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How Friends Improve Your Health

In 1985, the General Social Survey (GSS) results showed the average American had three confidantes, or close friends, with whom they could discuss personal matters. In 2004, the number of people who said they had no confidantes tripled. Americans lost both blood relatives and friends as confidantes, but the greatest number of losses was centered around voluntary friends and neighbors.

Other reports showed similar findings. A 2006 report indicated 25% of respondents said they had no close friends to talk to about personal matters, double the number in a 1985 study. There may be many reasons for these changes – divorce, working long hours, the internet and social media – but the outcome is the same for most people. Loneliness (which is different from being alone) results in lower quality of life and a higher likelihood of physical and mental illness.

The book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community by Robert D. Putnam, published in  2000, noted the disappearance of bowling leagues and other groups that cemented friendships between neighbors and co-workers in the mid-20th Century.

People still have plenty of online and offline acquaintances, but few to no close friends. An acquaintance will talk to you about the weather or the latest Hollywood scandal, but he or she won’t be there for you if you need or a shoulder to cry on or a ride to the hospital.

Some people will play tennis with you or see a movie with you, but that’s where the friendship begins and ends. We all need activity friends, who will go to events with us, but we also need more meaningful friendships. Deeper friendships enhance our lives emotionally and also boost mental and physical health.  

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How Friends Increase the Quality of Your Life

Friends improve your life by offering laughter, good advice and giving you a shoulder to cry on when you need one. A UCLA study on female friendships showed that happy women had more friends. Women with close friends were more likely to survive stressful events, like illness or the death of a spouse, without permanent trauma if they had a close friend to offer support. Here are some ways friends can help you live a better life:  

Your Friends Can Help You through Tough Times

When you’re in a tough situation, having a close friend to lean on can make obstacles seem less daunting and give you hope. A heartfelt conversation with a friend will make you feel better when you’re down, and studies show confiding in friends offer health benefits.

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Friends Make Your Smarter

When you have a group of close-knit friends, you’ll less likely to get dementia, according to a study conducted in the Netherlands. Meeting with friends increases oxytocin to make you feel happier. And conversation and social interaction helps keep your mind sharp.  

Friends Give You a Sense of Your Personal History

Legacy friends, or friends from your past, connect you with events from your childhood, adolescence, and other memorable times in your life. Although you may not have a lot in common with school friends as you age, talking with or meeting with them reinforces your life story and gives you a sense of your personal history.

Friends Boost Your Self-Esteem

Your best friends give you advice that may help you improve. They encourage you to grow as an individual, act as your cheerleaders and support your dreams.  When you are too unsure or timid to travel or try a new activity by yourself, they accompany you and renew your strength and confidence.

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Friends Make You Happier

A good friend can make your laugh and put you in a better mood. Hanging out with friends helps release the hormone oxytocin, which increases trust, warmth and empathy. Oxytocin, which is produced in your brain’s hypothalamus, is also released during childbirth and sexual activity.

Good Friends Help You Live Longer

When people get older, they become pickier about choosing friends. An older person knows from life experience (which probably includes some poor friendship choices), how and where to find appropriate friends.  They know what personality types mesh well with theirs, and which ones are potentially toxic.

A study showed that older adults with a strong network of friends lived longer than those with few friends. The Australian study involved 1500 people over 70 years old for ten years. The results showed that contact with relatives (including children) didn’t affect lifespan, but having lots of friends made participants 22% less likely to die during the study than adults with fewer social ties.   

Socializing also helps older adults avoid dementia and Alzheimer’s disease. Living in a senior residence, with roommates ala The Golden Girls, or having a large network of friends has been shown to keep the brain engaged as we grow older. People with larger social networks were less likely to develop the memory loss that leads to dementia and Alzheimer’s.

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Strong Social Support Helps People Recover From Serious Illnesses

A study of women with ovarian cancer found that patients with more support from family and friends experienced more effective chemotherapy treatments. Having someone by your side to comfort you, bring you meals and gifts, and inquire about your medical care increases your hope for recovery and helps you “fight harder” to beat the disease.

Another study showed that women with strong social networks had a higher recovery rate from breast cancer. Isolated women were 64% more likely to die from breast cancer and 69% more likely to die from any cause. Researchers noted that the quality of social ties were more relevant to survival and recovery than the number of ties.

Having good friends may result in a shorter recovery period, less pain and less stress when dealing with an illness.

Young people who feel lonely are more likely to drink, use drugs or engage in risky behavior. College students with fewer friends tend to have weaker immune systems and more stress hormones in their blood.

A person with lots of friends isn’t necessarily happier and healthier than someone with a few friends. The quality of the friendships is what matters most. It’s actually better to have a few good friends rather than a wide circle of toxic or fair-weather friends.

Some people are loners, but they will fare better if they don’t feel lonely. Feeling lonely causes health problems that impact your life as much as smoking, not merely being alone.

When to End a Friendship

If you experience any of these emotions when you’re around a friend, it’s time to evaluate the friendship and possibly end it.

  • You feel you need to tiptoe around a friend and edit what you say and do so you won’t anger or upset them.
  • You always need to beg them to spend time with you, or you have to do what they want you to do. They won’t compromise.
  • You often make excuses for their bad behavior to justify the friendship.
  • You dread seeing or talking to them, but feel you need to continue the friendship because you have known them for a long time, or for other reasons.

When you end a toxic friendship, you make room to invite better people into your life. If you find that you consistently attract the wrong friends, reconsider the energy you put out into the world, and where or how you’re meeting new people. You won’t meet the right friends going to a nightclub if you’re a bookish nerd.

How to Make Friends If You’re Lonely

Making friends takes time and effort, just like anything else.

Avoid sounding desperate for friendship. Never pretend to be something you’re not to make friends or feign interest in something you don’t like to attract a certain type of friend.

Be natural, and pursue your hobbies and interests by joining clubs, meet-up groups or taking classes. Shared, ongoing activities like a weekly book club will help you to forge bonds with new people. It’s hard to find friends through one-off chance meetings, though it is possible.

Volunteering at a museum, hospital or other organization will put you in touch with other people. You’ll feel better because you’ll helping others and taking the focus off your loneliness.

Joining online discussion forums and groups is an excellent way for introverts to make friends. Once you feel comfortable with your online friends, you can make arrangements to meet some of them in person at a restaurant or coffee shop. Shy or anxious people can build real-world social skills by asking a simple question (like “Do you know what time it is?”), smiling at people you meet, or complimenting others.

The more acquaintances you have, the better chance you’ll have of making friends. Finding new friends is similar to being a sales agent. You may have to contact many prospects before you make a “sale.”

Enrich Your Life Types of Friends with Different

Don’t limit yourself to socializing with one type of person. We’ve already mentioned activity friends and confidants, but there are several other types of friends you need to have a rich and varied life.

Work Friends

You’ll have an easier time at work if you have one or more work friends – people who you can chat with about on-the-job issues, eat lunch with, or sit next to at meetings. You’ll spend most of your waking hours around co-workers if you work a full-time job, more time than you spend with friends or even some family members in a given week. A work pal prevents you from becoming depressed and isolated at work. Your work friend may remain a friend long after you leave the job if you really click.

Mentors

A mentor is an accomplished person in any field who inspires you to improve and challenge yourself. This person can be a neighbor, friend, teacher, or coworker who has more experience and can guide you toward bigger and better things. Your mentor should have the patience to help you learn more about your chosen field, a hobby or life in general. He or she may also be able to recommend you for jobs or business opportunities in the future.  

Neighbors

Most people don’t take time to exchange a simple “Hello” with their neighbors, much less carry on a conversation. Get to know your neighbors by chatting about local issues, their pets, or the landlord’s last visit to your building. Good neighbors watch out for each other. You may even be able to have a trusted neighbor house-sit or pet-sit for you when you go on vacation.

Friends with a Different World View

Get out of your comfort zone and form friendships with folks with different interests, ethnicities, political views, or religions. You’ll learn about other cultures and beliefs first-hand, instead of being influenced by the news or social media. If you only make friends with people who have the same lifestyle as you do, you’ll be more likely to stay close-minded and believe in stereotypes.

Social Support, Nutrition and Exercise

Friends help you feel happier and accomplish more, but there’s a lot you can do by yourself to lead a better life. Exercising, eating right and taking supplements appropriate for your needs help you maintain excellent physical and emotional health. You can make getting healthier more fun by going to the gym with your friends or playing sports with them, or go shopping at the farmer’s market together. They’ll provide a social support system to help you get in shape.

Replace sugar and processed foods in your diet with fresh fruits and vegetables. Eat whole grains instead of breads made with refined flour. Drink water instead of soda. The nutrients in real food help guard against mild to moderate depression.  

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