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Published: June 8, 2024

Five Science-Backed Reasons Why Friendship is Great for Your Health

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Friendships are one of the many joys of life. Your friends are your “chosen family,” the people you go to when you want to celebrate, need to grieve, or simply want to spend time in the presence of those who make you feel good. There are many factors that go into why your friends are your friends, from individual factors like similarities in personality and social skills, to environmental factors like proximity and life events.  

Regardless of how you became friends, these kinds of relationships play a major role in your overall well-being, including in ways that you never thought about (until now!).

The science behind friendship 

The root of why we develop friendships – relationships we have that extend beyond our direct kin – can be traced back to our evolution into modern humans.  

“Friends are key to our very survival,” says Lydia Denworth, a science journalist and author. In an interview with The Wall Street Journal, she shares that in research of animals, scientists were shocked to learn that the most important factor when it comes to survival amongst a group of animals that had a structured hierarchy “was the strength of the social bonds, how positively and well and regularly an individual animal interacted with other animals.” Essentially: Forming strong bonds with those in your inner circle who aren’t your family creates strong feelings of responsibility to protect them.  

Fast forward to now in the modern day, your friends offer their time, energy, and attention to caring for your welfare – and vice versa – especially during times of need. According to evolutionary psychologist Debra Lieberman, “To the extent we can make ourselves valuable to each other, we will have a vested interest in keeping each other around, which comes in handy during times of misfortune.” You’ve likely experienced moments where you realize someone who you thought was your friend wasn’t there for you when you needed them, and how grateful you were for those who did show up.

Five reasons why friendships are great for your health 

1. Friends promote longevity.

In other words, friends can help you live longer! In a meta-analysis of 148 studies, researchers found that “people with stronger social relationships had a 50% increased likelihood of survival than those with weaker social relationships,” as well as determined that social relationships (or lack thereof) were a key risk factor for mortality, similar to smoking and physical inactivity. Similarly, loneliness has been associated with a wide range of health issues, from increased risk of cardiovascular disease to higher prevalence of anxiety and depression. In the Blue Zones, or areas of the world that have the healthiest populations of aging people, being part of strong social circles is one of the key factors to longevity

2. Friends boost your sense of belonging and self-worth.

You don’t need a big group of friends to feel like you belong; just one person seeing and accepting you for who you are goes a long way in maintaining a healthy body and mind. In a 2015 study, researchers determined that a sense of belonging decreased feelings of depression and hopelessness. Further, feeling like you belong can be protective as you deal with stress, which as we know can impact the body in a myriad of ways, as well as improve overall resiliency. 

3. Friends help to decrease stress and cope with difficult situations.

“I am here for you.” Five simple words that mean a whole lot. Having someone who will take the time to listen without distraction, offer their guidance or support, and validate your feelings is incredibly impactful when going through a stressful or difficult situation. Research has shown that friendships offer companionship and non-romantic intimacy that translates into less stress and increased life satisfaction. The positive benefits that one gets from interacting with a friend, whether during a stressful situation or not, extend well past that single interaction!

4. Friends keep your mind sharp.

Brain health is great health! Great friends will challenge you, push you (within reason) to take risks, and encourage you to meet your goals and chase your dreams. All these new things and opportunities help keep your brain flexible and encourage neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to create new neural pathways that promote cognitive function.  

In a 2021 cross-sectional study, analysis suggested that “social support in the form of supportive listening is associated with greater cognitive resilience,” which is a marker of brain health that can determine dementia and Alzheimer’s disease risk. Further, loneliness has been associated with an increased risk of developing dementia, and notably, feelings of loneliness (or perceived loneliness) were the main predictor of disease onset.

5. Friends can encourage and promote healthy behavior.

The opposite is also true, but let’s focus on the positive. Who you spend the most time with can directly influence your behavior, from the foods you eat to the exercise and lifestyle practices you engage in. One study found that wearable technology that tracked health markers, such as heart rate, daily steps, and quality of sleep, was not reliable enough on its own to determine health in the participants. “Social network structure provided significant improvement in predicting one's health and well-being compared to just looking at health behavior data from the [wearable] alone.”  

In addition, studies have demonstrated that being part of a social group was associated with more positive health behaviors, “such as exercise, consuming nutritionally balanced diets, and adherence to medical regimens.”

Fostering quality friendships

A quality friend isn’t one-size-fits-all, but there are attributes that everyone seeks in a friend: supportive, caring, generous, thoughtful, trustworthy. Believe it or not, when you create friendships that are aligned with your values and make you feel like your best self, you’re caring for a crucial aspect of your holistic health that will ripple out to positively impact other areas of your life. 

June 8, 2024

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