What happened to all of our friendships? You know, real, in-person relationships with people we trust and love. Remember before the years of kids’ activities, multiple work deadlines, and political or conspiratorial separations? The years when we would stay up, show up, or hang out?
Having good friends and being one has turned into a way of the past—something that was a part of life when we were younger. But we were made for connection, and the loneliness we’re experiencing is killing us.1
The number of Americans who have only three (or fewer!) close friends has shot up 22% over the past 30 years—meanwhile, the number of Americans who have at least 10 or more close friends has dropped by 21% since 1990.2 We need to go back and relearn the basics of what good friends are and how to be one. Not an internet friend. Not someone you just nod toward at work. But the kind of friend who makes time for people and pursues meaningful relationships. The kind of friend you can call at 2 a.m. with an emergency. A real friend.
Here’s the truth: You don’t have to live life lonely and isolated. You can have safe and true friendships. You can enjoy depth and have fun. You can learn to serve others and think of their needs first. I would even say you have to if you want to live a full, adventurous, whole life. So, let’s get started.
What Are the Qualities of a Good Friend?
A good friend is someone who knows you through and through. When you’re with them, your shoulders drop, your body relaxes, your breathing slows, and something inside you says, I’m safe. A good friend has your back and your front. And they hold you up when times get hard. Of course, there are a million small and big things added together to make a good friend, but I’ve found that good friends have to have these six key traits:
1. A good friend shows up.
A good friend is there for you. They’re with you for the big stuff—like your mom’s surgery or a shocking breakup—and for the small stuff. When it’s time to celebrate or give support, a good friend wants to be there. That means they don’t just show up when it’s convenient or when they get something out of it.
Who could you call at 2 a.m. when your spouse is sick and you desperately need someone to watch the kids? Who would check in with you around the holidays because they know being with your family is hard? Who would mow your yard when you’re in the ICU? Who would give their thoughts on your new business plan? Who would sacrifice their precious Saturday morning to help you move? Those are good, good friends—especially the moving guy.
You’ve probably heard my friend Dave Ramsey talk about having an emergency fund for when stuff hits the fan. Well, consider friends your emergency fund for life. It’s not a matter of if hard things will happen—it’s a matter of when. Your parents will get sick, your kid will get into trouble, and your marriage will have tough seasons. But a good friend shows up and supports you.
2. A good friend listens.
Let’s be honest: Most of our communication consists of a few people waiting for their turn to talk—to tell their better, faster, stronger story. We don’t listen to each other. Even if you hear the words someone says, information transmission doesn’t equal communication.
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You see, when we’re truly heard and deeply known, we feel it reverberate throughout our bodies. It’s how we relax, settle in, and recognize safety. In order to be a friend—and have a friend—you have to listen.
Here are some tips for how to be a good friend through listening well:
- Be genuinely curious. Put your phone away. Yes, literally out of sight. Invest yourself in the conversation. Be curious about what your friend is saying, not saying, and where the conversation might lead.
- Listen more than you talk. Honesty time: Are you usually waiting for the other person to stop talking so you can start? Or do you ever go on and on, story after story, without stopping? Pay attention to your habits in conversation and be intentional about leaving space for your friends to speak.
- Don’t give advice unless asked. How often do we take someone else’s challenges and turn it into a chance for us to sound smart or give our opinions? Often, when a friend is sharing something hard, we race to dump out advice or condolences to fix it. Resist the urge to make someone else's challenges all about you. A good friend listens first, leads with empathy, and waits to be invited in. Remember: People aren’t problems to solve.
- Don’t listen as an out from sharing. If this is you, you know who you are. Some of you would give others all the room in every conversation to avoid any kind of spotlight. You let others run their mouths and deflect any attention that shines your way. Don’t do that. That’s not being a good listener—it’s just using listening to hide.
- Ask for feedback. We often have a biased view of how good or bad we are at something. So, get outside your head and get some data. Ask those close to you: “How well do I listen? Do you feel heard when we talk? Do I share enough or too much?” Or the next time you’re with a group of friends, be intentional about listening and not talking. Notice if those around you are missing your connection or if they’re relishing the ability to be heard.
And let me give you one final tip that’s going to rock your friendship world: The next time your friend is telling a story, and it reminds you of a similar story, and you just so happen to think your story is better, keep it to yourself.
Seriously. Don’t say anything. Just listen.
Let the conversation be about someone else this time.
3. A good friend holds you accountable.
A good friend isn’t your personal cheerleader. Sometimes, they have hard conversations with you because you’ve given them permission to speak into your life—especially when it stings. When you’re acting like a jerk, a good friend calls you out. Friends are people who challenge you, who you can challenge, and who you can argue with without fearing losing them.
Likewise, when someone says or does something hurtful, a good friend speaks up. They give the other person a chance to apologize and show they can be trusted. Good friends don’t just cut someone out when times get tough or weird. And they know they screw up, make mistakes, and need to say “I’m sorry” and forgive.
A good friend also doesn’t have important conversations like these over text message or social media. They always, always call or visit in person as much as humanly possible.
4. A good friend has earned your trust.
If you’ve been hurt by someone you considered a good friend, it’s probably because they broke your trust. A good friend should always be honest. They should take responsibility for their actions, leave the past in the past, keep their word, be open, and not talk behind your back.
Some signs of a lack of trust in a friendship include:
- Anger and blaming
- Controlling behavior
- Expecting the worst in someone
One of our core desires as people is to be fully known and still loved. It’s not smart or safe to trust everyone with that kind of access to our lives. But you can—and should—be real with a good friend. You should tell them the good, the bad and the painful things from your past. This is trust. It’s how to be a good friend.
And men, practice trusting your friends more. You have feelings whether you want to admit it or not. And your friends do too. Research shows half of women and less than one-third of men have shared personal feelings with a friend in the past week.3 If you want to have and be a good friend—not an anxious, spun-out, walking zombie all the time—you’ve got to find people you trust enough to share what’s really going on in your life.
5. A good friend is committed to your well-being.
A little while back, one of my best—and most stable—friends called to tell me the bank he worked at had been sold out of the blue. He’d lost his job, and it was hard. We walked through the sale, his financial situation, how his family was doing, and what he was going to do next. Later in the call, when the conversation had gone a different direction, I piped up, “Speaking of getting fired, I just found out I made the bestseller list!”
My friend’s immediate reaction was to make some jokes about how Redefining Anxiety, the little “pamphlet” I wrote, actually made The Wall Street Journal bestseller list. But he was also genuinely happy and said, “You’ve been working so hard on all of this for so long. That’s really great.” What I loved about that conversation is that even though our careers and lives looked painfully different in that moment, we didn't skip over the good stuff or the bad stuff. We brought our full selves to the conversation and embraced each other’s reality.
A good friend is by your side. Your success doesn’t threaten them, and they celebrate it with you. Some people have no interest in your listening to your good news, coming to your housewarming party, or hearing that your kid finally reached grade-level reading. In the madness of our modern era, your success or good news might even offend other people. These people aren’t friends. If you want to know how to be a good friend, make sure you celebrate the good stuff.
And because your success doesn’t threaten them, a good friend pushes you toward wellness. You shouldn’t catch them saying anything like:
- “Come out with us! You can finish your paper when you get home!”
- “It’s not a big deal, dude. Just don’t tell your wife.”
- “If you go back and get your MBA, you won’t have time for the band, and we need you.”
6. A good friend is someone you like being around.
We all want friends who show up and listen well, and who are accountable, trustworthy and committed—these are super important traits, no doubt. But having and being a good friend really comes down to one simple question: Do you enjoy being around each other?
When you think about the good friends you enjoy, you probably notice a combination of these three things are present in your relationship:
- You have shared experiences together. You do things together. You don’t just send each other memes on social media or like the messages in your old fraternity’s group text. You go to a concert, invite their family over, or ask them to help you paint your living room. And if they live far away, you make an intentional effort to see one another. (But yes, hilarious memes are still important.)
- You’ve done hard things together. Ever wondered why the people you made it through middle school with or started a job with end up being your best friends? Or why military veterans stay connected to their troop long after deployment? Because you did hard things together and came out on the other side. Doing hard things with others can help us evolve and grow, because when someone has walked with us through that change, they know us in a way other people don’t.
- You genuinely have fun. People become our good friends because we have fun with them. We laugh until our guts hurt, have inside jokes, play sports together, and act bonkers. And what makes having fun with a good friend so much better than with anyone else is that we know we don’t always have to be fun in order for them to still care about us.
How to Make Good Friends
When we were kids, we made friends by going up to another kid and saying something brilliant like, “Hey, want to have a sword fight with these sticks and toilet paper rolls?” And BAM, you were best friends. But it doesn’t work like that when we’re adults. To make good friends, you have to be intentional. Make time. Ask someone to coffee. Go on the hunting trip you don’t have time for. Walk up to someone at church and ask what their name is.
And yes, introverts, you can initiate conversations and adventures too. Starting a conversation gets easier the more you do it. It involves the risk of rejection, but here’s the truth: All relationships are a risk. Every single one of them. It’s what turns random people into your people. Because even though they might not show up, and they don’t have to, they still do. That’s what makes friendships scary—and it’s what makes them worthwhile.
Human connection and knowing how to be a good friend is a cornerstone of being well—but it’s not all there is to it. Wellness comes with understanding the stories that have shaped you and taking ownership for what comes next. On The Dr. John Delony Show, I help listeners unpack the stories that have been weighing them down, learn how to change toxic thoughts and actions, and understand why cultivating real relationships is so important to living well.