The Science Behind Why Friendships Are So Important for Your Health
We have lots to thank our friends for, from swooping in when the pet sitter flakes, to being there when the going gets tough, and listening to every little detail. But a growing body of research reveals that these stalwart companions do more than just have our backs: They can make us healthier. A 2016 University of Oxford study found that young adults who had large social networks were able to tolerate physical pain better, because they had higher levels of endorphins, the body’s feel-good chemicals. Researchers had them fill out a comprehensive personality questionnaire and, separately, squat against a wall—difference in physical fitness were factored into the results. For teens, having five or more mentally healthy friends can cut the chances of developing depression in half, per a 2015 study from England's University of Warwick.
Friends bring benefits later in life, too. A 2011 study out of Chicago's Rush University Medical Center concluded that the rate of cognitive decline was reduced by about 70 percent in socially active elderly adults, compared with those who socialized less often. And on the flip side, going it alone is now being recognized as a real and quantifiable threat: "Lacking social connections carries the same risk for premature mortality as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and exceeds the risk associated with obesity and physical inactivity," explains Julianne Holt-Lunstad, PhD, a psychology and neuroscience professor at Brigham Young University.
The science is straightforward. "We're social animals. When we are around trusted others, we feel safer," says Holt-Lunstad. By contrast, feeling isolated puts us on high alert, which can interfere with sleep, raise blood pressure and levels of the stress hormone cortisol, and gradually rev up inflammation. Time with friends quells that fight-or-flight response. It also provides a unique kind of emotional support. “Unlike family or coworkers, friends choose to be in our lives. When they show up for us, it’s incredibly validating. It helps us feel appreciated for who we are,” says Miriam Kirmayer, a therapist and friendship researcher at Montréal’s McGill University.
Adulting can make it hard to maintain these bonds, however. After around age 25, our friendships start to dwindle in number, according to a larger 2016 study published by the University of Oxford and Aalto University, in Finland. When we're younger, best friends are as close as the top bunk at camp. Grown-ups have fewer built-in opportunities, and social plans often get stuck in rain-check purgatory. "We come to see friendships as a luxury for when we have time to indulge," says Kirmayer. The sad consequence? Nearly half of Americans suffer from feelings of loneliness, found a 2018 Cigna survey. And data from the 2006 General Social Survey indicates that the number of people with no close confidants has tripled in recent decades.
Thankfully, the solution is a no-brainer. "We need to take these relationships just as seriously as we do diet and exercise," says Holt-Lunstad. In other words, make like a middle schooler, and put your peeps first.
Go for Quality Over Quantity
"Having a few close friends is better for you than having many superficial ones," says William Chopik, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University. "What is most beneficial is how you feel about the relationship: Are you supported? Will they pick up the phone in the middle of the night? Those are the ones you should invest in." Then safeguard your investments. Try teaming up for routine tasks: Experts agree that frequent hangouts are the superglue of strong ties. So when life is crazy, get creative.
"There are things we all have to do," says Barbara Greenberg, PhD, a clinical psychologist in Fairfield County, Connecticut. "Why not check them off together?" Book double manicures, or sync up to volunteer or vote—and keep the vibe positive, since experts say it’s easy for catch-ups with a bestie to devolve into venting sessions. "Share wins, too," says Shasta Nelson, author of Frientimacy. Describe the high you felt finishing that 5K; ask your pal about her upcoming vacation. "You want to leave each other’s presence feeling better than when you arrived."
Make a Commitment
It's a truth universally acknowledged that when we fall in love, our other relationships suffer. In fact, we lose two friends on average, per a 2015 University of Oxford study. And that's shortsighted. In two trials with nearly 280,000 subjects, Chopik found that for older adults, supportive friendships were a stronger predictor of health and happiness than relationships with family members and spouses, because "we tend to end leisure time with friends, while more obligatory relationships can often lead to mixed emotions and stress," he says.
Set a standing "friends date" to talk about a book or catch up over a meal, suggests Andrea Bonior, PhD, author of The Friendship Fix. She finds monthly meet-ups to be the most manageable, and therefore successful, for busy people. A recurring get-together takes the pressure off, too. "If you can come, great. If not, see you next time," says Bonior. "Just having it on the calendar gets the momentum going."
Social apps create the illusion of a robust community, but science indicates that the more time we spend on them, the lonelier we feel. In 2018, University of Pennsylvania researchers tracked the time 143 college-age subjects sent on Snapchat, Facebook, and Instagram. They then asked one group to restrict themselves to 10 minutes per platform per day for three weeks. Those subjects reported feeling measurably less depressed and lonely. One possible reason is that we have a limited amount of "social capital" (i.e. time and energy), and scrolling eats away at it, says Melissa Hunt, PhD, the study's lead author.
Rather than reach for your laptop, try checking in more "intentionally," says Nelson. Use posts to jumpstart meaningful face-to-face conversations. Some people are likelier to share unfiltered struggles when talking rather than typing, research shows, and those exchanges can build trust to keep bonds tight. Self-disclosure has also been shown to increase our likability—and while video chat is no substitute for an IRL hug, experts know the world is big, so FaceTime qualifies, too.
Don't Forget Small Talk
Unless you're Rachel or Monica, you probably don't see your soul sisters every day. That's why it's beneficial to cultivate "weak ties," or people you run into regularly but don't know well: the cheerful goldendoodle mom at the dog park; the kale whisperer at the community garden. Gillian Sandstrom, PhD, a psychology professor at the University of Essex, conducted a study asking subjects to count, using mechanical clickers, the number of times they talked to such people over a six-day period. Participants reported feeling happier on days with more clicks. "We go through life trying to get things done efficiently and don't make time to engage," Sandstrom says. "But even quick hits of connection can increase your sense of wellbeing and reduce loneliness."
Put down your phone and say hi to the crossing guard or the barista who arts your latte the second he spots you. Says Sandstrom: "Research shows that both sides enjoy these exchanges more than they anticipate they will."