Here’s another fun one, folks: apparently this Thursday July 30th is International Day of Friendship!
The International Day of Friendship was proclaimed in 2011 by the UN General Assembly with the idea that friendship between peoples, countries, cultures and individuals can inspire peace efforts and build bridges between communities. I wholeheartedly agree! But—as I tend to do—I’d like to take at closer look at friendship from a health and science perspective.
While friendship may seem like a soft and fuzzy subject, I’d argue that there’s a whole lot of science behind its efficacy. Our bonds with other humans are their own kind of nature therapy—after all, we may forget it often, but humanity is very much a part of nature! And just like spending time in a wooded forest or petting a friendly dog can soothe our nervous system and reduce inflammation, positive interactions with friends can be a huge impact on your health, your well-being, and your longevity.
So what are the health benefits of friendship? Here’s five of my favorites:
- Stronger immunity. One 2006 study found that strong social support has a positive impact on the immune, cardiovascular and neuroendocrine systems—while other studies have found a weak social network can lead to depression, cognitive decline, poor wound healing, and delayed cancer recovery.
- Reduced stress. This one you might already know—but friendships make you happy! Spending time with friends can actually reduce cortisol, aka the stress hormone.
- A longer life. A 2010 study showed that strong social relationships were linked to decreased mortality. Others have found that older adults with rich social lives are actually likely to live longer than their peers with fewer connections. “Good, close relationships appear to buffer us from the problems of getting old,” says Dr. Robert Waldinger, a psychiatrist with Harvard-affiliated Massachusetts General Hospital.
- Accountability on healthier habits. Studies show that friends can help bolster and encourage healthy habits, like exercising or eating better. (This one can definitely go the other way too, though—so be careful what habits you’re encouraging!)
- General health. Friendships can improve mental health by increasing your sense of belonging and purpose and improving your self-confidence. As this article from the Mayo Clinic says, “Adults with strong social support have a reduced risk of many significant health problems, including depression, high blood pressure, and an unhealthy body mass index (BMI).”
Of course, the elephant in the room right now is the fact that, due to the pandemic and lockdowns, many of us are isolated and unable to connect with our friends the same ways we used to. But that doesn’t mean we can’t figure out new ways to experience the benefits of friendship from afar. It will take some creativity—but all things worth having usually do!
While physical touch is one important way to get these health benefits, it’s not the only way. Quality time spent together can help strengthen the bonds of friendship and all the benefits that come along with it.
So how do we do it? Start a book club with your old college friends, or an exercise accountability text chain with your former gym buddies. Schedule a weekly phone call with that cross-country friend you never got to see enough in the “before times.” Meet your old coffee date for a walk in the park; start an art project with a pal over Zoom; write a letter to your family overseas! A friend of mine even had a “PowerPoint party” recently, where each attendee put together and presented a PowerPoint on something they knew about; the topics ranged from serious to silly, but everyone had a blast learning more about each other!
The pandemic is definitely putting a strain on our relationships, but it’s also an opportunity to refocus on and reprioritize the relationships that feed and sustain our souls. We’re realizing now more than ever what things really matters—and true friendship is one of them. So make time for honest conversation, for memories and future plans, for laughter and for tears. We’ll need each other to get through this!