Why Friends Matter at Work and in Life

Susan Harrison, my mother in law, died several months ago after a long and courageous battle with cancer. Like most of us, she was not famous. If you didn’t know her you probably didn’t know of her. She lived in the relatively small community of Savannah, Georgia.

Yet she did some amazing things there — she was the first ordained woman Deacon in Georgia, she founded a soup kitchen, and she helped create the Savannah Homeless Authority. In addition to raising three children and, some would say, a husband.

One of the problems we faced after her death was finding a church big enough to hold the people who wanted to attend her funeral. We picked the largest one we could find, with seating for 600, and still many had to stand in the back and along the aisles.

Susan had a particular quality that drew people in. It wasn’t her accomplishments. It wasn’t money. She had no access to famous or important people. She couldn’t hire you; she wasn’t a stepping stone.

Susan was, quite simply, a really good friend.

Which is an art. To be a good friend, you have to give of yourself, but not so much that you lose yourself. You need to know what you want and pursue it, while helping others achieve what they want. You need to have personality while making room for, and supporting, other people’s personalities. You need to care about, and even love, people you might disagree with (I’m pretty sure she didn’t vote for the same candidates as her husband). You need to be willing to give at least as much, if not more, than you take.

This is a pretty predictable recipe for happiness. Giving to others — a reliable way of fostering friendships — makes us happier than taking things for ourselves. According to research led by Dr. Elizabeth Dunn at the University of British Columbia, money can buy happiness . . . as long as you spend it on other people.

Researchers conducted three studies. First, they surveyed more than 600 Americans and found that spending money on gifts and charities led to greater happiness than spending money on oneself.

Then they looked at workers who had just received bonuses and found that their happiness was not based on the size of their bonus but on the decision they made about what to do with whatever amount of money they received. Those who spent more of their bonus on others were happier than those who spent the money on themselves.

Finally, the researchers simply gave money to a number of people, instructing some to spend the money on themselves and others to spend the money on others. At the end of the day, the ones who spent money on others were happier.

So having friends and treating them generously is clearly a winning strategy in life. But what about business?

If you watch even a single episode of any reality TV show based on a competition — The Apprentice, Survivor, Top Chef, America’s Next Top Model, The Bachelor, The Amazing Race; it doesn’t matter which — you’ll hear a single phrase come up more often than any other:

“I’m not here to make friends!”

If you want to see what I mean — and just for the fun of it — watch this short YouTube video compilation. Apparently many of the contestants believe that in order to win you can’t be worried about how you affect others. As one contestant on The Apprentice so eloquently said, “We’re not here to make friends. It’s nothing personal. This is f**king business.” Is that true? Are we better off being cutthroat than collaborative?

Well, let’s look at the data. If you’re looking for a job you’d better have friends. The number-one way people find new jobs is referrals by friends.

Once you’re on the job, having a best friend at work is a strong predictor of success. People might define “best” loosely (think of this as kindergarten where you can have more than one “best” friend), but according to a Gallup Organization study of more than 5 million workers over 35, 56% of the people who say they have a best friend at work are engaged, productive, and successful while only 8% of the ones who don’t are.

And another remarkable study, spanning decades, revealed that friendships in high school were a strong predictor of increased wages in adulthood — to the tune of 2% per person who considered you a close friend. In other words, if in high school three people listed you as one of their closest same-sex friends, your earnings in adulthood would be 6% higher.

Want to stay in that job you have? Then you’d better have friends. As a friend of mine who runs sales for a successful technology company told me recently, “People try hard not to fire their friends. It’s the difference between ‘he’s a good guy’ and ‘I don’t know about that guy.”

The happy truth is that the people who say they’re not here to make friends don’t win. That’s true for reality TV. It’s true for business. And it’s true for life.

During Susan’s last few days she was surrounded at all hours by her family and friends. During those moments she managed to get some advice out. Among her parting words? “Surround yourself with a loving community.”

In other words, it’s a pretty good bet that we really are here to make friends.