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My close friends keep me grounded, help me stay centred, remind me of what is important and make me laugh, a lot. Good friends are a necessity, particularly in the times we live in. Our everyday lives are hectic, filled with physical and emotional stresses that we increasingly have to deal with in isolation. Social media has taken over our lives and while that means we are connected to more people and have more friends than ever before, we aren’t necessarily connecting with our friends meaningfully.

Saumya Pant, an assistant professor at Ahmedabad’s Mudra Institute of Communications (MICA), who is leading a social media study at the institute, says on email: “At MICA, we have been researching the wide use of Facebook by the youth in India. Our preliminary findings are reinforcing the value of relationships both online and offline. Our research suggests that it seems to be more important to have a few good friends instead of a large network of acquaintances since deep relationships provide a sense of security and foster higher self-esteem, keeping our hearts and minds healthy."

Anjali Chhabria, psychiatrist and founder of counselling centre Mindtemple, Mumbai, agrees. She says on phone, “Interacting with an online friend via social media versus meeting a friend in person is like watching pornography versus engaging in the real thing." In other words, talking to a friend in person or over the phone is qualitatively far superior to a social media interaction when it comes to the impact it has on your happiness and sense of well-being.

A Canadian survey of 5,000 people published online in September found that the number of real-life friends correlated positively with feelings of happiness, irrespective of income, demographic variables and differences in personality. And doubling the number of friends in real life increased happiness as much as a 50% increase in income would achieve. The survey, published in the journal PLoS One, also found that the number of social media friends had absolutely no correlation with subjective well-being or feeling good about yourself, but having real friends, especially if you were single or divorced, did.

Sometimes it isn’t possible to meet a friend face to face. Sometimes friends are a phone call away and that’s fine too, says New Delhi-based psychiatrist Sanjay Chugh. He compares the emotions building in our minds to pressure building up in a pressure cooker. “Friends are like safety valves. Speaking to them over the phone or in person helps to release the emotional build-up and helps keep us on an even and healthy psychological footing."

Staying in touch with close friends appears to play a role in longevity too. Dan Buettner, explorer and educator, has researched the way the world’s healthiest and longest-living people lead their lives with physicians and demographers. In his book, The Blue Zones—9 Lessons For Living Longer From The People Who’ve Lived The Longest, Buettner writes: “Scientific studies suggest that only about 25% of how long we live is dictated by genes, according to the famous studies of Danish twins. The other 75% is determined by our lifestyle and the everyday choices we make."

Buettner has found common ground among five long-lived communities, geographically spread out across the globe though they may be, like the Sardinians of Italy or the Okinawans of Japan. One of those commonalities is ritualized companionship with close friends. He finds that in all these communities where people seem to exude a particular calmness despite the stresses that life brings, there is social connectedness. Okinawans have moais, groups of friends they spend time with every afternoon, and Sardinians finish their work day at the local bar, where they meet friends. These long-lived communities aren’t texting each other regularly or staying in touch via social media; they are taking the time and making the effort to meet each other in a ritualized way.

Recently, a close friend defined friendship in a similar way: “Friends are not just for Facebook likes and Instagram shares. Real-time friendships give us the space to be, just be. And face-to-face interactions with our friends allow us to continue our own process of discovery about ourselves and our lives."

I couldn’t have put it better myself.

Sujata Kelkar Shetty, PhD, writes on public health issues and is a research scientist trained at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, US.

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