Lucy Mangan on why we need friends as much as family

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Lucy Mangan
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“At last!” cried my friend when I first dared to wear red lipstick. “You look great, you dick! Let’s go out!” “That looks nice,” said my mother when she first saw me wearing it. “It makes you look like something you’re not.” That, in essence, is why it is no surprise to read new research from Michigan State University which has found that friends tend to make people happier than families.

Because they don’t send them into years of therapy just to unpick one simple sentence (“Something I’m not! Something I’m not? HELP ME DOCTOR MY MIND IS MELTING”). Because families – even the happiest ones – are knotty, messy things, who have seen both too much and not enough of each other, who know each other too well and hardly at all, and who love and wish to garrotte each other in roughly equal measure.

Because familiarity breeds contempt and there is no-one you are more familiar with than the familial. Friends are fresh air, bright sunlight and firm ground compared to the dark, fetid swampland of kinfolk. I’m talking – as indeed the study was – about good friends, about the people worthy of the name.

By your late 20s you have usually learned to discard the toxic horrors and to cling only to the genuine articles. Obviously it’s great to have loads, but in truth you only need a handful of the right people to ensure life is worth living. People who make you burst blood vessels laughing. People who will say, like my friend S does when she can hear it’s time for me to go back on my anti-depressants, “You don’t sound well, Mangan”, and to whom you listen and trust. People you can do things and, most importantly, nothing with. People who will opine but not judge. People who will let you be you even, and especially, when you’re being an idiot.

Our friends are more important now than ever – especially for women, as the time between leaving our own families and starting our own has increased so much (and so gloriously) in recent generations. We have time and space to fill with all sorts of choices that would once have been filled quickly and automatically with husbands and babies. Perhaps it is the relative suddenness with which this has happened that explains the otherwise strange absence of emphasis – in books, in film, television and other media – placed on friendship and on the lack of recognition of the pleasure and the pain it can bring. I interviewed the author of The Essex Serpent, Sarah Perry, (who I’m going to make my own BFF very shortly, incidentally – she doesn’t know it yet, but I’m sure she’ll be THRILLED.

Forcible friendship is the BEST friendship) and was struck by how beautifully and deeply she elucidates friendships of all kinds in her books. She said she once gave a talk about it and the Q&A session at the end overflowed with tears of joy and sadness as people celebrated the friends they had and grieved for those they’d lost in a way they hadn’t felt acceptable at the time, simply because they hadn’t been ‘family’.

If you come from a happy home, friends are a vital substitute when you leave. If you come from a fractured place, they can help rebuild you and ensure you never have to go back. We should not be ashamed to love, celebrate and grieve them as unashamedly and unreservedly as we do those with whom we happen to share DNA. Friends, after all, are the family you choose for yourself.