“My best friend is the one who brings out the best in me.” – Henry Ford
Is there someone you’re really close to, someone you trust, and with whom you feel you can share anything? Maybe this someone is your spouse, or a long-time friend. Or maybe, if you’re really fortunate, you have both. But think about it … have you ever thought about how true, quality friendship promotes lifelong happiness?
It turns out that recent studies have revealed that rich, caring, geniuine, and supportive friendships are not only emotionally fulfilling, but physiologically beneficial, too.
There are different kinds of friendships.
When you’re recovering from surgery, or from an accident, and all those many people step up to the plate to show their support… They bring food, send caring cards, offer to help with the kids. The support of your friends, or your acquaintances with big hearts, is worth its weight in gold at a time like that.
Maybe you have 696 friends on Facebook, and wouldn’t recognize half of them if they stepped on your toe at the grocery store.
But there’s a type of friend you know well … that you trust, and even if you see them only occasionally, you can pick right up where you left off without taking time to “catch up.”
Studies Examine the Health and Happiness Benefits of Friendships
Neuroscience researchers study the effects and benefits of this type of friendship and have for years. Close friendships have been correlated to healthier behavior, a lower occurrence of chronic illness, greater happiness, and lower death rates in older individuals.
But, no one had studied the benefits of friendships in young adults, middle-aged adults, and older adults at the same time.
Then came William Chopik.
William Chopik, at Michigan State University, studied 280,000 people (how’s that for a huge group?) to learn about their lives. He found that friendship possess growing importance for health and well-being throughout a person’s life. And he emphasized that friendships often are even more important than family for health and well-being in older adults.
To gather information for his first study, Chopik sent a survey to over 271,000 people in 100 countries. He asked questions about their relationships, their health, and their life satisfaction.
In his second study, he sent surveys to nearly 7500 older adults in the US.
From the first study, he found that relationships with both family and friends seemed to contribute to a healthier and happier life, across the board.Makes sense.
But also found that only friendships could signal health, well-being, and contentment at advanced stages of life.
Friendships are Predictors of Well-being in the Long Haul
Then the second study added insight. Turns out that as we age, friendships have more impact than during the earlier years. For instance, if friends proved to be a source of strain, his subjects reported more chronic illnesses, aches and pains.
By the same token, when friends were supportive and enjoyable, participants in the study reported more well-being and happiness. While family relationships are important too, for older adults, they can at times involve negative or monotonous interactions. In short, family relationships tend to have more baggage.
In general terms, Chopik found that friendships are predictors of happiness and contentment in our daily lives, as well as in how long we’ll live.
And they have more influence over your health than your family or even your relationship with your spouse.
This is HUGE.
Sometimes as parents we cringe at the way our teens surround themselves with friends as almost a fortress, but the friendships of children and adolescents help our children learn important skills for contributing to and maintaining healthy relationships. And as the years go on, strong friendships will become more and more important to their well being, too.
SuperAgers – Friendships Preserve Cognition
Just to carry this a step further, a study at Northwestern University took a close look at a group of people they call SuperAgers. That refers to people over 80 who have the mental clarity of people in their 50’s or 60’s.
These special people say they have rich, high quality, mutually-caring and -supportive relationships.
Their peers who have average cognition are missing that element.
In the past, research about SuperAgers focused on biological things. For instance, turns out that these special people have a larger brain cortex than their peers. Their diet, lifestyle habits, and exercise were also examined.
But, in this study the magnifying glass was on the social connections of SuperAgers.
They were given a survey – Ryff Psychological Well-Being Scale – that examined 6 areas of life that are believed to affect well-being:
- positive relationships with others
- environmental mastery
- personal growth
- purpose in life
The results? The SuperAgers scored an average of 40 in positive relationships questions, and the peers with average cognition scored a 36. This difference made a significant statement.
Researchers found this study particularly thrilling, just to realize the power of rich social relationships for preserving cognition. And excellent cognition is certainly important for enjoying life.
Fundamentally ENJOYING Life Forever
Now, let’s take it yet another step. What do you need in your life as the years go on, that will make living it a pleasure?
When the children are grown, and maybe your spouse has passed on, and you’re just left with you. What do you need to invest in now to keep life rich and meaningful till your last days?
While you think about that, consider this.
Until recently, there’s been very limited research about the part close friends play in building resilience to difficulty and hardship. But hard times come to everyone. No one gets a free skate through life without some tough stuff.
Resilience is a Life-Saver
For some, hardship is the downfall that marks the end of their productive life. For others, resilience rises to the task and sees them through the storm to emerge and thrive.
Dr. Rebecca Graber at the University of Brighton has been the first to provide a long-term look at the vast benefits of close friends toward strengthening resilience.
After recruiting 185 people online, and asking they fill out surveys, 75 responded and agreed. The questions on the survey involved assessments of the participant’s psychological resilience, the quality of their best friendships, how they cope when things are hard, and their self-esteem.
Then, a year later, she asked them to each respond to the same questions again so she could analyze how the quality of their best friendships affected their resilience in the past year.
She proudly announced this long-term study provided statistical evidence for the first time that shows what these valuable most trusted friends contributed to resilience in the participant’s life.
Your Friendships: Will They Last?
So with that said, how about you? Do you have friendships you believe in…that have the quality, sensitivity, integrity, and trust that you’d consider worthy of your investment to last a lifetime?
If you do, you’re fortunate. Sometimes sorority sisters or fraternity brothers maintain their close friendships through retirement. Always nurturing and investing, strengthening, and protecting those friendships that see them through the end of life.
For others, friendships come and go. And come and go. Maybe because you’ve made friends with the wrong people, or maybe because you haven’t learned yet how to be a really good friend. Maybe because you’ve moved. Been busy.
But, just as saving for retirement is a necessity of life, so is investing in friendships. When you find someone of good character, loyalty, and who carries a big broad heart to stand by the likes of you, you just may have found someone worth giving your time and kindness to.
Sometimes death interferes.
For many, those very special friends who are a beautiful match with who you are, just reveal themselves after children are living their own lives, and you have the time and energy to pay attention.
Resilience – and cognition – are elements in a fulfilling life. Not the focus of it, but more of a by-product. And the path to keeping those two elements running like a fine machine can be found along the path shared with a best friend or two.
Think about it.
If you’re lonely, and have trouble making friends, you may suffer from a condition that impairs that ability. There is no cure-all for loneliness, but there may be ways we can help you restore your ability to make friends and strengthen those friendships over time.
Social anxiety … depression …. can make it tough to make new friends, but IV ketamine treatment can lift symptoms that have been in your way. 80% of our patients at Innovative Psychiatry respond dramatically. They’re flourishing.
Call us and let’s talk about treatment possibilities to improve the quality of your life.
To your best self as life blooms for you,
Lori Calabrese, MD