The Many Health Benefits of Friends, Family, Community

Most people assert that life wouldn’t be nearly half as enjoyable, without the strong social network that makes us feel like less of ‘an island’. Friends, family and members of our community each fill the different ‘glasses’ which together enable us to be happy: the ‘glasses’ of fun, entertainment, trust, help, a shoulder to cry on… each person in our lives brings something unique to the equation, and we need each and every one of them, if we are to make it through the tougher and happier times in life. Research backs up what we know instinctually, pointing to various mental benefits we can reap from our social bonds. These include:

  • Lower Stress Levels: While stress is a normal part of our day-to-day lives, having chronically high levels of stress hormone, cortisol, can lead to serious conditions and illnesses, including inflammation, heart disease, and Type II diabetes. Mental conditions such as anxiety and depression can also develop when stress is severe. One study carried out for a three-year period by scientists in Sweden on 13,600 adults, however, showed the important role that friendship can play in keeping cortisol levels down.
  • Their findings indicated that those who had few or no good friends had a 50 per cent higher risk of having a heart attack, than those who had social support. Friendly types had far lower stress levels, lower blood pressure, a lower risk of diabetes and less abdominal fat. Keeping stress levels down is vital everyday, but especially when we are going through a particularly rough time, such as addiction recovery, when we most need people to rely on who do not judge, criticize or blame us. Keeping a healthy social circle around ensures that we are never alone, in good and bad times alike.

Friends enjoying a peaceful moment.

  • A Longer and Happier Life: A 2010 review of existing research showed that those who form part of healthy social circles are less likely to die prematurely, than those who are alone. The study shows that having friends and forming part of a community has twice the positive effect on lifespan, as quitting smoking or even exercising! The findings indicate that we should not downplay the importance that mental health has on our physical health; rather, the two are inexorably linked.

Friends hugging from behind

  • A Healthier Mind: One study found that the risk of developing dementia is 70 per cent lower in older people who have friends. The study, carried out by scientists in the Netherlands, observed over 2,000 people aged 64 and up, finding that feeling lonely is associated with an increasingly higher dementia risk. The results show that quality, rather than quantity, is what matters – in others words, it is the feeling of loneliness, rather than being alone, which is detrimental to our health. This is good news indeed for those who prefer to have a small but solid social circle. These individual should aim to strengthen the bonds they have, even if they have a small number of friends or they belong to a small community or family.

old friends playing chess

  • A Healthier Lifestyle: Studies have shown that we tend to do as our friends do – in other words, if our friends, family or community tend to exercise, we become more inspired to adopt this healthy habit. Without a doubt, going to the gym or going out for a walk can be difficult when all we feel like doing is sleeping in, yet when we have a friend waiting on us, it is more difficult to cancel or quit. Friends can also foster healthy competitions, as we fight to keep up with them physically and mentally!

Friends having a health lifestyle by running

  • A Greater Sense of Belonging and Purpose: Friends help us feel that although we may be older, we are still very much loved and an important part of their lives. In the same way that different friends help us out in different ways, we, too, are irreplaceable to our friends, since we fill a certain gap than nobody else can do. Unconditional friendship shows us that we don’t have to be the richest, best looking or most materially successful person, to be someone’s favourite person in the world – the person they turn to when they are sad, lonely, or in the mood for a killer game of chess!

Article Written by Helen Young for LAMP.