Graduation from college, a joyful wedding, the devastating death of a parent, the birth of a child, a son's communion or bar mitzvah celebration, a well-deserved promotion -- these are the milestones often shared with a best friend over the years of one's life.
Other friends may serve as confidants about a recent romantic interest or breakup, a fight with your mother, the angst over the five pounds you gained over the holidays or your worst fears about getting older. Given that friends serve as witnesses to our lives and evolution, while providing needed support and cheering as we navigate life's challenges and welcome its successes, it's easy to see why we value them so much.
Just listen to the philosopher Aristotle. He said: "In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of mischief; they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds."
Friendships are crucial to our well-being. In fact, research shows that children with friends have better self-esteem, a more positive sense of well-being and less social problems as adults than those individuals without friends.
Additionally, studies indicate that people with close friendships have stronger hearts and healthier immune systems, and are at lower risk less for depression and anxiety.
Tom Rath, author of "Vital Friends: The People you Can't Afford to Live Without" conducted an expansive study that resulted in the following statistics: Married people report that friendship is more than five times as important as physical intimacy within marriage.
If your best friend eats healthily, you are five times more likely to do the same. Those who state that they have no true friends at work have only a one in 12 chance of feeling engaged in their job. In contrast, if you have a "best friend at work" you are seven times more likely to feel engaged in your job.
The connections of friendship can also improve your feelings of self-worth, help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, illness, job loss or the loss of someone you love, boost happiness, and increase a sense of purpose and belonging.
The importance of friendship was confirmed in the Nurses Health Study, a large-scale analysis of nurses in the United States. Women with breast cancer who could name ten friends had four times more chance of surviving their illness than women who could not.
The geographical proximity of these friendships was not significant: their protective effect seemed to stem from the simple fact of feeling connected.
Developing meaningful friendships takes effort but it's an investment in your mental and physical health.
The good news is there are so many ways to engage people and develop friendships.
Try volunteering locally, stepping out with your dog at a popular dog park, inviting an acquaintance to share a meal, pursuing a hobby as part of a hobby group, exercising with others at a local gym or community fitness center or initiating a lunchtime walking group at work.
Remember to accept invitations to social gatherings even if you don't know everyone there or because you may initially feel uncomfortable.
Once friendships are established it's important to nurture them -- even during busy, stressful times.
Pencil in weekly or monthly get-togethers such as an hour-long walk with a friend so there's plenty of time to chat and get fit.
Or try to do the things you have to do anyway with a friend such as running errands, attending a yoga class or eating a meal. Use technology to keep in touch with friends in between visits so that your connection is consistent and remains strong.
Remember that sometimes you're the one giving support to your friends, and other times you're the one in need.
Frequently let friends know that you care about them and appreciate them -- it's as important to be a good friend as it is to create a strong network of caring friends to support you.
Leslie P. Sexer is the director of Clinical and Outreach Services at Family Centers. She is also the Director of WorkLife Solutions, Family Centers' Employee Assistance Program serving area businesses. Serving Greenwich, Stamford, Darien and New Canaan, Family Centers is a United Way, New Canaan Community Foundation and Community Fund of Darien partner agency that offers counseling and support programs for children, adults and families. For information, call 203-869-4848 or visit www.familycenters.org.