Often neglected and rarely appreciated, the need for human connection is essential for survival. This is most easily seen through the friends we make.

With that, I’m honored to share what I’ve learned, as a psychologist and daughter, about the importance of friendship.

At 83 years old, my father passed away on April 20 of this year. His passing left me without the guidance I’d become dependent upon, even beyond childhood. He served 30 years in active duty in the military, and another 17 years with the U.S. Department of Defense. Because he was quite an imposing figure, I never understood why everyone liked my dad. But, as I grew older, I realized that it was because he liked everyone.

In other words, he knew how to be a friend to all.

As a small child in a foreign country, I watched my father effortlessly navigate language barriers and cultural divides to make a difference in the lives of others. He never met a stranger. He would belly laugh as we left Clark Air Force Base (ironically, the base entrance was called Friendship Gate). In the Philippines, troops in tow, he’d rebuild Nipa huts destroyed by typhoons. And even as I was growing into adulthood, I watched him connect with people all over the world. My father knew how to be a friend across communities, generations and continents.

My father used to say, “When the character of a man is not clear to you, look at his friends.” This is especially true because we are the products of our surroundings. And while friendship is a universal concept, we often take for granted its power in cultivating our sense of identity and belonging.

The primary ways friendship can help maintain your mental health and increase your quality of life are by:

  • Offering a source of support and encouragement
  • Reminding you that you are not alone during difficult times
  • Aiding you through trauma, illness and loss
  • Reducing stress responses and cortisol levels
  • Curbing the damaging effects of loneliness and isolation
  • Increasing your self-worth and confidence
  • Giving you the reality check that you might need in order to avoid unhealthy habits

All these benefits make it crucial to sustain our most cherished friendships. Admittedly, maintaining connections may sometimes appear as a significant time commitment and effort. However, it can be done. In the case of friendship, quality is far more important than quantity. It doesn’t take 100 friends to keep your mental well-being afloat. More importantly, if we consider the magnitude of the joy and comfort that a few of our friendships bring, the less demanding the investment will seem. It is a worthwhile investment nonetheless.

And because of this investment, we must remember that friendships require a healthy amount of give and take. To nurture a friendship is to both give and receive support. We can strengthen our friendships by reminding our friends that we care about them and appreciate them. Here are some ways:

  • Express kindness and gratitude
  • Let them share their experiences with you
  • Show empathy when they do share
  • Open up and share your own experiences
  • Make time for them
  • Be mindful in times of conflict

Fundamentally, it is the most important friendships that stand outside of achievement, romance, money, religion and reputation. When all of those factors are set aside, so is the fear of judgement. And that is exactly what we need to keep us grounded. And, to do so, who better than our closest friends?

The first Friday of June was National Best Friend Day. And sure, there are many cynics who easily pooh-pooh the idea of having a day dedicated to friendship. But you have to admit that life is a bleak, dusty desert if you have no friends.

Friends can make your Monday mornings better at work, but then also make your weekends worth looking forward to. They are informal venues of learning. Through such venues, humans gain many of the life experiences, information and support that they need. Often times, friends become closer than family members. They are the shoulders you unashamedly cry on, the cushioning you need when the whole world feels against you, or the voice that calms you down after a fight with your mother or significant other. Essentially, they are the pool of optimism when your chips are down, and the saviors in your moments of complete despair. Sometimes, they are the reason you’re alive today.

So there is no denying that friendships constitute the emotional safety net from which we draw strength, regain hope in life, and derive hours of unadulterated happiness.

In the words of the Beatles, “I get by with a little help from my friends.” And also my dad.

By Susan L. Shackelford, Ph.D.