Friends are precious. They are people you go to in times of trouble and with whom you have fun, go out or play sport. They provide company and support and help you get through the bad times. It is a well known fact that people who have no, or few, friends have poor mental health and are at higher risk of depression and suicide.

  Although people's needs are different, most people need at least one very close friend to share the ups and downs of each day. Sometimes this is provided by your family if you have never left home, but this tends not to be as rewarding as having a much loved life partner or a best friend, especially if you are in conflict with family members – as most people are at some stage.

  Some people need loads of friends about them to feel happy when others are satisfied with just a few and don't wish for more. Whichever category you fall into, if you have not got what you feel you need (rather than what other people think you need) you will feel lonely and unhappy.

Different types of friends
Some friends might be isolated friends that know no other friends of yours. Others might be part of a friendship network (such as school, college or work friends) that regularly meet and socialise with each other. Confidences tend to be safer with isolated friends - if you tell a secret to one person in your friendship network they may be equally friendly with the others and let them know. But when a crisis happens a network can come to the rescue very quickly and provide massive support.

  Friendships can also differ in what you do with your friends. Some friends only meet to talk, to play sport or to go shopping with. Others may value friendships of the opposite sex. Men may like to confide in a woman without fear of seeming less of a man for talking about his emotions. Women may like the company of men and the different perspective they have on life. Each may just enjoy being in the opposite sex's company for no definable reason. Then there are romantic relationships. Whether you are heterosexual, bisexual or homosexual, you have a need to find someone close and special in your life.

  Value all your friendships, old and new; isolated friends or those in networks; friends you see regularly (such as in work) and friends you rarely see (because of distance) and, most particularly, romantic friendships - but don't let these destroy existing friendships which often are more enduring. They can all provide something to fulfil your need to have friends. However, sometimes people have trouble with making and keeping friends. If this is you, read on.

Making friends
To make a friend, you have to be open to the possibility of friendship wherever you are (unless it is a dangerous place or activity). Have a warm smile ready to return if someone smiles at you, and be ready to be the one to smile first. Smile at people you pass in the street or who serve you (or whom you serve) in shops or restaurants, for example. Practise smiling in a mirror if you find this hard until it comes easily and naturally to you.

  Be friendly in your approach to the people you work with. Don't be sour faced or behave grumpily. Show that you have a sense of humour (and if you don't, try to develop one by watching funny films and reading humorous books). Listening to what others say and how they say it (often much depends on the delivery of a comment or look), may help you learn what works and what doesn't work.

  Ensure your body language is friendly (no crossed arms or having your back to someone you are supposed to be talking to). Have what people call an 'open posture' (if you are sitting down, for example, you can stretch an arm along the back of a chair and have your legs uncrossed).

  Identify friendly people and watch how they behave. Straight copying probably won't work, as their style of friendliness may not suit you. But the more people you observe, the more likely you will see things that you feel comfortable trying out. Friendly people tend to be popular people. If you become friendlier, you will also be more likely to become more popular.

Pitfalls in making friends

Sometimes, people are in too much of a hurry to make a friend and give too much of themselves away at one go, or over a very short time. Friendships develop more naturally if you only give a little of yourself away each time you meet someone.

  Imagine you are an onion and, like an onion, you have several layers to peel away before you get to the heart. The outermost layer of you consists of information such as your name, age, where you live and work, how you spend your time and where you were brought up and whether you are single or with a partner, and basic information about your family. Even all of this first layer would be too much for you to impart at one sitting unless you were in the other person's company for long enough for them to give you similar information over the course of your conversation.

  You may not start giving information from your next layer for some time. But you mustn't leave it too long otherwise the other person will not know enough about you to know whether you have the potential for deeper friendship. They may be bored by your relationship as nothing more compelling other than basic personal information is ever discussed and you might be thought of as shallow. Examples of things to divulge in this second layer might be your views on politics and religion (although if they are strong, you should not voice them forcefully unless you are sure the other person holds similar views). It might also consist of a couple of embarrassing or unpleasant experiences, but nothing that touched you deeply. It can also include your tastes in food, drink, music, films, books and holiday destinations (if these haven't already been touched on).

  People vary in the number of layers they have. But your deepest layer (if you have had experiences that have led you through many layers) should not be divulged without a long-term friendship already having been established as it is far too risky to give deep-seated and potentially hurtful information away easily, and the other person may not treasure your confidence in the way you'd hope.

  You might ask, but how do you know when to give certain information away? This comes through experience and having made, and broken, friendships. But you can take some guidance from other people by matching their confidences with similar ones of your own. But you also have to judge whether this person is divulging too early, as there is no guarantee they are any more skilled at friendships than you.

  Think of existing relationships you have and how well you know those people. Have you ever been surprised at finding something out about them that they had not told you, or had not told you until you had known one another for years? If so, you know that you shouldn't perhaps give similar information about yourself away too freely. Although we are all different in how tenaciously we hang on to secrets we'd prefer others not to know, you must judge when it is too soon to give them away, or when you and the relationship may benefit for having finally let it out. You then profit from the relief of having someone to talk to about it and not having to hide your true self from someone you care about.

  The situation is more vital if the relationship is a romantic one and you wish to make the partnership long-term or permanent. Secrets from partners are best told before a major commitment on either side is made - but again, too soon and your loved one may be more likely to not take it well.

  Another thing that helps judgement over giving things away is finding out more about the other person's background and beliefs. Wait until you know that the person, for example, is not a strong anti-abortionist before you divulge the fact that you once had to have a pregnancy terminated; or that the person is not a member of the Conservative Party before you let out that you belong to the Socialist Worker's Party.

  If such beliefs are so strong and so opposite, you will probably find that you and the other person have little in common, at least for the political interest example. For the other, if the other person does not understand and sympathise with the motive that led to your pregnancy being terminated, you are likely to be damaged by the relationship as that person will make you feel bad about yourself over a sensitive issue that leaves you vulnerable to emotions such as self-doubt, guilt and regret - not necessarily of the act, but of the timing or that the circumstances could not have been different in some way.

Keeping friends
Once you have a friend, your relationship may become static in that it doesn't progress to further intimacy and neither side shows any inclination to increase the frequency or lengths of your meetings. This type of relationship can be unrewarding if you don't have deeper friendships to satisfy you and may fail because of the lack of intimacy unless both of you are content to have a relationship like this.

  Relationships that do progress to deeper and deeper levels of intimacy are very satisfying and rewarding but do carry some risk. This is minimised, however, if you keep your confidences at a similar level to your friend's - and not being afraid to occasionally be the one that makes a move to a more intimate conversation.

  No relationship is completely risk free: you can have marriages and long-term friendships break up, and you can have your confidences broken. But you cannot go through life expecting everyone to betray you. If you have been betrayed in the past, be more wary the next time. But don't write everyone off, as that will make you very lonely indeed.

Pitfalls in keeping friends
As well as problems with intimacy, your behaviour may need looking into. Think back to failed friendships or relationships that fizzled out before getting to a friendship stage. Is there a theme you can identify? It is unlikely, if you have a stream of failed friendships, that it is the other person to blame every time.

  Perhaps you weren't rewarding company - such as not looking pleased to see your friend or being half-hearted when discussing your next meeting making them feel unappreciated? Perhaps it was your friend that did all the running - calling you to arrange to meet, inviting you to meals that were never reciprocated and finally giving up thinking that you couldn't be bothered to put yourself out? Or perhaps you talked about yourself all the time and didn't allow your friend to have a fair share in the conversation over several meetings? (Occasionally, when something major has happened – good or bad – you may dominate the conversation, but to do it habitually shows your friend that you are not interested in what they have to say.)

  Have you kept confidences, or are you unable to keep other people's secrets? Have you supported your friend when they were in need? Have you sympathised and encouraged when your friend had self-doubts or had experienced a setback?


For more on friendship skills, read Overcoming Loneliness and Making Friends (Sheldon Press, £7.99, by Márianna Csóti). To know how to successfully interact with other people, read How to be a People Person (Right Way Books, Constable & Robinson £6.99, by Márianna Csóti).