Build strong friendships in college

In Shakespeare’s play Hamlet one of his characters named Polonius offers advice to his son Laertes such as “know your friends and choose them wisely.”

This fall we have over 400 freshman students at JBU. Most of you who are freshmen don’t know each other and are experiencing the joy — and for some the trauma — of making new friends. For those of you who are returning upperclassmen, there are hundreds of potentially new friends you can make.

For many years researchers have found that having friends can be a matter of life and death. In the Alameda County Project on Relationships, 7,000 people were followed for over nine years. The researchers found that the most isolated (read friendless) people were three times more likely to die than those with healthy relationships. They found that people with poor health habits but good relationships lived longer than those with good health habits but were isolated or had poor relationships. This caused one person to suggest that it’s better to eat Twinkies with friends than artichoke hearts alone.

A cover story in Scientific American Mind (September/October 2009) documents the importance of involvements in social groups. Memberships in real (as opposed to virtual) social networks make people less susceptible to illnesses, including the common cold, high blood pressure, obesity and mental disorders. Participation in friendships and groups enhances resilience in times of stress, curtails memory loss in the elderly, and enables us to cope better with prejudice or disappointment.

“One of the most important things you’ll take away from your years here at JBU will be the friends that you made…”

The bottom line is that friendships matter. They matter a lot.

Unfortunately, making friends can be difficult, discouraging and scary. Why? For some it’s the fear of looking foolish, feeling awkward or being rejected. Also, there are many people who just don’t know how to make friends. They haven’t had any models. Think about it. Where did you learn how to make friends? 

Being a good friend isn’t that hard. A simple starting place involves being genuine, trustworthy and real. What does it mean to be real? One of my favorite explanations of “real” comes from Marjory Williams in her wonderful book, The Velveteen Rabbit.

“Real isn’t how you are made,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘It’s a thing that happens to you. When a child loves you for a long, long time, not just to play with, but REALLY loves you, then you become Real.’

‘Does it hurt?’ asked the Rabbit.

‘Sometimes,’ said the Skin Horse, for he was always truthful. ‘When you are Real you don’t mind being hurt.’

‘Does it happen all at once, like being wound up,’ he asked, ‘or bit by bit?’

‘It doesn’t happen all at once,’ said the Skin Horse. ‘You become. It takes a long time. That’s why it doesn’t happen often to people who break easily, or have sharp edges, or who have to be carefully kept. Generally, by the time you are Real, most of your hair has been loved off, and your eyes drop out and you get loose in the joints and very shabby. But these things don’t matter at all, because once you are Real you can’t be ugly, except to people who don’t understand.”

One of the most important things you’ll take away from your years here at JBU will be the friends that you made and the relationships you learned how to cultivate. The simple fact is that your friendships and relationship skills will impact your happiness, health and success for the rest of your life. Some of your most precious and treasured memories will involve the times spent with friends. May this new school year be a year of stronger, healthier and happier friendship for each of you as you enjoy your present and invest in your future.

Oliver is the director of the Center for Healthy Relationships. He can be reached at GOliver@jbu.edu