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not having a best friend might actually be better for your mental health

A recent study found that 30% of millennials don't have a best friend. But maybe we're all happier without one?

by Douglas Greenwood
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08 August 2019, 7:15am

When it comes to friendship, human beings are fantasists. We either think the world of people who couldn’t give a shit about us or find ourselves putting someone’s messages on blast because they come across a little too eager when we barely know them. In a social media driven world, the dynamics that define who’s a mate and who’s not are increasingly impossible to decipher.

A recent study by YouGov found that the rate of loneliness amongst millennials and Gen Z is at an all time high; a quarter of the former even attest to having no friends at all. According to the report approximately 30% of millennials don’t have a best friend.

The knee-jerk reaction to that statistic is one of sadness. But, when considering another study found that nearly a third of us grow apart from our best friend as we grow older, maybe eradicating the idea of them being necessary could have a positive effect on our lives, rather than the negative assumption we seem to swarm to? After all, isn’t relying on having one shoulder to cry on a little limiting when social media has given us infinite opportunities to befriend almost anyone -- even if that platform’s added baggage is a neat dose of anxiety, body dysmorphia and depression? Are there really no positives to having 100 friends rather than one?

“It can be positive, depending on how you cultivate them,” says Gurpreet Singh, a counsellor at Relate, a charity that provides relationship support throughout the United Kingdom. That we struggle to separate quality relationships from Facebook friends and “acquaintances” is the biggest thing that gets in the way of that. “We’re social beings that should all be connected,” he adds, “and of course, having a lot of friends can be a good thing. The downside of that is if you have [lots of] friends -- how can you cultivate quality relationships?”

Defining quality in a world of likes, follows and fleeting encounters IRL can be hard. After all, the very nature of social connection has changed substantially in the past 10 years. More than ever, we’re meeting friends and partners online and those relationships aren’t automatically of lesser quality because we didn’t meet in the real world.

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Photography Petra Collins for Me and You

Obviously, it’s possible to have both a best friend and wider friendship group too, but isn’t the idea of putting all of your mates into a tiered system just a bit weird? Prioritising people by how long you’ve known them or how much you have in common might seem like standard practise, but that old fashioned way of thinking -- one that hasn’t changed much with the advent of the internet -- means we lose out on the opportunity to learn from new people and experience things in the same way. Being joined at the hip to anybody, feeling like you owe them something, surely sets us back in the long term.

It’s worth clarifying that I believe in the idea of ‘best friends’ in some capacity. It’s important in your formative years to embed yourself into the life of a single person and have them embed their life into yours, but it’s equally okay to grow up and grow apart a little. Those formative figures in your life become de facto blood relatives; part of your architecture. They’re important, but you learn to live with them at a distance. Nowadays, the two dozen friends I met online and talk to most days aren’t worthless in comparison to the person I’ve known and loved for years but barely see anymore.

So is it healthy to live your life with just one person at the forefront of your mind? It all comes down to who that best friend is, psychotherapist and counsellor Samantha de Bono believes. “Just like with intimate relationships, we can unconsciously pick our friends, and these can be healthy or unhealthy depending on our emotional wellbeing,” she claims. If we were to find ourselves in a toxic friendship that took up all of our time, it would say a lot about our understanding of our own self worth. “A desperate people-pleaser is just as likely to unconsciously pick a narcissistic friend as he/she is to pick a narcissistic boyfriend or girlfriend.”

That being said, the idea of best friends isn’t totally dead yet. Generation Z are forward thinking, but they also have a habit of recontextualising the past. Author Chloe Combi wrote a whole book -- Generation Z: Their Voices, Their Lives -- about them. She believes that young people today are still, on the whole, invested in the idea of having one person they know they can always turn to. “How friendship groups operate, what they look like and how they function has completely transformed from even five or ten years ago,” she concurs, “but there is an intransigence to the role and symbol of the 'best friend’ which [Gen Zers find] quite comforting.”

Maybe the notion of accumulating large friend groups is simply a byproduct of modern anxiety; as bad an idea as it is good. We can build up masses of so-called acquaintances to fall back on, preparing for social disaster should our closest homie fall out with us or move on. But I guess everything around us is precarious now -- even the positions of the people whose presence once felt infallible. In a world plagued by adversity and beefs and inevitable fall-outs, isn’t it better for your head to share your love with a hundred people rather than one? So if you’ve found yourself surrounded by an endless array of cool online friends but think you don’t have a standalone soul to rely on, you need not worry. The puzzle pieces of your friendship group sort of join together to create one massive best friend anyway, comprised of a hundred conversations rather than one.