Dr. Marisa Franco: On the Power of Friendships

If you could cultivate one area of your life that would help you live longer, avoid illness, stave off depression, flourish in your relationships, and even strengthen democracy, what would it be? Dr. Marisa Franco’s research reveals that the key to all these areas is forging human connection through secure friendships. A professor, psychologist, and a frequent national speaker on the topic of fostering belonging and improving mental health, Franco visited the Rivers campus in April as the 2023 Hall Family Speaker on civic engagement. In her time on campus, Franco met with students, parents, and alumni to dissect key themes in her 2022 New York Times best-seller Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make—and Keep—Friends.
Franco was introduced at a Friday all-school meeting by history faculty member Amy Enright, director of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement (CCCE). Enright framed Franco’s work from a civic perspective, describing friendship as a microcosm for democracy. 

“We all want to live in a society, in a country, that is safe for everyone, that sees and supports all citizens and residents, and where everyone feels that they belong,” Enright said. Building such a society can start with building our own personal relationships. “If you know more about the psychology of friendships—why they’re valuable, and how to build and deepen them—you yourselves will be happier, and you will help to make our society safer, creating greater potential access to happiness for all of us.”

In her presentation to students, Franco explored these themes through the perspective of a hypothetical student who doesn’t have many friends, delineating the steps that she might take to improve her resilience and become less lonely. 

“Friends expand our identity,” Franco said. “Many of us have hobbies and interests shared with some friends but not with others, and many of us figure out who we are through other people, because that brings out different sides of ourselves.”

One student asked about making friends at different life stages, from toddlerhood through college and beyond. Franco acknowledged that it gets harder, noting that there is a shared repeated vulnerability in school environments that allows friendships to arise naturally, to some extent. After college, she said, there is a change in this environment, but many continue to operate from the assumption that friendships happen naturally. As a result, these networks shrink, which is part of the challenge in maintaining friendships in adult life. 

Earlier in the day, parents, guardians, and alumni—many of whom had joined a virtual discussion the previous week to discuss the first chapter of Franco’s book—were invited to campus to meet the author for a roundtable discussion. CCCE Director Enright welcomed Franco, who shared her early perceptions on adult friendships: “What I had been taught is that this is a lesser form of love,” she stated. But her research shows that adult friendships are indeed crucial, even vital, to our well-being.

Using language of attachment theory, Franco explained the premise of the book is to offer a roadmap on how to make and keep friends. Securely attached people—that is, those who are secure in their relationships—develop a set of assumptions based on past healthy relationships:  “People will like me,” “I can be vulnerable,” and “I will make friends.”

For those who find such attachments challenging to form and maintain, Franco offered some hope: We are not stuck in our attachment styles, she said. They can change and evolve over time, just as people do.

“If you can understand your assumptions that might be getting in the way of your connections,” said Franco, “you can make better assumptions” and thus forge stronger connections. 

She went on to share the six behaviors we can adopt to become a more securely attached friend: taking initiative, expressing vulnerability, pursuing authenticity, giving affection, offering generosity, and “harmonizing with anger”—that is, using anger to work through conflicts. In the discussion that followed, participants asked about loneliness, friendships across privilege, and the role of social media in long-distance friendships. 

Franco believes that the critical work of making and keeping friends, while sometimes challenging, also proceeds from simple principles. At the all-school meeting, she shared with students the “first rule of thumb” in making friends: Assume people like you.  

“We tend to underestimate just how much people like us,” Franco told the assembly. “When we are afraid of rejection, we reject people.” When we make the positive assumption that others like us, she continued, we “actually become warmer and friendlier, and in this way we make more positive assumptions about our friendships, and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy.”

Established in 2019, The Hall Family Speaker Series at The Rivers School invites thought leaders who are shaping opinion in the moment. Outside speakers who reflect the mission of the Center for Community and Civic Engagement—researchers, writers, and activists whose work inspires critical thinking—foster discussion around new ways of strengthening democracy and positively influencing public life.