What Is a Good Friend and How Do They Affect Mental Health


While BFF accessories—like broken-heart best-friend necklaces and the colorful hand-braided stringed bracelet fruits of summer-camp labor—may be nostalgic relics of childhood, an emphasis on the importance of best friendship throughout life certainly persists in mainstream pop culture. Watch any TV show or movie focused on a character’s interpersonal life (so, basically most movies and TV shows), and there’s often an underlying message that you should have one or several friends who are the absolute best. It’s a trope played out in everything from Friends and Entourage to Younger and Insecure—heck, even the recent crime drama Mare of Easttown features a storyline about what best friendship means amid the complications of adulthood. The list of examples is really quite endless.

The acceptance and, frankly, glorification of best friendship is so engrained that we even have a National Best Friends Day, which, back in 1935, Congress sanctioned to fall on every June 8th. So knowing all of this, I began wondering during a recent social media scroll through other people’s highlight reels—many of which included imagery of their supposed best friendships—whether not having a best friend makes me… weird. I’ve been fortunate enough to always have friends, but not one, two, or three that resemble what I see in all the TV shows I watch. I have “going out” friends, deep-conversation friends, work friends, tennis-playing friends, but not a single partner or tight-knit clique with whom I do it all.

Am I damaging my mental health by not having a best friend? Am I otherwise missing out on something? To help me figure it out, I reached out to two renowned psychologists focused on friendship for their insight.

Friendship was a hot topic on one recent episode of The Well+Good Podcast. Listen to find out why two friends went to therapy together in an effort to save their friendship—and whether it worked:

To be clear, having *a* friend is important

Making friends as an adult—best friends or otherwise—isn’t easy. It’s certainly something I worried about when I moved to an entirely new city. For some people, there can certainly be an inclination to not try at all, focusing instead on solo activities that make you feel warm and fuzzy from within the confines of your comfort zone. That said, Marisa Franco, PhD, psychologist, friendship expert, and author of the forthcoming book Platonic says having at least one friend (whether it’s a “best” friend or not) can help protect you against isolation and loneliness—two experiences science links to sub-optimal mental and physical health.

“Having one quality friendship can be important for mental health, but diversifying your network to have different types of friends can be beneficial, too.” —Marisa Franco, PhD

But how many close friends is the magic number? It’s a question Dr. Franco says she gets asked a lot. “It’s not about the number of friends that’s important, but the quality of the friendships,” she says. “Having one quality friendship can be important for mental health, but diversifying your network to have different types of friends can be beneficial, too.”

A perk of several close friends instead of just one, she says, is that it lessens the expectations we do place on one friend, as one person can so rarely meet all our needs. On a 2013 episode of The Mindy Project, Mindy Kaling’s character said “a best friend isn’t a person…it’s a tier,” and it’s a proclamation that resonates with Dr. Franco. “We don’t have these formal ceremonies where we commit to a best friend like we do a partner, so there aren’t the same type of expectations placed on one person,” she says. But whether it’s one friend or a tier, Dr. Franco emphasizes that it’s the quality of the friendship that counts most.

What constitutes a best friend?

It isn’t always easy to know what separates a casual friendship from the quality friendships Dr. Franco references. “When I surveyed women for my book, Best Friends Forever: Surviving a Breakup With Your Best Friend , people had a hard time defining a ‘best friend’ but so many of them explained that it was a person with whom they just ‘clicked,’” says psychologist Irene Levine, PhD. “Communication was easy and uncomplicated; these friends were able to understand one another and be their true selves with one another.”

Dr. Franco says a quality friendship comes down to the answer of this question: Who will be there when you need them? “It’s the idea that when you’re in a time of need, this friend really shows up for you,” she says, adding that going-out friends, work friends, mentors—all these types of relationships have value. But having someone to rely on when you need them is a very specific type of need.

Can a partner be a best friend?

Many people in a romantic relationship deem their life or romantic partner as the person who meets this need, and it isn’t unusual for people to say their partner is their “best friend.” And, according to Dr. Franco, that makes perfect sense and is a healthy assertion for those whom it applies. “Research shows that if you consider your partner your best friend, you are twice as happy in your relationship than if you don’t consider your partner your best friend. But your partner shouldn’t be your only friend.”

Dr. Levine agrees. “Although [your partner being your only friend] might suggest a healthy marital relationship—unless it is overly possessive—[people] who have no other friends are missing out on an opportunity. [People] can share thoughts and problems with each other that might be impossible to discuss with [their partner].”

In addition to being there for you in a time of need, Dr. Franco says there’s something else that good-quality friendships have: mutuality. Yes, there are times in friendships when one person needs the other a bit more, but she says that overall, a friendship should feel equal.

Where pop-culture comes up short in portraying friendship

While Dr. Levine and Dr. Franco agree having a friend you can count on when things get tough—no matter whether you call them a best friend or not—is beneficial for mental health, they agree there’s no magic number beyond one. Furthermore, the terminology doesn’t matter so much as the quality of the friendship in question and how it fulfills you.

With this in mind, there are positives to take away from media portrayals of friendship. Most notably, they tend to emphasize the value that both experts say is so important. But, both caveat that depictions are often romanticized, which can perpetuates unrealistic expectations for what a best friendship should look like. (And that component is part of what led me to question my own relationships.) “In real life, not all friendships are perfect and not all friendships—even very good ones—last forever,” Dr. Levine says.

Dr. Franco agrees. “In pop culture, you often only see the friendships portrayed when they’re going smoothly—unless a conflict is part of the plot,” she says. To her point, rarely do you see lulls in friendships in pop culture: periods of time when friends don’t talk as much because they’re busy or the nights spent home alone separately, just catching up on some quality “me” time.

Maybe hearing the experts’ thoughts on best friendship has you feeling pretty good because you can think of one or a few people who you would call during a hard time (or someone who has already proved this to you). If you don’t have any friends you  close enough to ask for help, perhaps it’s a sign to consider how you can invest more in the casual friendships you already have in order to establish deeper bonds—or ways to branch out and meet new potential friends. Of course, quality friendships take time to build, but like anything, it all starts with a single action.

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