Staying Healthy with a Little Help from Our Friends

A social network provides more than fun and friendship.

By Laurie Wertich

We all know that we get by with a little help from our friends, but that help may provide more benefit than we realize. In fact, it could be one of the keys to health and longevity. A steady stream of health information has helped underscore the importance of things like omega-3s, vitamin D, fiber, organic foods, and sunscreen, but the latest prescription for health is a little bit more fun: spend time with your friends.

The Friendship Factor

“When you have enough support, anything is possible,” says Jennifer McKeown, a psychotherapist and spiritual teacher from Boulder, Colorado. McKeown says that the need for connection is part of our true nature as humans. “When people feel alone in anything, they’re essentially suffering,” she explains. “Separation creates suffering. Connection creates energy and bonding.”

McKeown facilitated two cancer support groups for more than 12 years and saw firsthand the benefits of social connection among cancer patients. “It was quite apparent that people who had support did far better than those who didn’t.”

In fact, McKeown is right. Recent research from Harvard University shows that breast cancer patients who lacked a network of friends were four times more likely to die from the disease than their more social counterparts.1

And the research isn’t limited to cancer patients. Several recent studies have evaluated the relationship between friendship and health, and the results may encourage you to pause and shift your priorities.
In general, individuals with strong social networks are healthier and live longer. That sounds simple enough, but the reverse is also true: researchers have found that individuals who are lonely and lack a social network suffer from more health problems and have a shorter lifespan.

The Science of Support

The benefits of friendship may seem obvious, but there is also some science working behind the scenes. According to the results of a study at the University of California, Los Angeles, women and men experience stress differently. When women are under stress, their brains release a hormone called oxytocin, which encourages them to bond and experience a response the researchers named “tend and befriend.” In contrast, male brains under stress release more cortisol and adrenaline, which results in the fight-or-flight response.2

In other words, gathering for girls’ night is more than just fun—it’s in our biology.

The benefits of friendship run deeper than the release of bonding hormones. The results of an Australian study indicate that individuals with a large network of friends outlive those with the fewest friends by 22 percent. The researchers theorized that the reasons for this are that friends discourage unhealthy behaviors, boost self-esteem, provide support, and help keep depression at bay.3

Bronwyn Patterson, an avid runner from Ketchum, Idaho, relies on her friends for connection and motivation. “I have a different attitude about running when I go with friends,” she says. Bronwyn is onto something that Virginia researchers found when they placed women at the base of a steep hill, either alone or with a friend. Those women who were accompanied by a friend estimated that the hill was less steep than those who were alone. Furthermore, the longer the friends had known each other, the less steep the hill appeared to them.4

The growing body of research into friendship and health indicates that friendship provides stress relief, boosts the immune system, helps slow aging, prolongs life, prevents depression, and speeds recovery. This all adds up to improved health.

Friends with Benefits

Science aside, we intuitively seem to understand the value of friends. Our friends form the fabric of our life, providing connection, compassion, support, motivation, accountability, and so much more. The immune boost is simply the icing on the cake.

References

1. Kroenke CH, Kubzansky LD, Schernhammer ES, Holmes MD, Kawachi I. Social networks, social support, and survival after breast cancer diagnosis. Journal of Clinical Oncology. 2006;24(7):1105-11.

2. Taylor SE, Klein LC, Lewis BP, Gruenewald TL, Gurung RA, Updegraff JA. Biobehavioral responses to stress in females: tend-and-befriend, not fight-or-flight. Psychological Review. 2000;107(3):411-29.

3. Giles LC, Glonek GF, Luszcz MA, Andrews GR. Effect of social networks on 10 year survival in very old Australians: the Australian longitudinal study of aging. Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health. 2005;59(7):574-79.

4. Schnall S, Harber KD, Stefanucci JK, Proffitt DR. Social support and the perception of geographical slant. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology. 2008;44:1246-55.

The Friendship Prescription

Make social connection a priority.

Schedule a weekly event with friends, such as a game night, a dinner club,
or a girls’ night out.

Form an exercise partnership with a friend—you’ll be killing two birds with
one stone.

A sense of connection can be nurtured in as little as 15 to 30 minutes a day.

Carve out time with a friend or spouse.

Join a group or club.

If you don’t have a strong social network, make a point of spending time in public places such as coffee shops, as research shows that even being in a crowded room of strangers can provide a sense of connection.

Nurture long-distance friendships. Proximity is not necessary for connection.