Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Friendships for the Ages (and Your Health)

Two of my closest friends in the world are visiting me in California this weekend. Sara will be flying all the way from Massachusetts and Pam all the way from Virginia! In honor of their visit, I wanted to write a brief post about friendship and health.

As it turns out, having a complex social network is significantly linked to lower mortality rates. According to a 2010 article in Forbes, researchers from Brigham Young University conducted a mega-study (by combining the results from multiple other studies) and found that those with adequate or high social relationships have a 50% greater likelihood of survival in a given time period than those who are more isolated. Some of the highlights of the study show that, in terms of mortality, low social interaction is:
  • as bad for your health as smoking 15 cigarettes a day.
  • as dangerous as being an alcoholic.
  • as harmful as never exercising.
  • twice as dangerous as obesity.
Wow, those are pretty striking comparisons! And it's not just about having one solid friend. Those individuals who have more complex networks, including family, friends, neighbors, coworkers, and such, are better off in terms of health than those who do not engage with such an elaborate network.

Just this week, I read an article on CNN that links living alone with depression. In a seven-year study of 3,500 men and women, among those who lived alone, nearly 25% filled a prescription for an anti-depressant, compared to just 16% of people who lived with a spouse or roommate. Of course, this brings up the question, does living alone lead to depression, or are people who are already more likely to become depressed also more inclined to live alone? I would imagine that the answer is likely a bit of both. Although the study did not show specific causation of depression from the solitude, it seems to correspond, at least in part, to the above article about lack of complex social networks posing a health threat.

An article in the New York Times describes other effects of friendship. One particularly interesting study placed University of Virginia students at the bottom of a steep hill with heavy backpacks and asked them to estimate the steepness of the incline. Some students were placed next to friends and others were placed alone. Those who were next to friends estimated the hill to be less steep, and the association was stronger the longer the friends had known each other. (And how appropriate, since Pam, one of my two friends coming this weekend, went to University of Virginia, where the study was conducted, and has been in my life since first grade. I bet that hill would look like a valley to us! I have known Sara no short time, either - since one fateful day in sixth grade.)

In the training to become a Court Appointed Special Advocate (CASA), I learned that lack of a strong social network for a parent is one potential predictor of child abuse. Raising children is stressful and confusing for many parents. Having the emotional, sometimes financial, and even babysitting support of family can ease the burden of the constant stressors or prevent a parent from feeling pressured to leave a young child alone in order to attend work or run errands (which would constitute child neglect). Having close friends can help an adult stay connected to the outside world and remain emotionally stable. In addition, social contacts can act as accountability partners, guiding and correcting behaviors, or pointing parents to appropriate support agencies and resources, if necessary, while sharing life together.

There are a host of other studies which tout many of the same or similar statistics. Friendship changes our risk of heart attack, depression, death. Friendship helps us rebound from trials. Friendship changes our attitudes and enhances our hope for the future.

I know this firsthand, as I have ridden many ups and downs of life with those who are closest to me. I have had some very dear friends turn me away from the most destructive habits and idols in my life, and I thank God daily for putting them in my path to radically change me. I have made many mistakes that have been deeply hurtful, and my true friends have shown me the strong power of forgiveness. I have received many hours of counsel from the wisdom of those who care about me and have done my best to support them in their times of need, as well. I have been blessed with fun and laughter through friends found in a new place and have felt myself deeply connected to a town where I thought my heart would have no ties. I have no doubt that having these incredible men and women in my life has transformed my journey, character, and outlook. Where would I be without them?

So today, I just want to say that I am thankful for my friends. The statistics confirm what I have known all along. Friends are good for my health!


  1. Love all these photos! Can't wait to take more when we're in Cali!

  2. Hope you all have a great time!!