Yes, Friends Are Good for Mental and Physical Health


A true friend is there for you always, not just when it’s convenient. “Showing up in moments of need is really important in friendships,” Dr. Franco says, adding that if a friend calls with a crisis at midnight, a true friend won’t opt out. “If you’re in crisis, I have to wake up,” she says. “Unless I’m in crisis, too, I’m going to show up.” Franco is also author of Platonic: How the Science of Attachment Can Help You Make — and Keep — Friends.

It’s also important to acknowledge that not everyone’s social support network looks the same. Your network could be made up of a partner, family members, friends, coworkers, teachers, or neighbors, Dr. Harding says. “The benefits are with anyone in your life that provides positive social support,” she says. No matter if your network of friendships looks like a partner and a lot of close family ties, or if it’s filled with people who aren’t related to you biologically, every type of positive social support is beneficial, Harding says.

How a Strong Social Network Supports Physical and Emotional Health

So, what does the science say about why strong social ties are good for health and well-being? Here’s what we know:

1. Friendships Promote a Sense of Belonging

No matter what unites you with your group of friends, simply feeling included — like you belong to a particular group — is beneficial, says Mahzad Hojjat, PhD, a professor of psychology and chairperson at UMass Dartmouth, who has led research on friendships, the benefits of close relationships, and marriage. A sense of belonging fulfills an important emotional health need and helps decrease feelings of depression and hopelessness, according to a previous study among people diagnosed with depression.

“In essence, people need people — we need to feel that we matter to others, that we belong to a social web of connections,” says Suzanne Degges-White, PhD, professor and chair in the department of counseling and higher education at Northern Illinois University in DeKalb, Illinois, who has studied friendships. “It is our relationships that give our lives meaning.”

2. Friends Can Help Boost Self-Esteem

Friends can improve your self-confidence and self-worth. A good friend is your cheerleader. “You want to have friends to share in your success who are happy for you,” Dr. Hojjat says.

A 2020 meta-analysis published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that self esteem and positive social relationships go hand in hand. The researchers found a reciprocal relationship between the two, meaning that positive relationships build self esteem while high self-esteem also leads to more satisfying relationships.

3. Strong Social Connections Help Offset Stressors in Your Life

“Friendships go a long way in helping us buffer stress,” Hojjat says. “As we go through difficult periods of life, friends can help.” Unloading the details of a bad day onto a friend can relieve some of your own stress, she says.

Physical touch can make a difference, too. A study published in 2018 in PLoS One found that receiving a hug relieved negative emotions such as stress. “Positive and welcome physical touch is great for connection and health,” Harding says.

Also, experts suspect that loneliness can negatively affect your physical health and stress response. According to the American Psychological Association, feeling isolated and lonely can increase chronic stress, which can negatively impact immune functioning and lead to a host of health issues.

It’s important to note that friendships must be positive to have this effect. “Negative friendships can actually increase stress and can harm your physical or mental health,” says Jan Yager, a sociologist, relationship coach, and author of more than 50 books, including Friendgevity: Making and Keeping the Friends Who Enhance and Even Extend Your Life, based in Fairfield County, Connecticut.

RELATED: How Does Loneliness Affect Our Health?

4. Friendships May Help Protect Cognitive Health

The health benefits of friendships extend to the brain, too. A study published 2021 in BMC Geriatrics found older European adults who had larger social networks and calendars filled with social activities had better cognitive function than their lonelier peers.

A study published in 2021 in JAMA Network Open found that having a friend you can have good conversations with may be part of what’s protecting brain health. The data showed that in a group of 2,171 adults who had participated in the Framingham Heart Study, those who reported having someone in their lives they could count on as a good listener were more likely to have higher levels of cognitive resilience (a measure of brain health known to be protective against brain aging and disease, like dementia).

5. Friends Help Us Cope With Grief of All Kinds

Think about the last time you faced a challenging situation, such as a death in the family or loss of something else important to you (like a job, a pet, or a relationship). Having friends you could lean on likely helped you pull through. “People who are lonely have more difficulty bouncing back from life’s challenges,” Harding says.

A small previous study found that mothers who experienced a stillbirth relied on social support to escape loneliness. A systematic review published 2020 in BMC Psychiatry found having social support after sudden or violent bereavement reduced the severity of depression and PTSD symptoms.

“Having people in our lives and social support is probably the No. 1 thing helping people get through traumatic times,” Franco says.

6. Friends Can Encourage Healthy Behaviors

Having positive relationships with people who make healthy choices can motivate you to make similarly healthy choices, Hojjat says. “If friends are into physical activity, you may be drawn into that,” she says.

Plus, simply having a friend who counts on you can give you the motivation you need to take better care of yourself, says Dr. Degges-White. “If someone else is depending on us to be there for them, we are going to do what we need to do to honor our commitment,” she says.

Friends can also speak up if they’re concerned about you. “If you’re engaging in unhealthy behavior, friends are the ones who see it if you’re drinking too much or you’re gaining too much weight, because they’re seeing you and they’re interacting with you every day,” Hojjat says.

7. Staying Socially Connected to Others May Lower the Risk of Long-Term Health Problems

“Our ability to have social connection is so essential to our ability to live a healthy life,” Franco says.

A review published in 2020 in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that social isolation and loneliness may be linked with inflammation. Unhealthy levels of inflammation can be dangerous and may lead to heart disease, arthritis, stroke, or Alzheimer’s disease, according to Harvard Health Publishing.

Having strong social ties has also been linked with a lower risk of depression and healthier blood pressure and body mass index, according to Mayo Clinic.

8. Strong Relationships May Help Us Live Longer

A previous review found that there was a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival during the study’s follow-up period for participants with strong social relationships.

And the effects of social connections on survival were consistent even when controlling for factors like age, gender, or medical problems, Harding says of that research. “Those who have more social integration — as measured by marital status, number of friends, involvement with friends — had the biggest health boost.”

9. Healthy Friendships Tend to Make Us Happier

A study published in 2019 in PLoS One found that a strong social circle (as measured by study participants’ cellphone activity) was a better predictor of happiness and general wellness than fitness tracker data, such as heart rate and physical activity.

“Researchers aren’t precisely sure why this phenomenon occurs,” says Irene S. Levine, PhD, a Westchester County-based psychologist, friendship expert, and co-producer of the Friendship Rules newsletter. It could be a combination of the positive health effects listed above.

It helps if you associate with happy people, especially if they live close by. Research involving more than 4,000 adults showed that having a happy friend who lives within a mile of you increases your own likelihood of being happy by 25 percent.


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