Since its founding in 2008, Facebook has garnered 1.23 billion active users. The world’s largest and most definitive social network has reprogrammed social relations in an incredible way. It has also changed the way we view certain social terms—like friend. Facebook makes the acquisition of friends into a sort-of running contest, a numbers game.
Some users have thousands of “friends”. But what do those friendships really mean? How has our online experience altered the way we view social interaction? And, of course, has it made us any happier?
We can look to social science for a relatively simple answer. Human happiness and physical well-being are directly impacted by friendship. But what kind of friendship? Certainly not the cursory, surface-level kind we find on various social networks, which reward us with tiny bits of information and interactions, but leave a lot to be desired in way of real-life contact. In 2010, researchers at Brigham Young University and UNC Chapel Hill conducted a study consisting of 300,000 random participants. It found that those with “poor social connections” were 50% more prone to early death and disease than those with strong social relations.
The key word here is strong. A person can have as many “friends” as they want online, or refer to as many associates and acquaintances as “friends” as they please, but just labeling something as a “friendship” doesn’t necessarily mean quality social contact. Longevity, physical well-being, and general happiness are vastly improved the old fashioned way: by keeping a quality group of close confidants.
Friendship doesn’t just mean awareness of one another’s existence or perceived image; it means consistent listening, empathy, sympathy, conversation—even conflict (and resolution). We find real physical benefits from real physical interactions.
Another regularly cited study supporting this found that the psychological stress and stagnation caused by social isolation vastly increased the risk of death for patients with coronary artery disease. And so here we have the double-edged sword: in this age—the first age that has made us capable of surviving a scientifically-engineered, fully isolated, sedentary lifestyle—science has also proven that such a lifestyle is deadly. Checks and balances.
Contrary to such findings, social isolation has, statistically, tripled in recent decades, a change that can likely be explained by a more technically automated world. The average number of confidants a person had in 1985 was around 3. The average in 2004 was 2. Where are we headed if we aren’t mindful of being actively social creatures?
Friendship is, plainly and simply, what life should be all about. It’s the basis of compassionate love, the way we find kinship with strangers, the oldest and most reliable form of therapeutic activity.
Instead of isolating ourselves and inflating our numbers of false friends with technology, it’s important to return to a place of organic social growth. How did people meet one another before we became so prone to isolation? They went out. They found hobbies. They discovered friends in the workplace. This requires taking the risk of reaching out, a risk with virtually zero negative side-effects. Instead of “networking” and “adding friends” try to practice mindful social interactions. In meditation, we find compassion and calmness, traits that can draw other people in. Instead of ignoring these benefits, we can make the most of them, live longer, and make others deeply happy in the process.
The author of this post is an editorial contributor to Headspace. These are their views, experiences and results and theirs alone. This contributor was paid for their writing.