It is widely accepted that romantic relationships can improve your health and even help you live longer. But does friendship offer the same benefits?
Benny Shakes must temper his enthusiasm with his friends. “I’m always canceling friend dates,” he admits.
He is a high-energy traveling stand-up comedian based in Nottingham, UK. However, he has mental health issues and cerebral palsy, making it “tough to establish friendships owing to my condition.”
Fortunately, his friends and wife understand his need for regular isolation. Friends help him in various ways, from reminding him to take his medications to support him in times of mental illness.
Yet assistance is reciprocal. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, he and his friend Mark Nicholas put up a group chat with other disabled comedians and artists.
While Shakes’ life experiences are unusual, he is far from alone in experiencing the numerous therapeutic benefits of friendship. Friendships have demonstrable benefits for our minds and bodies, from improved moods to better cardiovascular health – even if they have historically been viewed as less valuable than romantic and family ties.
Numerous health benefits of friendship
Lydia Denworth, a science writer who produced a book about the science of friendship, is fascinated by how social isolation impacts your immune system. When you’re lonely, your white blood cells shift their behavior, causing greater inflammation and reduced immune response.
Social connection benefits more than just the immune system. Socially integrated groups have longer and healthier lives and are less likely to develop hypertension. According to a skin-puncturing study, pals can help people sleep better and heal faster.
On the other hand, struggling friendships are important predictors of chronic illness. Moreover, in some circumstances, social isolation is a bigger risk of death than typical causes such as smoking and high cholesterol.
Much of this is due to the numerous connections and overlaps between mental and physical health. Donna Turnbull, community development manager for Volunteer Action Camden, a charity that helps other charities in north London, sees the links between various areas of health.
Friendship may not be better for your health than other sorts of strong social ties, such as steady, good, and reciprocal ones.
According to Saida Heshmati’s and her colleagues’ research, “Regardless of where these little acts of love come from, or what relationship they come from, the quality of those interactions is significant – meaning that you can receive care when you’re sick from a family member, but you can also receive it from a friend, and that still conveys love.”
But, the function of friendship in keeping us healthy has historically been overlooked and trivialized. Decades of scientific studies reveal that this is incorrect.
Friendship may be more protective than marriage or family in some instances. For example, one study based on data from 97 nations discovered that while valuing family and friends was associated with improved health and happiness overall, friendships were even more crucial to health and happiness in older persons.
Various kinds of friendships
While there appear to be some cross-cultural trends in friendship, the majority of the research has focused on wealthy and majority-white nations. As a result, less emphasis has been paid to the differences in friendship among other groups, such as the gay and disabled populations.
According to Heshmati, friendship is a voluntary sort of interdependence that changes through time, in which both individuals seek their social and emotional goals. Yet, societal expectations are likely to influence it, such as whether interactions should be more spontaneous or based on more organized rituals and obligations and whether loyalty and trust are more important than autonomy and personal growth.
Substantial differences do emerge in studies on friendship over the life period. According to Denworth, there is a U-curve regarding time spent with friends: friendships are crucial for developing adolescent identity, less so for middle-aged individuals, and rebound somewhat for the elderly.
Neuroscience research also provides substantial evidence for this. For example, numerous studies have employed functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to investigate brain activity patterns while participants engage with friends. According to the findings, it activates the social brain regions connected with skills such as understanding the viewpoints of others. It also appears to increase activity in the striatum, a reward-related region of the brain.
Researchers discovered that when individuals were given the option of winning or sharing money with a friend or a hated, indifferent, or unfamiliar peer, reward areas were most active when they chose a friend.
Berna Güroglu, a developmental neuroscientist at Leiden University in the Netherlands, argues that when winning prizes for a long-time best friend, “there’s definitely an increased reward sensitivity.”
It peaks between the ages of 15 and 16.” Heshmati refers to the socioemotional connection theory, which states that as people age and their perception of time changes, they become more selective in their social contacts.
The quality of our friendships is important, especially as we get older. Nonetheless, even casual connections can be beneficial throughout one’s life. Weak ties are more helpful in extending our access to information, whilst solid friendships give critical support.
A variety of friendships is also beneficial. Having a greater range of social contacts benefits our health and may even improve our ability to fight off colds.
According to Heshmati, weaker friendships are still worthwhile if people agree on their expectations. Therefore, if one friend anticipates weekly visits and the other wants a few WhatsApp interactions yearly, there is a glaring mismatch.
“You can have a lot of friends and still feel lonely,” Shakes adds of some friendships.
Reference: Why friendship makes us healthier