Most of us would agree that friendships are a positive part of our lives, and that they can make the difference between a good day and a bad one. If you’ve given your friendships a lot of thought or gone through a difficult time, you may more fully appreciate the meaning that they give life, and how much more difficult life would be without them. And yet very few of us realize just how many physical and emotional benefits friendships can give us. It’s easy to view a high-quality social life as a luxury, and to let it fall to the bottom of our priority list when life gets busy and responsibilities to work or family mount. But I’d urge you to look at your friendships as crucial for your health. Devoting time to people you enjoy has lasting benefits for your well-being. And if you don’t feel that you have great friendships, making it a goal to seek out some can change your life for the better in myriad ways.
Doubtful? Read on.
Lowered Blood Pressure: How you feel about your social support at work and at home — that is, your perception of the quality of your relationships and how well cared for you are within them — has beenstrongly associated with lowered blood pressure, both systolic and diastolic. If you are struggling with hypertension or are at risk for it, it’swise to do a checkup of your friendships as well.
Increased Pain Threshold: Many adults face chronic pain, and virtually all of us have painful experiences or injuries on and off throughout our lives.Research shows that social support can reduce the perception of pain as it’s occurring. We also know that laughter can boost your pain threshold, perhaps because of increased release of endorphins, so if your friends regularly make you laugh, even better.
Better Immune System: Being socially isolated — or more specifically, feeling that you’re lonely — isstrongly associatedwith decreased immune system function. This means that if you have a chronic health challenge, like herpes (which has been studied specifically), then feeling unsupported by your friendships can have a direct implication on how many outbreaks you have. Socializing may keep your immune system in good working order, by being called into action to help ward off disease. Interestingly enough, there might be a reverse relationship as well — with our immune systems affecting our social behavior.
Lowered Risk for Heart Disease and Stroke:Several different studieshave found a strongly increased risk of coronary heart disease and stroke among people who feel lonely and unsupported socially. It is important to note that it is not just social isolation, but the perception of aloneness that is important here. With heart disease among the most common killers of American adults, these implications are striking, and the symbolism is clear: good friendships are good for your heart.
Improved Outcomes for Certain Cancers:The benefits of social support can take many forms when you are going through a serious health crisis. It may be logistical — everything from having someone to watch your kids when you’re in the hospital to coworkers who have your back at work — and also emotional, with friends providing hope, encouragement, and empathy. In fact, the latter types of support might be even more potent: the perception itself of positive social support (in other words, not whether someone has it, but whether someone believes they have it) has been associated with better prognoses for breast cancer patients. So it’s the emotional beliefs about how our friends are supporting us that pack quite a punch in their own right.
Increased Overall Longevity: The mortality risk of being lonely has been corroborated numerous times. In fact, thelongest-running biosocial studyin history has determined that having warm, quality relationships, even in one’s 20s, is significantly correlated with improved health and well-being — and whether or not one is even still alive — in one’s 70s. Even more startling research is that being lonely has the same mortality implications as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.
Increased Creativity:In the histories of art, literature, and music, a pattern of “muses” emerges. We know that people we care about can inspire us to reach higher and go bigger. Research also tells us that the support of friends can even increase our creativity at work. Feeling stagnant in your creative thinking? Why not team up with someone for the express purpose of boosting each other’s ability to think outside the box?
Improved Professional Opportunities: Anyone who’s struggled with a job search knows that it’s often about who you know. Friends can provide job search tips, leads, and opportunities to get the foot in the door. Some estimates even say the large majority of jobs are acquired through networking.Of course, creating not-so-genuine friendships to ingratiate yourself to a hiring manager may not be in your long-term emotional interest. But there’s no denying that the more solid people in your life who are looking out for you, the more likely you are to be connected with a potential job when you need one.
Reduced Cognitive Decline: Strong evidence exists that loneliness increases the cognitive decline of older years, even having a strong predictive effect upon dementia. There is some question whether it is the social isolation itself — which denies people the benefits of conversation and mental stimulation — or the perception of the isolation, in the form of loneliness. Either way, it is another support for the benefits of thriving and active social communities among older people, especially when retirement reduces the amount of daily social contact.
Improved Prognosis After Trauma: Whether it is being the victim of an assault, witnessing the death of a loved one, suffering from a natural disaster, or experiencing life-threatening moments in military combat, we know that emotionally intimate friendships can provide an immediate and tangible boost afterward. Maybe a friend is available to talk until the wee hours of the night, or drive us to a therapist appointment, or even just bring us a casserole. The data is clear: social support reduces the risk of developing Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder after suffering a trauma, and it also generally increases our resilience to stress.
Reduced Risk of Depression: Poor quality social support and depression can go together in a double-whammy sort of way. It seems pretty intuitive that low-quality social support can increase distress, and thereby depression, and research bears this out. But the connection can become even more devastating when it turns into a cycle. Certain symptoms of depression (e.g., lack of motivation, lack of interest in activities, lack of energy, negative perceptions of the world) can make a person less likely to seek out time with friends and activities that they used to enjoy. They may even make their friends less likely to be supportive, by frustrating them with a lack of follow-up or being less enthusiastic during conversations. It all points to the same verdict, though: being there for our friends, and letting them be there for us, can have real implications for our mental health.