Make Two Friends and Call Me In the Morning

If you’ve been reading this blog since the beginning, you might be under the impression that I’m on the search for a new BFF solely because I need someone to join me for a manicure, or because I want a Grey’s Anatomy-watching buddy (yes, I know I’m the only person still tuning in), or because I’m just generally fascinated by friendship and all aspects of social interaction. All of that is true, but there’s more to it. There are some pretty amazing health benefits to surrounding yourself with friends. I’d like to live, relatively healthfully, for a long time. If the research out there is accurate, having lots of friends will add years to my life, increase my chances of surviving breast cancer, delay the onset of Alzheimer’s, stave off colds, help me sleep and lower my blood pressure. Amazingly, in many of these cases, having a spouse or close family doesn’t have a comparable (or any) effect. Friends, as it turns out, are the miracle drug.

• A recent study of Australians aged 70 or older found that participants with extensive networks of good friends were 22% more likely to survive the next 10 years than were those with fewer friends. Having close relatives had no impact on survival, and the effect remained steady even if the participant lost a spouse during the decade.

• A 2006 study of nearly 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that those who had 10 or more close friends pre-diagnosis were four times as likely to survive than women with “low levels of social integration.” Having a spouse had no impact.

• Harvard researchers studied the effect of large social networks on brain health as we age, and found that—surprise!—“social integration delays memory loss in elderly Americans.”

Both breast cancer and Alzheimer’s run in my family, so you can see why this quest is an important one. It’s not just about the short-term satisfaction of having someone to invite to girl’s night. If I succeed, it could have lifelong effects for me, my husband, and my family. There’s no definitive answers (yet) as to why friendships have such a strong influence on health, but here’s a guess: More friends means more people to convince you to quit smoking, get that weird mole checked out, put down the ice cream, and get back out there before the bummer of a break-up turns into full-fledged depression. And while “did you apply enough sunscreen?” sounds like nagging when it comes from the mom or the husband, it becomes thoughtful concern when uttered by a friend. But that’s just a peon’s hypothesis.

Have you ever seen the effects of friendship on your physical health? Do you trust the research? Does it seem odd to you that friendship is so much more important to health than family is?

22 Comments

Filed under The Hard Facts

22 responses to “Make Two Friends and Call Me In the Morning

  1. Alex

    one might argue that there are health benefits to watching Grey’s Anatomy too

  2. Interesting that friendships have lifelong benefits to you and your family in the improved health they inspire. Friendships … Just what the doctor ordered!

  3. Lisa Z.

    Yes! I don’t know what I would have done without my friends during a crisis. There are characteristics of friends that can’t be replaced by men or families. In fact, maybe it is that very separation that makes friendship irreplaceable. Friendships are nuturing and allow you to nuture someone else. My BFF is in town this tomorrow and I am automatically in a better mood, despite some unpleasant work matters and some house cleaning anxiety.

  4. Janet

    first of all, you are not alone. i still watch grey’s.

    secondly, i have a walking group which meets every thursday. everyone depends upon everyone being there. our gifts of gab propel us 3 miles along the water. exercise and chit chat…what could be better?

  5. Julie

    This data is verrrry interesting. I’ve always found it easier to maintain a small, intimate group of friends than a large circle of acquaintances, and I wonder what the pros of each is (if there’s a difference at all).

    Many of these benefits seem to result from the intimate nature of a friendship — deep love, caring, understanding — but I can also see how social interaction with people who are lively and fun, but perhaps not necessarily soulmates, would also be good for mental and physical health.

    Do you think there’s a significant difference? Maybe it takes both.

  6. Amy

    I totally agree that friendships contribute to health. I’ve found, however, that unhealthy friendships add stress and have an impact on physical health. I was “dumped” by a friend who I thought was a good friend (we became friends at our first post-college job which was about 11 years ago). She abruptly cut me out of her life over something which I think is very silly. I have tried reaching out to her several times to clear the air and tell her how sorry I am that I hurt her feelings. Unfortunately she is not responding to my emails, calls or text messages. In any event, without babbling, I have been physically sick about the fact that I have hurt someone so much. I am anxious and feeling so bad about myself. After two months of silence from this “friend” I decided to let it go and only surround myself with people who can communicate their feelings. It was a big step for me to acknowledge that the friendship was over and while I was in the midst of the drama I couldn’t help but think, “Wouldn’t I be happier, and healthier, if I had fewer (!) friends.” Now I realize that the number of frienships isn’t as significant as the quality of the friendship. This friendship couldn’t have been a strong one if a friend was willing to just abandon it without a conversation.

    Sorry for the long windedness!!

    PS I still watch Grey’s too (although I watch on DVR so I can fast forward if I’m bored!).

    • This is such a good point. Friendship-breakups are wrought with stress and confusion, and are a whole different beast. I have a book on my nightstand about them and can’t wait to dive into the research, as I bet they are detrimental to our emotional well-being, at least in the short term.

      You’re right to have moved on. Hard, but necessary, especially since you clearly did your part to make amends! I can’t imagine how hard those two months must have been…

  7. beckybelle

    I agree with Amy – a good friendship is beneficial, a bad something within a friendship can lead to untold stressors.

    To have friends to talk about anything from politics to hair color… A friend (guy, no less) just told me that talking with me (a friend) is like therapy for the soul. WOW! That we can all offer that to someone at some point and be able to accept that from someone at somepoint is what being a friend is all about!

  8. A number of years ago I was diagnosed with cancer. At the time all of my closest friends were living in other cities and every time I spoke with them I tried to put on a brave front. Their response was kindness, but little support. I was fortunate, my diagnosis was not life-threatening, but it taught me that I shouldn’t push people away and pretend to be brave. My friends would have been there for me, but I didn’t give them the opportunity.

    Since that time, I have changed my interactions with my friends because their very presence does change my mood and lightens me. I totally agree with Lisa Z., just knowing that I will be seeing a close friend puts me in a better mood.

  9. Ana

    Interesting research, but not surprising. Friends not only distract you from your worries, but provide a sounding board, so that your thoughts and anxieties don’t keep eating you up inside. And stress has DEFINITELY been shown to have many detrimental health effects. That’s why its likely that the “quality over quantity” statement above is so true…a toxic “friendship” is worse than none at all.
    I’ve got a theory about why spouses/family don’t have the same effect as friends: they are too close, too part of your everyday life and the stresses/worries/and even mundane-ness it contains. Whereas friends are on the outside, they are not NECESSARY to your daily life, but add enjoyment and happiness like sprinkles on your ice cream or whipped cream on your coffee! (i’m clearly very hungry)

  10. ann

    Like Krista, I had a cancer diagnosis; unlike Krista, I leaned on my friends a lot. I am completely confident that all the love and support I felt during my treatment made me stronger, psychologically and emotionally. And we know conclusively that our mental state can affect our physical state.

    And on the Grey’s thing, I still watch. I kind of like Meredith in her new happy, balanced place. And I love Lexipedia in her wild, discombobulated place.

  11. Beth

    I totally believe in this. Interesting to see it proven in such a clinical manner.

    Ana, I agree with your theory. You get to pick your friends (and your husband!) and that is a special thing.

  12. My friends seem to have a negative effect on my liver…. Remind me to make a new BFF who only likes tea. ;)

  13. Pingback: Ann L. Dunnewold, Ph.D. » Blog Archive » The value of friends, part 2

  14. Dee

    I’m almost 40 and still on the search for that friend or couple we can just call and say -hey -what are you doing tonight? We’ll bring the pizza! That complete spontaneousness is my mark of true friendship -when it doesn’t matter what you cook or how your house looks.

    As for how it affects your physical health – my dear friends never told me to check anything medical out or anything like that, but when I did find things, they were there to hold my hand and take some of the stress off.

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