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Why Your Friendships Are Important To Your Health

Lean on me when you’re not strong,
And I’ll be your friend. I’ll help you carry on.

–Bill Withers, Lean On Me

When the road looks rough ahead
And you’re miles and miles from your nice, warm bed.
You just remember what your old pal said,
Boy, you’ve got a friend in me.

Randy Newman, You’ve Got a Friend In Me

Sometimes you want to go where everybody knows your name,
And they’re always glad you came.

–Gary Portnoy and Judy Hart Angelo, Theme from the TV show, “Cheers”

 

As I was thinking about this article on friendship, these songs came to mind.

And the funniest thing happened: I began to feel good. Not just emotionally, but physically. It was like standing under a warm shower of good feelings. Maybe you’ve experienced that, too. You’re thinking about a good friend, and suddenly good feelings wash over you.

Am I saying that the emotions associated with friendship have a physical manifestation?

Yep.

The Friendship/Health Link

Here on “Think Right Thursday,” we look at the mental, emotional, and spiritual sides of our lives and how they relate to our physical health — after all, they’re all connected. Our relational health is another side of our emotional life, and it’s just as important to our physical health as diet and exercise.

A 2009 article in the New York Times explains, “Researchers are only now starting to pay attention to the importance of friendship and social networks in overall health. A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends. A large 2007 study showed an increase of nearly 60 percent in the risk for obesity among people whose friends gained weight. And last year, Harvard researchers reported that strong social ties could promote brain health as we age.”

“In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t terribly well appreciated,” said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro. “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage, but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.”

The Mayo Clinic has done considerable research on friendship and health. “Socially engaged adults age more successfully. According to surveys of women over age 60, those who are socially engaged and visit with friends and family throughout the week are happier as they age.”

The Addictively Good Feeling

One of the reasons is that the hormone oxytocin, which is released during positive social interactions. Oxytocin is the primary ingredient in Oxycodone, a powerful (and often highly addictive) pain medication. Oxytocin is flowing when your team scores a touchdown, when your organization finishes an important project, and when you are reunited with long-lost friends. It’s one of the reasons soldiers in combat form such strong, life-long bonds with each other.

Feelings of belonging are strongly associated with oxytocin release. People who feel like leaders (or at least contributors) in a social group of peers are more likely to be healthier in their later years than those who feel like outsides.

Oxytocin, and the feelings associated with it, have a positive effect on your immune system. In other words, feeling good can keep you feeling good. By the same token, prolonged feelings of sadness and isolation are often predictors of sickness.

I’ve talked about it before, but my patients with a positive attitude consistently get better results than patients who are fearful, depressed, or grumpy. They maintain good health longer, too.

Health Benefits

According to Mayo’s research having a few good friends can:

  • Increase your sense of belonging and purpose
  • Boost your happiness and reduce your stress
  • Improve your self-confidence and self-worth
  • Help you cope with traumas, such as divorce, serious illness, job loss or the death of a loved one
  • Encourage you to change or avoid unhealthy lifestyle habits, such as excessive drinking or lack of exercise

Oxytocin is also an important part of trust and safety. When you feel safe with people, your “fight or flight” reflexes relax, your adrenaline and cortisol production go back to normal, and your body rests.

On the other hand, extended exposure to cortisol and adrenaline (the “fight or flight” hormones) slowly eats away at your nervous system and organs. Unforgiveness does, too.

Do you see how this all works together? Good relationships contribute to good health. That’s why so many cancer centers include family and support groups in the process of treatment. If you feel like you have people in your corner who love and support you, you are more likely to keep up a positive attitude during treatment and hold on to hope when things look bad.

What Are Your Friendships Like?

Do you have people you can trust in your life? Are there friends around you with whom you can share your joys and pains? If not, I strongly encourage you to find a group of like-minded people – and not just on your computer. Face to face interaction can seem intimidating for some people – especially those who consider themselves shy – but if you can overcome those feelings, you can find a wealth of life-affirming benefits in close friendships. I recommend a good church or synagogue where people are welcoming and inclusive (sadly, not all faith organizations are like that, so choose carefully). Get involved in a local charity or club. You’ll start to see all of the benefits I mentioned above playing out in your health.

If this was helpful to you, please share it on social media. You have people around you who are quietly (and literally) dying because they are alone, and this may be their ticket to better health – emotionally AND physically.

We’ll see you here next week.

Oh, that reminds me… if you’re in the Southwest Florida area, join us tonight for another great “Fundamental Food Event,” at our office in Naples. We’re going to dig deeper into our relationship with food. I’ve got some fascinating things to share with you. Bring a dish to share.

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