We used to have songs of the summer: those mindless, uptempo tunes we binged on like so much cheap tequila until we finally came to in mid-September, clutching at our heads and swearing off Ricky Martin for good. But now we skip around social media rather than the radio, so if you want to gauge the current cultural climate, you need to look for the hashtag of the summer instead. And this year, friendship is our jam. Of course, from Butch Cassidy’s Wild Bunch to a trio of Heathers, pop culture has long been enamoured with the idea of a tight-knit group — it’s our labels that change, with cliques giving way to the more fashionable crews, and peeps standing in for a posse. When something graduates from shorthand to search term, you know it’s reached the saturation point, and midway through July, even traditional outlets like the Atlantic understood that we were enjoying the season of the #squad.
No one exemplifies the #squad (and its aspirational adjunct, #squadgoals) better than Taylor Swift. Her personal life has always been up for public consumption — she wrote a lot of songs about a lot of boys who’d done her a lot of wrong — but around 2014, Swift started to be mentioned less as Some Musician’s Ex-Girlfriend and increasingly as Some Model’s Best Pal. She went to Big Sur with Karlie Kloss; she got Indian food with Martha Hunt and Gigi Hadid. Actors like Lena Dunham, Jaime King and Emma Stone showed up for Swift’s Fourth of July celebrations; pop stars like Lorde and the Haim sisters tooled around with her on bikes.
We know this because these exploits are relentlessly captured in their soft-focus squad glory for Swift’s 40 million Instagram followers. And on her North American tour this summer, she paraded her friends before sold-out stadium crowds, both from the stage (Serena Williams popped by ahead of her Wimbledon win) and in the form of pre-taped video testimonials. The New York Times called the concert “a public service announcement for the healing powers of female friendship.”
To be clear, those are literal healing powers: A psychologist will tell you that the way 25-year-old Swift pursues friendship is just right for reaping its significant health rewards. In our 20s, quantity is what counts — so go on, Taylor, snap up those leggy blonds. But as we move through our 30s, collecting partners and kids and work stress and roof woes, it becomes difficult to set aside boatloads of time for friends. Quality has to trump quantity. We start to concentrate our emotional demands in a best friend or a spouse, the unavoidable consequence of our terrifically busy lives.
It’s not great, though, to dump all of your needs straight onto one or two equally time-strapped pals. Besides, the person you turn to for relationship problems might be a total snooze to travel with. As we get older, we naturally begin to cultivate specialists in other areas — think of the health professionals you suddenly must see because you’re having weirdly precise problems with your arches or your gums. So what if we parcelled out our limited time to friend specialists as well, reaching for different people when we’d like career help, or a good cry session, or to dissect how True Detective’s second season went viciously off the rails? Let’s warm to the idea with another metaphor: What if, rather than investing everything in a single relationship, we diversified our portfolio?
There’s science behind the benefits of both the Swiftian take on friendship in your 20s and this later specialized approach. In the March 2015 issue of Psychology and Aging, Cheryl Carmichael, a professor of psychology at the City University of New York, co-published a 30-year study that followed roughly 100 students from the 1970s. In order to determine how social activity predicted psychological well-being later in life, participants (admittedly, a mostly white and prosperous group) recorded their daily interactions with others and scored them for intimacy and pleasantness.
“We found that the more frequent your social activity is at age 20, the better off you seem to be at age 50: having bigger and more diverse social networks, having closer friendships and being better adjusted psychologically, in terms of loneliness and depression,” Carmichael says. “But the quality of those social interactions doesn’t seem to have a predictive effect.” There’s a point to all that youthful narcissism, she explains: Early on in life, we’re looking to build as much knowledge as possible about ourselves and the world, which we do in part by socializing with a bunch of people. That’s less important as we get older — in fact, Carmichael found that having a whole mess of friends in your 30s is associated with slightly worse outcomes, because it hinders you from developing the meaningful relationships needed at that age for later psychological health.
But meaningful relationships should not be mistaken for all-purpose ones. In the May 2015 issue of Social Psychological and Personality Science, Elaine Cheung, a graduate student at Chicago’s Northwestern University (and Markham, Ont., native), co-published a study investigating how people use their social networks to regulate emotions. Specifically, Cheung wanted to know whether those who distributed their needs across specialized relationships — turning, say, to a sister in times of happiness but a former roommate when mad — tended to feel more satisfied with, and less lonely in, their lives. That’s exactly how they felt.
The reason, Cheung speculates, is that “when you have people for different needs, you’re better able to capitalize on people’s different strengths.” But she points out that it’s not a conscious decision. “We don’t actually think that in daily life people label friends or navigate their social networks like that: I feel sad, so I’m going to seek out someone who can handle my sadness. That’s probably one of the elements that people feel icky about, in terms of being strategic.”
Let’s change that. Let’s get shamelessly strategic. There’s a rah-rah, adulatory feminism in vogue right now, practised by Swift, that insists the way to support women is to unconditionally celebrate them (unless they steal your backup dancers). “Now more than ever we need to be good and kind to each other and not judge each other,” she says in the September issue of Vanity Fair. By that measure, the reluctance to deliberately specialize is understandable, because it requires judgment —when we capitalize on our friends’ strengths, it means we necessarily identify their limitations. And that can feel very close to pointing out their faults.
But making these judgments allows us to more readily accept that our friends can’t and shouldn’t carry the burden of all our emotional needs. Instead of being disappointed in the parameters of a friendship — why doesn’t my bold, adventurous pal offer decent marriage advice? — we can manage our expectations and devote our hard-won time to the ways we’re best with each other. Because it’s very likely your adventurous pal knows her marriage advice sucks, and she’d rather you stopped asking for it.
Sure, our Instagram feeds might become a little more predictable, but when you combine those snaps, you get a picture of perfect friendship health. So all together now: Let’s make next year the summer of the #strategicsquad.
Five friend specialists to have in your arsenal