Most of us derive great pleasure from having friends around us to cheer our successes, and to comfort and console us when we are down. Snagging that job promotion, finding a designer handbag at a rock bottom price, or having a kid hit the ball out of the park during baseball season is never quite as satisfying unless there’s someone around with whom to share the good news.
It is our friends who help us get through the tough times, too. When we experience the death of a loved one, lose a job, receive suspicious mammogram results, or face a serious illness or injury, friends buoy our spirits and offer practical support.
Even in dire situations when it seems as if no words can ease the pain, simply having friends by our side can make difficulties and disappointments easier to endure. Close friends help cushion the deepest of hurts and remind us that despite whatever problem we are facing, we aren’t in it all alone.
But the tangible benefits of having good friends and social supports extend well beyond the “feel-good” stuff. A growing body of empirical research has found that having friends and social supports can improve our physical health and emotional well-being.
Three studies on the health benefits of friendship
One study of 4000 people in California looked at the relationship between health outcomes and the number and quality of friendships. Women in the study who had less than six friends were at greater risk of heart disease, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and depression. Yet, it wasn’t just the number of friends the women had that affected their health but also the quality of those relationships. It’s important to surround ourselves with friends whom we respect, trust and can depend on.
The Nurses’ Health Study, one of the longest and largest studies of women’s health, looked at the relationship between friendships and breast cancer survival. Having intimate relationships with friends and family members was shown to increase the odds of surviving breast cancer. Women who were socially isolated—those who had few friends and no family, spouse or partner, or church or community ties—were five times more likely to die of the disease.
There is also evidence that having good friendships may even prolong lives. A study of 500 older women in Australia found that those women with the greatest number of friends lived 22 percent longer than those with few friends—irrespective of whether they had spouses or close ties with family. The California study also found a link between longevity and an individual’s social ties: The risk of death was two and a half times greater among people without friends.
The take-home message
Although scientists know that good friendships protect our health, they don’t know precisely why this occurs. Some suggest the there may be physiological reasons. For example, feeling lonely may affect genes that drive inflammation and compromise the immune system. Others have suggested that having strong social ties increases the release of the hormone oxytocin, which reduces blood pressure, and lowers cholesterol levels and heart rates.
But it’s clear that good friends also encourage us to live healthier lives (by smoking less, drinking less, etc.) and are the first to let us know when we need to get help, whether it is from a doctor or therapist.
Admittedly, our lives are busy. We often must juggle work with caregiving responsibilities for children and/or aging parents. It can feel like an indulgence to carve out time for ourselves and our friendships. Yet with all the benefits of having friends, it may be just as important to nurture these relationships as it is to exercise, eat nutritious foods, and get a good night’s sleep.
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