Everyone knows that friends make life better, but there is a growing body of evidence that shows people who have good friendships and strong social circles live longer—as well as happier—lives.
In study after study, researchers have found that those who have friends are less likely to become disabled and if they do suffer a period of disability, more likely to recover. Further, people with fewer friendships are more likely to have a heart attack and to die as a result, while people with more social contacts are less likely to suffer cognitive decline.
The message from all this research: If friends are gifts, we give ourselves, it’s good to be generous.
Why are friends so good for us?
Health-wise, friends encourage us to do what’s good for us: eat better, drink less, exercise, and seek medical care when we need it; friends listen to us when we need to let off steam and cheer us up when we’re down. We stress less when we have friends who support us and help us along the way.
Frequently, family and friends are lumped together when people talk about support. However, friends don’t usually make the same demands that family members sometimes do. The old saying goes, “We choose our friends, but we’re stuck with our family.” Granted, we may have a supportive family that we’re very happy to be “stuck” with, but friendships allow us to experience ourselves in a new way and grow beyond the patterns and expectations of our family.
While friendships can be passing, we generally hang on to the ones that are meaningful. As we grow older, we may have fewer friends, but our pleasure in them grows. The reason: The reason: “People become more selective and get better at knowing the kind of people they like and don’t like,” says Stanford psychology professor Laura Carstensen. “And they steer away from those they don’t care for.”
These days, in our mobile, fast-paced culture, it’s more difficult to make and maintain social relationships than when folks stayed in one place and had more leisure time. People move across town or across the country and jam-pack their lives with schedules that leave no time for finding and nurturing friendships. Consequently, at the end of a too-full day or when a free weekend finally arrives, we may discover ourselves longing for the kind of easy pleasure friendship offers. Without friends, life can get lonely.
If you’ve moved to a new location, or your friends have drifted away and you need to restock the reservoir, reach out through joining groups and pursuing hobbies and interests where you’re likely to find kindred spirits. Extend a hand and an invitation.
Like any other living thing, friendship requires care and feeding:
• Give your friendships priority, not just when you’re lonely.
• A weekly date can provide the scaffolding for an enduring emotional relationship.
• When you can’t be together physically, keep in touch by phone, email, letter. Send pictures, too.
• Celebrate occasions together. Be there for the big events and the small. Create celebrations of your own.
• Make time for old friends, even if it might be an inconvenience.
The great spiritual writer Henri Nouwen sums it up perfectly:
“The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing… not healing, not curing… that is a friend who cares.”
Don’t forget to tune into our new podcast. Our latest podcast episode examines empathy and the possibility we are doing it wrong. You can find the latest episode here. Please feel free to pass it on to anyone whom you think might find it useful.