with the other person. It’s important to remember friendships develop over time, and remain patient in your journey of developing them. Many people who move to a new city experience frustration over the difficulty in making friends. They reminisce about the friendships they had in other places and times – often throughout childhood or in college – and complain about their social experiences in the new city. Their expectation is unrealistic; as they have not created the time investment necessary to build the same level of friendship. As many of us fill our lives with busy work, we do not invest as much time hanging out with our friends. Friendship that used to take a few weeks or months to build can now take multiple years.
There are a few ways to speed up friendship building. One way is to find people of similar values who live or work in close proximity. Proximity enables more frequent impromptu interactions that add up to shared time and experiences. Another way is to proactively seek out or create a group that meets on a frequent basis for a specific purpose, such as a book club or Frisbee team. If possible, pay attention to how you can attract group members who share similar values, not just similar interests.
The last way is to promote opportunity to tackle a challenge as a group. When people spend time supporting one another through tough times, their friendship gets stronger because they see the good and the bad parts of each other. Adversity tests people’s character, revealing people’s true values and vulnerabilities. Instead of planning movie, theater or restaurant gatherings, consider activities that bring more challenges; such as river rafting or volunteering for Habitat for Humanity.
I find that there are two barriers that prevent people from being vulnerable. The first is the fear of judgement - the fear of looking weak or bad. The second is a lack of awareness of what one truly feels – some people have not given themselves the opportunity to feel their feelings and thus, operate in auto-pilot mode.
If being vulnerable does not come easy to you, one way you can practice is by asking other people questions that solicit vulnerability, such as “What is something you desire in your life? What fear do you have around it?” If the person responds vulnerably, you will feel more comfortable being vulnerable yourself too. If the other person is not ready to be vulnerable, you can find some comfort in knowing that you are not the only one who feels afraid to be seen, and decide if you want to be vulnerable anyway.
The more we accept how we feel, the more we will perceive other people to be accepting of us. The more we accept and love ourselves, the easier it becomes to be vulnerable with others.
On the other end of the spectrum, some people have the opposite problem of being vulnerable – they overshare. Their thoughts and emotions pour out of them so much that other people feel overwhelmed by their needs. Unfortunately, their own suffering leaves them no room to be present with other people’s needs and desires. They are living so much in their own world – ruminating in the pains of their past or the worries about their future – they stop participating in the present moment with the other people in front of them.
Friendship is a give and take exchange where both parties create space for each other. When the exchange is unbalanced, the friendship no longer fulfills both parties. Friendship is built by maintaining a balance of sharing one’s own vulnerabilities and staying truly present to the experience of other people.
A good way to check if someone is out of balance is the percentage of airtime they spend talking about themselves, and their past, present or future troubles. If you notice that you often take up more than your fair share of the airtime, ask yourself if you are unintentionally using your friend as a venting bag or a therapist. If so, be kind to yourself and take action to address your pain and fears. Your friends will thank you for taking care of yourself.
An additional note about being present. Many people experience social anxiety. They want to build friendships, but when they show up to make friends, they get nervous. Their nervousness overwhelms their ability to stay present, and it often manifests into overly quiet or overly talkative behaviors. In both cases, their minds are racing with self-doubts and they are trying to cover up their true feelings.
I personally have a tough time managing my own social anxiety when it hits. One suggestion is to bring awareness to it when it happens, and then extend kindness to that part of yourself that feels afraid and anxious. Take a few deep breaths to re-center, let go of the past, bring your attention to the present moment, and see if you can show up more authentically from your heart, instead of your mind.
It’s hard to say goodbye to friends
While some people struggle with making friends and building community, others struggle with saying no or goodbye to friendships that no longer fulfill them. Saying no to something is saying yes to something else. I used to feel bad about cutting ties with people who were my friends, and on some level, I still feel bad. However, our time is limited; and this forces me to be a bit more selective about how I spend my time and who I spend it with. People drift apart in interests, values, and priorities. When one party no longer finds a particular friendship enjoyable and fulfilling, there’s nothing wrong with giving this relationship a bit of healthy distance. Everyone deserves to be happy and free.
On the other hand, if you find that you really treasure your friendship with a particular individual, even though their company no longer energizes you, it probably means you truly love them. When you love someone, you will find the energy within to help them and support them no matter how tough the situation gets. In that case, it is also possible to love your friend unconditionally instead of walking away with disappointment and frustration. You can stand in the space of love and kindness no matter what your friend chooses to do.
Friendship beyond the friendship formula
The friendship formula is a starting recipe for making friends, but it doesn’t include all the reasons why we consider certain friends as family but not others. Even though I personally feel that I have many good friends, there are only a handful of friends whom I consider my family.
I am also not very clear as to how I differentiate good friends from family friends. A friend once told me that his most inner circle of friends are the ones who will take care of his mom if anything happens to him. Another friend said his inner circle includes people whom he would willingly give $5,000 to with no questions asked, and never expect to receive it back.
These two friends inspire me to think about the following questions:
How do I want to define my inner circle?
Who fits into this circle?
What’s so special about these friends that makes them my family?
Would they consider me their family too?
What am I willing to do for them?
Question for you: Who are the people in your inner circle? What are you willing to do for them?