Friendship Day: The close bonds that brighten our lives
According to science, they help keep us well and living longer, but, health-enhancing credentials aside, we don't need studies to know that friends are a massively important part of our lives and play a key role in our wellbeing.
The average person in the UK has three friends they'd class as "close", according to a recent survey by Mercure Hotels (they quizzed 5,500 people), with 88% defining a close friend as somebody they can rely on.
It's funny; often, as we get a bit older, our social circles can become smaller, and as people become busier with careers and families and perhaps disperse to the other side of town or country - or even thousands of miles overseas - we gradually tend to see less of each other.
This has been the case for me but, at the same time, I've also grown to appreciate and cherish those good friends even more. They enrich my life in so many ways and I can't count the times I've felt I'd be lost without them. They're partners in crime and lighthouses in storms (and thankfully they're lovely enough to forgive my penchant for cliches ...).
Of all the things I've learnt about friendship over the years, two things really stand out.
A) a good friendship is a two-way street, and B) friendships, like everything else in this world, are not perfect, and I say that without a single hint of cynicism (on the contrary, once we let go of notions of perfection, we actually start to count our blessings, right?).
But what really makes a good friend? There's probably no text-book answer to this - great friends take many forms.
However, I asked around for examples of the small acts of friendship that made a monumental difference. These three anecdotes highlight the values that could apply in many scenarios.
Be kind enough to look beyond the surface
"I joined an NCT-run (parenting charity) group when I had my first baby, and because my baby daughter cried so much and was such a handful, we weren't the most popular of participants. I then found out I was pregnant with twins (I had three babies in a year) and was, quite frankly, unceremoniously dumped by my partner. One day, one woman from the baby group, who had the most delightful and quiet baby daughter, called me entirely out of the blue and said she was going to Sainsbury's and did I need her to pick anything up for me? I still get a little teary thinking about it. Sixteen years on, she's still my best mate - the times she'd have me and my three toddlers over to her house for tea ... it really meant the world to me and I'm forever grateful for that one trip to Sainsbury's to pick up some nappies." (Sarah Watts, founder of www.2littleboys.co.uk)
Be there in a crisis (whether in person or at the end of the phone/email)
"My friend literally moved in with me for a week after my husband left me. She shopped, cooked, looked after my kids and me (sometimes staying up until the early hours when I couldn't sleep, sharing wine and making me laugh and helping me see that I would survive despite the sadness), while her husband was left to look after her three school-aged kids. It was incredibly selfless, and without her I don't think I would have coped in those early days." (Christina Lockwood, writer)
Give them a boost when they're beating themselves up
"About 15 years ago, after moving to a new part of the country, I'd managed to make a few friends. But at some point, I'd fibbed about my age - I totally forgot about it, until a couple of years later they organised a surprise birthday party for me, thinking it was my 40th. I was incredibly touched they'd gone to that much effort, but also felt terrible because I wasn't really turning 40 - I was turning 45. Feeling so guilty, I started to cry and confessed to my friend. I'd been so worried, but she just smiled and said, 'Oh well - I didn't know you five years ago, so we're celebrating it now, aren't we!'
Her kindness in that moment made me feel so much better about myself, and we then had something to laugh about, too." (Barbara Craig, housewife)