in Life Optimization

Recipe for a Bestie: What makes for a best friend?

From Steve Baker on flickr

In college, I spent a lot of time with the same people who weren’t my friends. There was no hate, but little love – at best we shared comfortable companionship. Why, then, did we spend so much time together?

We all loved rugby. And that was enough. We joked around on the pitch together, partied hard together, and hit other teams hard together. I will always have fond memories of my rugby teammates. That said, since then I have fallen out of touch with all of them, and I doubt any will be at my wedding, nor vice versa. We spent time together for the sake of rugby, not for the sake of each other. We were blatantly using each other, but it was fun!

Why were we all okay with this? Any relationship predicated on using someone else sounds destined for disaster. Think of using a friend for sex, for money, or their network. These are widely regarded as unhealthy or inauthentic relationships. But my rugby mates all used each other, and we enjoyed it. What’s the difference, and what makes a relationship healthy?

Friends Don’t Use Each Other

Maybe it’s meeting mutual desires. In a relationship, emotion has to go both ways. If I use you to get something and you end up worse off, you won’t like me. If I use you and you end up no different, you don’t care. But if I use you and you end up better off, it would imply that you used me to get something as well. So if both parties want the same thing, then it could still work out.

Think about drinking partners, friends with benefits, or a gold digger trophy wife married to a rich businessman. Everyone is using each other (for someone to drink with, screw with, or spend money with), but both parties are aware of the state of affairs. The relationship is sound, if not healthy.

You probably uphold relationships like this. The people you spend time with in actuality don’t line up perfectly with the people you want to spend time with. You tolerate them at work to get a salary, at home to split the rent, or on the subway because you’re both going the same direction. But you’re not spending your weekends with your fellow commuters. You choose to spend time with other people who satisfy you emotionally, not just the ones that share your needs. (though hopefully some of your coworkers, et al, satisfy that – otherwise that’s a dull life indeed.)

Friends Are People You Want To Spend Time With

What, then, constitutes a true friend? It’s such mundane word that we hardly stop to think about what it really means. Google saysa person whom one knows and with whom one has a bond of mutual affection, typically exclusive of sexual or family relations“, but I’ll shorten that to “a person whom one enjoys spending time with, regardless of sex or family“, since that’s what you do with people you know and like – spend time together.

Thus the question becomes: how does one know whose company they will enjoy? Why spend time with a specific person over another, or instead of being alone? Why do we like the people we like? As the above examples illustrate, there are good and bad reasons to like a person. Any relationship founded on using the other for some purpose, even shared,  is less than ideal.

A true friendship, then, is one where each party enjoys the other for who they are, not what they do. A friend is someone you can be yourself around, without worry. You don’t have to exaggerate or diminish your personality in order to accommodate their personality. Both are already in harmony.

It reminds me of a quote I come across while job hunting: “A good job is one that doesn’t require you to leave your personality at home.“ A good job, like a good relationship, lets you be who you already are – just with others! Your personality doesn’t have to change.

Friends Do Things You Like

However, what is a personality if not a reflection of all the things that person likes to do? The people on my rugby team who I enjoyed the most were the ones I shared interests with beyond rugby. Looking at my all time best friends, we all have shared interests in the same pastimes. That’s what make a good friend – one who enjoys doing your favorite activities with you. Even getting together over drinks and talking is an activity. You like them, you like what they do, and you like being with them doing what you both like. But a friendship is more than a critical mass of mutually enjoyable pastimes. Let’s dig deeper.

There are people whose company I used to enjoy, and have since grown apart. But I still like spending time with them, reliving shared histories and past glories. People from previous parts of your life tend to fall in this category: high school friends, college friends, or friends from abroad all share powerful histories with you, but chances are you are a different person than you were then.

In small doses, you’re still happy to see them. My couch is always open to visiting friends from the past, but I hardly ever see those of them who live nearby, Meanwhile I make regular efforts to see the people who I still enjoy – those are my current friends, as opposed to past friends.

Friends Believe What You Believe

So we’ve covered past friends and present friends. What about a future friend? It cannot be someone that I plan to enjoy activities with, because I have no way of know who such people are. How do I know if they will jive with my personality? You have to trust that their personality is one that you would get along with.

What is a personality, if not the sum of all personal convictions held, both consciously and unconsciously? Such convictions, in the form of principles, values, or mannerisms, determine how one chooses to spend one’s time. And how one spends one’s time is how they spend their life. (Sometimes actions don’t line up with the theory, as with hypocrites, but that lack of integrity reflects a principle in itself.)

A future friend, then, is someone who you trust, because their principles align with your own. Their principles determine what they will do in a given situation, and how much they overlap with your own determines how likely you are to enjoy that potential time with them. Future friendships might be composed mostly of talking together, waxing together about mutual theories or dreams.

You might enjoy someone who doesn’t believe what you believe, because if you respect their underlying principles, the smaller parts don’t matter as much. Such a person can keep you honest, and living according to your own principles. It is only when one’s principles are in direct conflict with someone else’s that a friendship cannot occur – because you disagree about how to spend your time. There’s not reason to befriend a person you don’t like, who doesn’t like what you like.

Recipe For a Bestie – Find Shared Values!

These are the people you should fill your life with, the ones with the potential for healthy, emotionally satisfying friendships:

  • People who have done stuff you’ve done. (history alignment)
  • People who do stuff you do. (activity alignment)
  • People who want to do the stuff you want to. (value alignment)

In my experience this holds up – the strongest relationships I’ve had are people who line up well on one of these aspects. My best friends fit all three, since we keep spending time together doing things we like, which satisfies the present and past aspects. Therefore the recipe for a bestie is to look for shared values

Here’s how to find such people:  think about the activities you enjoy, and think about how you want to spend your time in the future. Do those things socially, and you will find others who share your interests. The more abstract the activity, the more likely you share values with that person rather than a transient interest in the activity at hand.

For example, most people join urban intramural dodgeball teams in order to meet other young professionals, not out of an innate love for dodgeball. But people join Toastmasters because they want to get better at public speaking, and if they make friends along the way, all the better. There’s a difference, and Toastmasters aligns more with future values than the current need for an urban friend, which leads to better quality friends, assuming you value public communication. If you prefer sports to talking, by all means, your friends will be at the dodgeball league.

And you can always do an activity just to meet people in the now- there’s nothing wrong with that. You’re just less likely to meet friends who will fully satisfy you emotionally. No amount of friends of convenience, past flames, or sports-only friends will fill your relationship quotient. You need real, good, close friends for that – friends you can trust and be yourself with.  And that comes from shared values.