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By Eric Barker
March 14, 2014

Friendship is a good thing. That’s hardly front-page news — but somehow we all forget how important it is.

We take friends for granted. As we raise families we neglect friends. We don’t put in the effort to make and keep friends.

And the problem is growing. In 1985 most people said they had 3 close friends. In 2004 the most common number was zero.

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This is sad, and for more reasons than you might expect. We need friends to keep us healthy. Lack of social support predicts all causes of death.

Having few friends is more dangerous than obesity and is the equivalent health risk of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

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You need friends for self-knowledge — because your friends often know more about you than you do.

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And friends make you happier than pretty much anything else in life.

Got three friends at work? You’re 96% more likely to be extremely satisfied with your life.

Happiness is contagious. Happy friends boost your chance of happiness by 15%. Unhappy friends decrease it by 7%.

Each additional friend means two fewer days of feeling lonely every year. Family members don’t even move the needle here.

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Having a friend you see on most days is the happiness equivalent of an extra 100K a year.

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Marriage And Kids Aren’t Enough

Researchers have been seeing a trend: increasingly, people expect to get all their social needs met by their spouse or partner.

This is a prescription for disaster. It’s too much pressure for a spouse and there’s much that we can only get from friends.

Nobel Prize winner David Kahneman did research showing time with friends is more enjoyable than time with spouses or children.

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Not that there’s anything wrong with spouses and kids but time with friends does not involve the same responsibilities — and we all need a break.

Beyond that, time with friends as a couple has been shown to improve long term relationships.

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And You Will Lose Friends

Within seven years, half of your close friends will not be around anymore.

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So if you want to keep close friends in your life, it’ll take some effort. But what do you need to do?

Here’s what some of the latest research has to say.

What To Do

Most importantly, make the time.

What are the most common friendship fights about? Time commitments.

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This is also the part of friendship that makes us happiest — doing things together.

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Mere proximity — being nearby, is one of the most powerful drivers of friendship — far more than personality. So be around.

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What else do you need to do? Be patient. If you’re not willing to be bored sometimes, you can’t have friends.

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Be flexible. Having social skills means adapting to your environment, not stubbornly “being who you are.”

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And this one is key: Support the person’s view of themselves and make them feel good about their pursuits.

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My theory on this: be a cheerleader for your friends.

Be their biggest fan.

This is what we all want from our friends. And the more you give it, the more you will get it yourself.

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This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.

Contact us at editors@time.com.

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