Why We Choose the Friends We Do

What your friends say about you

Have you ever met someone and immediately felt drawn to him or her? It’s as if you have been friends forever, even though you just met. The person feels familiar likely because they embody a lot of your own traits, and, because of that, feels more like an old friend versus a stranger.

There are some friendships that come together organically and require little to no maintenance at all. Then there are some friendships that may have started with great chemistry, but through time and experience, you realize the person is no longer a suitable fit in your life. For me, I have found that the different stages of my life have called for different types of friends along the way.

“Different stages of my life have called for different types of friends along the way.”

When I entered my twenties, I was relieved that I survived the most tumultuous phase of my youth—a period marked by teenage angst, over-dramatization of boy problems, and the fear of getting caught using my sister’s ID to sneak into nightclubs. As a teenager I was desperately trying to craft a sense of identity. Like many girls at that age, I still had not established a strong sense of self. I poured all my attention into perfecting the perception others had of me, obsessing over being popular and pretty above all else. Subconsciously I was vying for validation by association, hoping that being surrounded by the cool kids would make me feel accepted and important. But my 20s would be the beginning of a new era, a decade where my attention would shift from focusing on the packaging on the outside to finding what would make me strong and beautiful from the inside. This included pursuing a career, giving back to the community, and determining what values would be my compass while I navigated my new spiritual and professional path.

I found that as my interests and priorities changed, so did my friends. As I became clear on my values, I knew I wanted to surround myself with people who also had a similar approach to life. Is the attraction to certain friends a matter of chance and timing? Or is there a deeper scientific and psychological influence at play? Here are a few insights I have learned along the way:

We are attracted to those who mirror our social identity

Studies show we choose friends that we cross paths with regularly, and are relatively close geographically speaking. Neighbors, coworkers, people at the gym… these are all likely candidates for friends just because of their proximity and regularity. However, what causes us to develop a closer bond with one person over another? It appears that vulnerability and reciprocity are important ingredients to bonding.

“Vulnerability and reciprocity are important ingredients to bonding.”

The transition from acquaintanceship to friendship is typically characterized by an increase in both the breadth and depth of self-disclosure, explains sociologist and author Beverley Fehr. In the early stages of friendship, this tends to be a gradual, reciprocal process. One person takes the risk of disclosing personal information and then ‘tests’ whether the other reciprocates.

You are a sum of the company you keep

It was evident that the people I surrounded myself with had a direct effect on my energy, and even my behavior. One of my closest friends had a habit of chronically complaining. I noticed that every time I spent time with her, I would be complaining and feeling cynical about the world. I subconsciously mirrored her negative attitude in order to connect and bond with her. But after a while, I realized that my typical cheery self was turning into a grumpy pessimist. And that’s not how I wanted to live. That is when I realized that I could still love and care for my friends and family, but that didn’t necessarily mean they should automatically be a part of my immediate peer group.

Data suggests that groups of friends ‘infect’ each other, influencing perceptions of socially acceptable behavior and the benchmark of what constitutes normal. For example, a pair of social scientists named Nicholas Christakis and James Fowler analyzed data from more than 12,000 people examining the power of influence among peers. They discovered that smoking spread socially – in fact, the chance of lighting up increased by 36 percent if a friend smoked.

“Studies show that friends infect each other. In fact,  each additional happy friend boosts our levels of happiness by nine percent.”

Not only can friends have an impact on one’s health, but they also affect happiness levels. Christakis and Fowler suggest that the subconscious nature of emotional mirroring means that the brain automatically mimics what we see in the faces of people who surround us. They also note that much of one’s own cheerful disposition comes from having frequent exposure to moments of contagious happiness with others. When we are regularly seeing other people smile, our mood is affected because we are subconsciously mirroring their emotional state. In fact, according to their statistical analysis, each additional happy friend boosts our levels of happiness by nine percent.

Be intentional with the type of people you want to attract

We devote time and energy into creating business plans, plotting out career goals and fantasizing about the ideal romantic partner we want to attract. However, when it comes to one of the most influential factors of our lives, our peer group, we often have a tendency to just go with the flow. I will not deny that many great friendships have come together in my life organically and naturally. However, I also respect the power of being intentional with all your relationships, whether that be business, romantic or platonic relationships.

I meet people serendipitously but the ones that stay in my life now are not by chance. I no longer make friends by accident, a method that once worked when my standards for a new friend consisted mainly of who would make the best wing-woman. Back in the day when I only had homework,weekend parties and a part-time job to worry about, I had an infinite amount of free time. Fast forward to today—I have an exponential amount of responsibilities, and time has become a precious resource. Just as I plan out my schedule for work, exercise and hobbies, I also prioritize time for friends. Time is a commodity, and with a limited amount to disperse among a busy and active life, I must be mindful of how and where I spend it. Today, I am intentional with my friendships. I now take a mindful approach to the types of friends I want to make and maintain.

Evaluate. Edit. Evolve.

Just like in romantic relationships, there is also chemistry that exists between friends. It’s only through time and experiencing ups and downs together that you learn if there is also compatibility with the person. And that’s what really makes a great friend—it’s the perfect mix of chemistry and compatibility. Recognize these souls when they come into your life. Hold on to them. Invest in them. These are the special ones who will make footprints on your heart. Choose your tribe wisely. Be intentional with the company you keep. And while you’re at it, have the courage and the intention to be a good friend to those who choose you.

3 Comments

  • Reply January 24, 2015

    Chris

    I agree, you always choose people who are similar to you.

  • Reply February 24, 2016

    Ashton

    I really enjoyed this post. I’m currently writing a post about choosing to be in friendships that effect you negatively as well as positively. I thought a lot about why we keep certain friends who aren’t allowing us to grow as an individual. Your blog is great – I think you’d enjoy my post on Love as well – http://www.ashtonpaigesmith.com/l-o-v-e/

    I’d love to ask you a few questions on your work if you have the time.

    Sincerely,
    Ashton Paige

  • Reply January 25, 2017

    krisp

    TBH, I think close family relationships have a lot to do with it, too.

    You are familiar with certain types of people and certain types of behavior because it feels familiar. I was raised by a narcissist mother and a narc-enabler father who were both alcoholics. My best friend was also raised by a narc Mom. We have something in common and have the same wounds.

    A former good friend of mine was horribly narcissistic. I didn’t realize it until I really started analyzing our relationship and communication styles – and I know how to handle her because she’s just like my mom.

    I come from a family of alcoholics and know how to handle the behavior and understand the crazy. So much so that I feel like alcoholics both in and out of recovery and I go together like peanut butter and jelly. I’ve been sober for a long time, but it never fails that the person I end up talking to at a party (or working for, or dating) is either an active or recovering alcoholic.

    I have to consciously monitor why I chose the friends I do. It is good for me to ask the same questions I would ask when dating someone including: “Is this the right relationship for me to hold on to? Can I trust this person? Do I feel like they have my back? Am I choosing yes?”

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