What are the health benefits of friendship?
ISLAMABAD (Online): For most people, friendships form an important part of life. Sharing experiences is part of being human. And many studies have shown that loneliness has a negative effect on our well-being. Friendship has a positive impact on mental health, but can it also have physical benefits? Medical News Today looks at the evidence and speaks to experts to find out why friendships are good for our health and wellness.
Share on PinterestWe know friendships are important, but how exactly do they benefit our health? Image credit: María Soledad Kubat/Stocksy.
We do not have to be social all the time — sometimes we need to enjoy our own space — but all people need social interactions.
That is why people make friends and work at maintaining those friendships. And quality friendships will benefit all those involved.
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The evolutionary basis of friendship
Human beings are a social species. From the earliest times, individuals have needed to cooperateTrusted Source in order to survive, and we still do. We are not alone in this — most animalsTrusted Source have social interactions and rely on cooperation.
Although animal friendships have been derided as anthropomorphism, research has now shown that some animals do form long-term, stable relationships just like human friendships.
Of course, not all animals have such friendships — as far as we know, these are restricted to those that live in stable social groupsTrusted Source, such as higher primates, elephants and cetaceans, such as whales and dolphins.
The basis of friendship is to value one another — each individual offers something that is valuable to another individual.
As humans, we value others for all sorts of reasons. They might like the same things we do, they might have similar political views, or perhaps lend help with work or chores.
Once we decide that we value someone, more often than not we will work at maintaining that friendship.
Speaking with Medical News Today, Dr. Scott Kaiser, a geriatrician and director of Geriatric Cognitive Health for the Pacific Neuroscience Institute at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, CA, had this to say about friendship’s role in the evolution of humanity:
“Research suggests that evolution has continually selected for increasing social connection with social interaction and networks playing a major role in the survival of people. According to this framework, our ancestors formed social connections — working together, sharing food, and otherwise helping each other—to feel safe and protected.”
We need friends
“Humans are hardwired to connect and social connections are an essential part of good health and well-being — we need them to survive and thrive, just like we need food, water and oxygen,” said Dr. Kaiser.
As children, most of us find that it is easy to make friends, but adults can find it more challenging. The good news is that the benefits of childhood friendships stay with us well into adulthood.
In one study, boys were followed up at the age of 32. Those who reported having had lots of friends in childhood had lower blood pressure and were more likely to be a healthy weight than those who were less sociable.
And it is not just close friendships that are good for us. People of all ages benefit from any type of social interaction. A 2017 studyTrusted Source into “SuperAgers” — people in their 80s who have the memory skills of those several decades younger — found that they had far greater levels of positive social relationships than those with cognitive abilities expected for their age.
Friendships and mental health
According to a 2014 studyTrusted Source, “loneliness is caused not by being alone, but by being without some definite needed relationship or set of relationships.”
The study went on to suggest that loneliness can lead to many psychiatric disorders, such as depression, personality disorders, alcohol use and sleep disorders, and may even contribute to physical health problems.
So does socializing help protect against mental health disorders? Almost certainly, as Lee Chambers, psychologist and founder of Essentialise Workplace Wellbeing, told MNT.
“Having friends,” he noted, “has the potential to protect us from the impact of loneliness, and having effective friendships can buffer us from the adverse effects of loneliness.”
But what is an effective friendship? According to one studyTrusted Source, high-quality friendships are more likely to be characterized by support, reciprocity, and intimacy.
Effective friendships provide a strong sense of companionship, mitigate feelings of loneliness, and contribute to both life satisfaction and self-esteem.
And there is a positive feedback loopTrusted Source between social relationships and self-esteem — each reinforces the other. So friendships boost self-esteemTrusted Source, which is a protective factor for both physical and mental health.
The effect on physical health
Lack of social interaction affects not only our mental health. StudiesTrusted Source have shown that a low quantity or quality of social ties is linked to many medical conditions, such as cardiovascular disease, high blood pressure, cancer and impaired immune function.
“Social isolation and loneliness have negative health impacts on par with obesity, physical inactivity, and smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and are associated with about a 50% increased risk of dementia. Simply taking a moment [to] connect with someone — even through a brief phone call — can reduce feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and depression and deliver brain-protecting benefits.”