A recent photo of President George W. Bush and Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah attracted wide attention. President and Prince were holding hands. This may have turned heads in Texas, but the photo sent a message of cordiality to the Middle East where public hand-holding is a common sign of male friendship.

As you put away this year’s batch of Holiday cards, consider how much your happiness depends on friends. Friendships contribute more to our physical and mental health than money, fame, or success. Friendship is extremely valuable, but very inexpensive. Unlike family, neighbors or coworkers, we can choose our friends without the complications of romance or kinship. Friends know our faults and weaknesses but choose to like us anyway.

We unwind with friends. Friendship is an adult version of children’s play. Fun, joy, mimicry, teasing and laughter are all parts of friendship. We laugh thirty times more often with friends than when alone.

Friendships don’t just happen. Friendships require emotional intelligence and hard work. We need to be alert when friends are upset, angry, jealous or simply need to be left alone. We need to be good listeners, practice the laying on of ears.

Touch is important in friendships. A simple touch on the arm is more likely to evoke a positive response. President Bush was well-briefed about touching the Crown Prince. Unhappily, it’s bad manners for the English to touch each other.

Friend-making and friendship-keeping have become survival skills. Modern society encourages more of us to live alone, apart from a network of close family and relatives. Living alone, we may suffer a kind of psychological anorexia, deprived of the nourishment of friendships. Away from family, our friends can become like kin. Just watch TV sitcoms like Friends or Sex and the City. We seem designed to thrive in small social groups. Especially in later life, a strong network of friends promotes health and longevity. Loners are twice as likely to die from all causes.

Friendships between women involve disclosure and support. Male friendships usually mean shared activities. Overhear American conversations between women at lunch: they’re talking about people, feelings and relationships. At a nearby table of men, they’re talking about money, sports and sex. The women share their vulnerability. The men compete. They women may cry a bit, but leave refreshed. The men may leave still bleeding inside. Same gender friends are important, of course. Yet both sexes find friendships with women the most rewarding. Why? Women seem to work at their friendships, and it shows. Men, well…it’s something to do.

Friendship is both art and skill. Friendship is a cornerstone of human happiness. Look through those Holiday cards one more time. Work on those important friendships before the Holidays roll around again.

Charlie and I were close friends for thirty years. He regularly called us at home between 5PM and 6PM on Christmas Eve, when only close friends’ calls would be welcome. Charlie died three years ago. This past Christmas Eve, I emailed Charlie’s children telling them how much we miss Charlie and his Christmas Eve calls. Close friends die, but their friendships survive.

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