The Health Benefits of Friendship

You love your friends. You can count on them to come over for dinner and a glass of wine on the porch or to watch the big game each week. They’re companions through the good times and the bad. It’s time to chalk up one more way your friends brighten your life — they’re good for your health.

Yeah, as frustrating or annoying as they can be sometimes, having friends in your life can help you be healthier, and we’re not talking about that week where Martha was really into the gluten-free thing. Today, we’re going to look at five of the health benefits of friendship, but you can be certain that these branch off into a ton of others. These five examples are well-supported by research and excellent for your health. Who knew friends could be so good for your health?

Makes You Happier

This may seem like an obvious benefit, but having friends makes you happier. Research has shown that happiness in a group of friends is highly contagious, while sadness isn’t nearly as spreadable. This makes you more likely to get a mood boost, rather than the opposite, from your friends. In fact, many studies over the years have shown a consistent relationship between strong ties with friends and general happiness.

As we’ve discussed before, happiness can make you healthier by itself. What we found was that happiness can greatly reduce your risk of developing heart disease. Being happier has also been effective at combating stress and depression, which can have its own health benefits. Happiness may even be able to boost your immune system, keeping you from getting sick! That’s glossing over the fact that being happy is pretty swell by itself and is often the goal even without the health benefits.

Avoid Isolation

One of the primary things you get from friendship is companionship. For seniors, the importance of this cannot be overstated. Senior isolation is incredibly dangerous and can have wide-ranging implications for long-term health and mortality. Being isolated has been shown to increase the chances of physical decline in seniors by as much as 59 percent. Seniors are also more likely to suffer elder abuse and for the signs to go unnoticed. Finally, isolation is significantly associated with all-cause mortality and addiction.

Friendship is one major way to prevent isolation. Studies show that friendship creates a sense of belonging, which is more effective at combating isolation than just being around people. Research shows that the feeling alone is as dangerous as actual social disconnectedness. That sense of belonging to a social group that friendship creates effectively removes the perception of isolation and alleviates the risks that come with it.

Access to Coping and Stress Reduction

As we mentioned above, friends are there for the good times and the bad. How this relates to health is that, by acting as a shoulder to cry on, friends become a powerful coping mechanism. Over the years, numerous studies and copious amounts of research have established a firm relationship between friends and positive coping mechanisms for stress.

For example, the act of reaching out to friends during stressful times has been shown to boost oxytocin levels in the brain. Oxytocin is the hormone linked with feelings of trust, closeness, and love, both romantic and platonic. Friendship has even been found to have a protective, buffering effect for abusive childhood trauma. In another study, researchers found that cortisol (the stress hormone) increased in children when they were picked last or rejected by peers, but this effect was markedly less pronounced in children who had more or closer friends. So not only can friends help you cope with stress by being there for you, simply knowing you have those friends can help you feel stronger and supported in the face of stressful moments.

Positive Influences

If you’re trying to make positive changes in your life, your friends can be powerful allies. As we noted in “4 Secrets to Keeping Your New Year’s Resolutions,” sharing your goals with friends and family makes you more likely to achieve them. In fact, friends can be very influential in the success of new, healthier lifestyle changes. They can also create a support network in which you can discuss strategies, struggles, and suggestions concerning your new endeavor.

It doesn’t hurt that studies show that healthy habits are contagious among friend groups. The same can be said for obesity, which is both good and bad. Researchers found that if the people in your social group became obese, you were more likely to, but the opposite was also true. If they lost weight, you were more likely to do so as well. Keep this in mind next time your friend says they want to lose a few pounds!

Healthy Aging

Perhaps one of the most influential aspects of our health that friendship touches is how we age. It’s been shown that strong social ties improve nearly every factor of our health, which has long-term implications for our health. More directly, close relationships and friendships keep you mentally sharp. Our brains work in a kind of “use-it-or-lose-it” way, and these relationships keep you mentally active and can slow mental decline. On the other hand, having no social ties was linked with increased risk of cognitive decline, among other health issues. By the same token, seniors with strong social relationships were found to be less likely to deveclop dementia as they aged.

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With all these health benefits, it’s no surprise that there’s a wealth of studies out there that point to the fact that friendship can help you live longer. So if you’re looking to have a longer, happier life, it may be as simple as having a few friends. Luckily, you’re never too old to make new friends and to cherish some lifelong companions. After all, they’re adding years onto your life and making you healthier!