Sunday, December 10, 2023

What makes a friend best?

| June 6, 2023 1:00 AM

Decades of research, and common sense, indicate that the better the quality of our close relationships, the more likely we are to be happy.

Perhaps that’s why in 1935 Congress declared June 8 as National Best Friends Day (not to be confused with National Friendship Day, the first Sunday in August). Make that all of North America; Canada also celebrates Best Friends Day unofficially June 8.

What makes a friend “best” is a matter of opinion. For some, it’s shared history. For others, it’s a level of compatibility that means you never tire of a person, and they “get” you. And the longer life goes on, “best” tends to mean the one most trusted and most easily confided in.

Friendship isn’t friendship if it isn’t two-way. One has to be a good friend in order to keep one; anything less balanced is certainly selfish and potentially exploitative. Whether being a good friend or looking for one, experts published in Psychology Today say the essential character traits of true friends fall into three critical categories: integrity, caring and congeniality.

Integrity. Regardless of culture or personality, this is the core list in any close relationship: trust, honesty, dependability and loyalty. As an interrelated function of those, integrity also includes the ability of that friend to trust other people (a suspicious nature tends to erode the other traits).

Trustworthiness tends to be the biggie. Any perceived breach of trust between two friends, even those considered small by one side, can devastate if not end a relationship. Think of trustworthiness as the umbrella comprised of the other components, honesty, dependability and loyalty.

According to psychologists, honesty requires speaking openly, from the heart, and — here’s a tricky one — objectively. That includes saying things that are hard to say, and hearing what’s hard to hear, to help friends be honest with themselves.

Being dependable isn’t just saying “yes” when asked. It also means follow-through, actually doing what and when we say we will. Sometimes, it’s taking the initiative when friends can’t act for themselves, especially when it’s unpleasant or time-consuming.

What loyalty looks like isn’t perceived the same way by everyone, but we all feel it. Everyone needs friends who won’t reveal the content of conversations or spread gossip, whether or not “don’t tell anyone” is actually expressed. With a close friend (especially a partner), it’s understood. Loyalty also means standing up for or warning a friend when someone else is critical of them or ill-intentioned.

Sharing in friendship leaves us all vulnerable. A modern way of putting this is that being able to rely on the integrity of others helps us be authentic.

Caring. As obvious as it seems, caring is something many people tend to assume of every relationship, without necessarily assessing others’ capacity for it. Caring includes empathy, being nonjudgmental, effective listening skills and support.

Reliably expressing caring traits requires a high degree of self-awareness, self-discipline and unconditional love.

Empathy is the ability to understand and recognize how a friend is feeling, from a depth as if one is experiencing it oneself — but through the friend’s eyes, and not filtered by our own perceptions (hence, non-judgmental). That’s where self-awareness becomes very important.

Good listening skills foster full communication of intimate thoughts, feelings and major experiences, something every human being needs as bottling it up affects physical as well as mental health. This means developing the self-discipline to listen to understand, not just wait for a turn to respond.

True friends show support in good times and bad, often regardless of what they’re going through. In addition to sympathy, caring means celebrating and being truly happy for another’s good fortune, without resentment or jealousy.

Congeniality. Best friends tend to help us enjoy life as it is. While a congenial personality generally just means friendly or pleasant, articles by psychologists describe three elements of congeniality: self-confidence, the ability to see the humor in life and being fun (or at least pleasant) to be around. The same traits also correspond with overall well-being and happiness.

Why self-confidence? It tends to foster trust, plus it’s contagious.

The ability to enjoy oneself is just as contagious, the same way misery tends to spread. Man is a social being and our behaviors impact one another, so even when we consciously try otherwise, it’s human nature to be drawn to one and avoid high doses of the other (as tragic as that is for folks feeling down). Life is hard sometimes for each of us, so being around folks who nevertheless enjoy living, handle challenges in proactive ways and keep negative experiences in perspective can help lighten the load.

Sometimes, the best friendship is the one that creates that feeling, when it otherwise wouldn’t be there.

Does your best friend make you laugh? The positive impacts of humor (whether deliberate or easily come by) on relationships as well as physical and mental health are extensively documented by research. The best friends are often those who help lighten the load, keeping each other from taking life or themselves too seriously.

Finally, there’s something to be said for being one’s own best friend by holding true to the same traits. We need others, but as they say, if you don’t love yourself, it’s hard for others to do the same.

“You can always tell when two people are best friends because they’re having way more fun than it makes sense for them to be having.” — Unknown

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Sholeh Patrick is a columnist for the Hagadone News Network. Email

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