We all know that friendships bring joy to our lives. Times spent with close friends are some of life’s most enjoyable and enriching experiences. But friendships not only make us feel good, they actually make us healthier.
In fact, a number of studies have shown that maintaining strong, intimate connections with others increases our physical health dramatically. One study from Brigham Young University and the University of North Carolina found that people with poor social connections were faced with a 50 percent higher chance of death. Shockingly, not having a network of close relationships may be more damaging to our health than smoking.
Another study conducted for ten years in Australia with over 1, 400 people found that those with a large circle of friends over the age of 70 were 22 percent less likely to die during the span of the study. Older people with a larger social network not only feel more supported, but often have a greater sense of meaning, generativity and belonging, than those who live in isolation, a problem that tends to increase as people age in countries such as America.
Friendship also gives us a rush of serotonin, the neurotransmitter that improves our mood. When we spend time with good friends, we produce more serotonin. So consider nurturing your friendships a strategy for keeping depression at bay, along with some of the more common strategies, such as exercise, diet, psychotherapy and medication, when necessary.
Spending time with friends regularly also help us to decrease stress. Chronic stress can make us susceptible to illnesses such as heart disease, autoimmune diseases, diabetes, obesity, Alzheimer’s and depression. Being with friends helps us to feel supported, and know that we’re not alone with our burdens. We have others to share the load with. Sharing stories, feelings, and laughter with friends, can actually lower our heart rate, blood pressure, and cortisol levels, which are all symptoms related to stress.
Even studies with twins have revealed that the twin with a circle of intimate friends was healthier than the twin without as many intimate friends. These results were consistent, even when the twins grew up in the same home.
But making and sustaining friendships isn’t as easy as it used to be. Many of us struggle to find the time to get together with friends, between working, commuting, and raising children. Robert D. Putnam, a professor of sociology at Harvard, sites hundreds of statistics of this trend in his book, Bowling Alone. Putnam found in his research that having friends over has declined by 45%, and attending club meetings has declined by 58% in the past twenty-five years. Putnam writes:
Television, two-career families, suburban sprawl, generational changes in values- -these and other changes in American society have meant that fewer and fewer of us find that the League of Women Voters, or the United Way, or the Shriners, or the monthly bridge club, or even a Sunday picnic with friends fits the way we have come to live. Our growing social-capital deficit threatens educational performance, safe neighborhoods, equitable tax collection, democratic responsiveness, everyday honesty, and even our health and happiness.
Being aware of these cultural trends and challenges is the first step toward making a change. While it might seem impossible to squeeze time for friends into our schedules, we can at least make it a priority, recognizing it’s value, and do our best to make gradual shifts in our lives that allow more time for friendship.
But not all friendships are created equal. Just because someone has a large group of friends, does not mean that they experience being supported and cared for by them. We all know people who have hundreds of friends on Facebook, or have tons of acquaintances, but don’t feel they have any true friends they can count on. The quality of the friendships is of primary importance. Friendships that aren’t truly intimate, that are not built on trust, are not health boosters. We instead want to cultivate friendships – even a few, that are truly authentic, caring and supportive. We want to be able to share our true selves and not worry about keeping up appearances. We want our friendships to be mutually supportive, dependable, loving, and to inspire us to be better people. These are the friendships that will make us healthier.
In fact, we may need to let go of friends who have a negative influence on us. Carlin Flora writes in Psychology Today, “These are the friends whose goals, values, or habits are misaligned with your ideals – often in subtle ways – causing you to drift away from your core self and, consequently, from the aspirations most suited to you.” She goes on to say, “The right friends – ones that validate who you are and also project an ideal version of yourself – can lift you up almost effortlessly over time. In contrast, staying with the wrong crowd will leave you walking against the wind, having to exert more and more effort just to move forward.”
© 2012 Lisa Nave, MA, MFT