Why friendships are important for your health

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Research shows that having strong friendships reduces your risk of mortality by 50%. Perhaps even more astonishing is that the health risk of having only a few friends is similar to smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and is, in fact, more detrimental to your health than being obese or not exercising.

The research concludes: ‘Physicians, health professionals, educators, and the public media take risk factors such as smoking, diet, and exercise seriously; the data presented here make a compelling case for social relationship factors to be added to that list’.

Let’s look at why friendship is important for your health and see how you can identify which of your friendships are helpful and which aren’t.

What is friendship?

We all know what friends are, but have you actually ever stopped to think about what friendship is?

The Britannica entry for ‘friendship’ reads: ‘Friendship, a state of enduring affection, esteem, intimacy, and trust between two people. In all cultures, friendships are important relationships throughout a person’s life span.’  It is a reciprocal bond between two people.

The four key ingredients of friendship:

  • Kindness – willingness to co-create or contribute to your own and the other person’s happiness 
  • Compassion – willingness to support and ease the suffering of the other person and be supported with your own. 
  • Joy – willingness to co-create or contribute to joy, fun, delight, wonder and merriment with the other person and yourself
  • Acceptance – acceptance of the other person’s limitations, as well as your own. We recognise that we’re not always able to be skillful. 

While often thought less important than family bonds or romantic relationships, friendship is actually more important, as highlighted by a range of research.

Types of friendship

We often have a sense of pressure that we need to have a certain kind of friendship for it to be important or to be real. Like the friendships you see in movies between BFFs or ‘best friends forever’. But the reality is that there are as many different ways of being friends as there are people. We all have friendships in our own individual ways and each of these bonds is co-created with the person we have them with.

It’s also important to recognise that friendships are often contextual. You may become friends with someone because your kids go to the same school, or simply because you live next door to each other. So because these people frequently appear in your life, you form a close bond.

Then there are the friendships that stand the test of time and remain as strong as ever, even though you don’t see each other very often. You know the kind. That old school friend who you sporadically meet up with, but when you do it seems like you only saw each other yesterday. This is a type of friendship where there’s an enduring sense of care, warmth and even love.

Who are your friends?

Who do you think of as friends? Moreover, what is it that lets you know you are friends? Is it the amount of time you spend together? Is it the kind of conversations you have? 

Maybe you’ve got friends who bring out your active side when you meet up, whether that’s gardening, hiking or playing sports. Likewise, you might have some friends who love food and drinks and you meet up to enjoy a good meal or share a bottle of wine with. All these are examples of the various types of friendship you can have, each of which tends to nurture you in a slightly different way.

The bottom line is all of our friendships are often different and that’s fine! Certain friends will draw out particular traits of yours. So you may find that you spend more time laughing and telling humorous stories when with one friend and more heartfelt conversations with another.

Comforting each other is a core part of friendships

Why is friendship important?

As we mentioned at the beginning of this blog, friendship and social connections can play a vital role when it comes to your health. A well-known review of research found that ‘loneliness, social isolation and living alone were risk factors for early mortality, with an increased likelihood of death ranging from 26% to a staggering 32%’.

The evidence is clear: friendship and social connections are incredibly important to our health and wellbeing.

A key aspect of friendship is that we get the chance to talk through what’s going on in our lives. This is an integral part of processing our experience which means to find our way forward through it, rather than avoiding it or getting stuck in it. 

We talk about how important it is to develop and connect with your inner coach. Well, because most of us find it easier to be kinder to others than ourselves, talking things through with your friend means you’ve got access to their kindness and coach which then helps you connect with your own.  

Friends act as a sounding board when you need to talk things through. It’s not until we have these conversations that we realise the bigger picture, allowing us to see it more objectively. This is called ‘self-regulation’.

Friendship and self-regulation

Self-regulation is a skill that allows people to manage their emotions, behaviour and body movement when they’re faced with a tough situation. If you ever find yourself so angry because someone has riled you and you really want to lash out, but don’t, that is self-regulation in action. Those who lack this important skill often act impulsively when faced with an emotional situation and only see the error of their ways and appreciate what they could have done differently afterwards.

Self-regulation has been shown to be an important factor in health and illness, this research concludes:

‘The ability to engage in self-regulation across a number of domains (behavioural, emotional, attentional, and social) appears to be a psychological characteristic … evident in children, and asserts an influence on the adoption and maintenance of health behaviours and health trajectories across the life span.’

Self-regulation plays a big role during childhood

Your friends are your mirror  

In addition to helping us with our self-regulation skills, our friends are more likely to spot patterns of unhelpful behaviour or habits that we have. Now that could be working too much, flitting from one relationship to another, or not eating well. Whatever your pattern is, there’s a good chance your closest friends know it. When you have conversations with them, they can often help by acting like a helpful mirror.

Whether your friend is in your family, a work colleague, neighbour, fellow dog walker or old school friend the key is to look beyond the role.  It’s not the roles that define your friendship and give it value but the quality of the connection.  Recognise that you co-create an experience that you both value and enjoy. It’s the place where both of you like to hang out and both of you are being nourished. 

How do you know if a friendship is helpful?

How do you gauge the quality of your friendships? Well, check your feelings. The key indicator is how the friendship actually feels. How do you feel about yourself when you’re with them? How do you behave when you are around them? 

Remember feelings are information. 

If the friendship makes you feel bad about yourself, chances are there is something going on in that friendship that is not good for you. 

  • Are you putting up with difficult behaviour because you’re scared that you won’t make other friends?
  • Are you feeling inadequate and struggle to appreciate why your friend wants to spend time with you?
  • Do you feel that you have to edit what you say to your friend?
  • Does your friend not honour confidentiality and share with others what’s private to you?
  • Does being with your friend make you clumsy and unskilful?

Not just any friend at any cost.

We all have challenging times and crocodile in spectacularly unskilful ways, this is not about being the perfect friend all the time but to get curious about the main premise of the quality of the friendship that you have. 

That’s why we always advocate getting curious and Sherlocking your friendships.

More information on Sherlocking can be found in our previous blog post here.

As children, quality friendships help our childhood social development, including self-esteem and social adjustment. As this research concludes: ‘Having friendships high in negative features increases disagreeable and disruptive behaviours, probably because the interactional style that children practice with friends generalizes to interactions with other peers and adults. Having friendships high in positive features enhances children’s success in the social world of peers…’

Caring for your helpful friendships

Don’t forget also that friendships are relationships and all relationships need nurturing to keep them strong and sturdy. If you don’t look after your friendships, there’s a good chance they will fade and you will drift apart.

Friendships are co-created between two individuals. If the effort is one-sided, chances are the friendship won’t flourish. I’ve got a friend who likens us meeting up to “watering the flowers”. She’ll suggest we meet up and “water the flowers”, her metaphor for nurturing our friendship and it’s a good one. 

Friends are like flowers in that if you don’t water them enough, they will droop and inevitably die. Water them too much and chances are you will drown them and they won’t thrive as they should. Recognise that friendships are something to care for, nurture and cultivate. 

That’s why you need to practice taking 100% responsibility for your 50% of the friendship that’s yours. Does one of you always initiate contact? Does it feel that you’re carrying the relationship? Or maybe that you’re leaving it all up to the other person?  How are you looking after your friendship?

Our invitation to you…

Our invitation to you today is to take stock and create a kind of map of the friendships that are in your life today. Actually write them down so your eyes can see them and you get that additional perspective.  Now, this isn’t about what they are supposed to be like, the idealistic vision of these friendships, but rather what they are actually like.

Then, begin to look at each of your friendships and get curious about whether they are helpful. 

Here are some questions to help you:

  • How do you feel about yourself when you’re with them? Good, bad, indifferent? 
  • Are you caring for the friendship like you would do for your other relationships? 
  • Are you giving it the nourishment it needs to continue and thrive?

Think about what happens when you bring that person to mind:

  • How does the thought of spending time with them make you feel? 
  • What was it like the last time you were together? 
  • And finally, are you both taking responsibility for your 50% of the friendship? Do you feel like an equal partner in the friendship?

Write your answers down as they’ll guide you in terms of which friendships to prioritise and help you care for them. 

Struggling with your social strength and stamina and it’s affecting your friendships? Check out our blogs about social atrophy:

Suffering social atrophy? – Published June 24, 2020

How to reverse social atrophy – Published March 5, 2021

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Go gently, hold steady, stay the course.
All the best, Thor