What makes a brilliant friend? Inside the science of best mates

Animal friendship
Anna Brech
by Anna Brech
4 June 2021

As we get older, our friendship circles narrow – but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. A study last year found that quality over quantity is the way forward with friends, with a smaller network of close pals likely to spark greater happiness than larger groups. 

It takes time to build trust and intimacy, which means it pays to be picky. Fair-weather friends are fine in your twenties, but as you go through life, you want people who’ll stick with you in the ups and downs. 

So, what makes a friend for life? We delve into the science, below, as well as picking out ways to stoke your closest friendships via Virgin Red – the new rewards club from Virgin brimming with ideas to help you spend quality time with those who matter the most.

The “beautiful mess effect”


One really important element of a friendship that some people overlook is the ability to be yourself, with zero filter. We like people who share stories with us – flaws and all – but this openness has to come from both sides of the friendship for it to work. 

The Atlantic points to the so-called “beautiful mess effect” that shows that when we uncover our vulnerabilities, it can be attractive and alluring to others. Not only do we see ourselves in others’ “weaknesses”, this type of rawness – while scary – paves the way to a deeper sense of intimacy. 

Sharing new experiences 


Another way we can cement that magic ingredient of friendship is by sharing experiences together. One 2019 study found “a sense of learning about oneself through shared experiences” was key to harnessing friendships in travel environments

Trying something new – whether that’s a skydive, a cooking session or a drive in a supercar – also becomes more intense when we share the experience with someone else. We immediately feel closer and more connected, with a friendship that’s rooted in the same stories.

Virgin Red has a whole host of experiences to help you do exactly that, whether you fancy go karting for two, a tandem bungee jump (both 17,500 points via Virgin Experience Days’ Scarlet Collection) or an exotic getaway to the Caribbean (as travel rules allow – from 20,000+ Virgin Points per person with Virgin Atlantic). 

Time spent together


Perhaps the most vital part of making and sustaining a friendship is to put in the time. It takes on average 167 hours to make close friends with someone and – as we all know from lockdown – this effect can’t really be reached over a few snatched Zoom calls or Instagram likes. You have to see each other in person. 

Despite the well-known benefits of friendships, however, we don’t always put aside the time needed to nourish them: most people spend more time per day watching TV than socialising.

So the mark of a brilliant friend is someone who will budget his or her time to include you; and again, the quality of the time you spend together counts. An unplugged walk in the wilds together will be far more bonding than a quick coffee when you’re both glued to your phones. Or why not try a Virgin Red traditional afternoon tea for two (available nationwide for 6,250 points).

4 ways to share friend dates with Virgin Red


As this New York Times piece points out, probably the best way to nail down the quality time that is so important to close friendships is by scheduling in “friend dates”. Just as you might put time aside for date nights or the gym, so you need to reserve slots for spending time with your friends – so that it doesn’t become steamrolled by everything else in your life. Here are just a few ideas from Virgin Red on how you could spend those friend dates: 

A zip line for two

Those who zip together, stay together. Take an exhilarating line ride over the surf lagoon at Adventure Parc Snowdonia together and unleash your inner free spirit(s) – yours via an Amber Collection voucher for 8,750 points.

A comedy night out

Get set for a barrel of laughs with a comedy performance for two at a venue near you (4,000 points). After all, you can’t beat live stand-up for a bonding night out. 

Paintballing day for four

Collect your closest pals for a day out paintballing. For 7,750 points, you’ll get to run round blasting one another in paint – fun, and surprisingly therapeutic. 

Quad biking for two

Yee-haw for quad biking: your ticket to speeding through the mud, mate in tow, on a riotous off-road ride. A Virgin Experience Days’ Azure Collection day out for 21,500 points

Find out more about Virgin Red, the new rewards club from Virgin packed with brilliant rewards for you, your friends and your family, right here