Whether you’re booking romantic dinner reservations or gearing up to celebrate your single status this Valentine’s Day, you might want to consider buying a few extra valentines for your friends. Experts believe that having good friends might be just as important to your wellbeing as life partners and family members.
In two large-scale studies published last spring, William Chopik, PhD, a professor of psychology at Michigan State University, showed just how prevalent the benefits of friendship are. Looking at survey data of almost 300,000 people, of all ages and from 91 different countries, he found that people who strongly value friendship report feeling happier and healthier overall. Valuing family helped too, but friendship was an even bigger factor when it came to older adults.
Chopik isn’t the first researcher to point out that social networks are good for you, but his results begin to illustrate why we need friends at every stage in life: Friends are a long-term investment. In a second study, he looked at almost 8,000 older adults who were asked more detailed questions about their relationships and health over the course of six years. Those who reported receiving support from friends and family had fewer chronic illnesses such as heart disease and diabetes. But those who reported strain from friendships were more prone to chronic illnesses (whereas there was no significant effect of strain from family members or partners). According to those findings, it seems good friendships are what truly matter especially later in life.
“When people are friends for 30-40 years, that friendship must be pretty good,” Chopik tells Yahoo Lifestyle. “People tend to cut away the more superficial relationships that they don’t get a lot of enjoyment out of, and keep these super strong ones. It looks like those are the ones we depend on the most in older adulthood.”
What exactly is it about friends that make us healthier?
“Part of it is that friends make us feel better,” Chopik says. “When you enjoy your life more, you’re less stressed out.”
Other researchers have focused on this stress-reduction aspect of friendships. Another study found that receiving social support from friends and family reduced markers of inflammation, meaning that those people probably had less chronic stress. Even fourth graders in another study showed that those who were more isolated from their peers had elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
You might not even have to go down to chemical analysis to see how friends help keep friends healthy. It’s about having someone to check in on you when you’re sick, to give you a ride somewhere, or remind you to take your medications, Chopik noted. This is something doctors can use to their patients’ advantage.
“Knowing that there are sources of support that people can recruit is pretty important,” Chopik says. “That can inform how much care is required after you leave the doctor’s office. Do we need to do a lot of check-ins with you, or are you situated in broader friend networks where you can call on someone when you really need it?”
One might expect to rely on a spouse or partner for that kind of support, but there are scientifically proven reasons newlyweds shouldn’t retreat from their friend networks, in what psychologists call “dyadic withdrawal.” For one thing, there’s evidence that having a “diverse” social network (as in, one containing people from various aspects of your life) is correlated with a better immune system. For another, it’s important to be able to turn to a friend for help navigating stress potentially caused by a spouse or partner.
All this might make you wonder if your online friends count for anything in this health equation. Like with other relationships, that probably depends on the quality of your friendship more than the medium you use to talk to them, Chopik says, though there’s not enough research to be conclusive.
One thing Chopik is sure of, however, is that social media isn’t eroding the concept of friendship, as some may worry.
“With people getting married later, you have groups of people whose friendship networks are the only places that they can get support from, especially if they lose touch with the family they were born into,” he says. “There’s a real sense that friendship is becoming more important because they’re a family by choice.”
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