Friends With Benefits

A bunch of friends hanging out.

Last weekend I had the unique experience of getting a face cramp. I’d laughed so hard and so long that I’d taxed my smile muscles to their breaking point. This giggle attack was induced by a weekend with my graduate school friends. We try to get together for a weekend away once a year.

Being with friends is invigorating

This weekend is so important to me that I make it a priority. Every year I come back home feeling reinvigorated. I have more inspiration for work (we’re all science journalists), more patience with my children and more energy and focus.

This is without a doubt the most dedicated time I get to spend with friends, so, it’s not surprising that I get such a surge of well-being from it. In fact, having good friends is becoming widely accepted as an important part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

The Mayo Clinic names it an important component to healthy living in its lifestyle guide. It includes tips on how to make friends as an adult, which can be a challenging endeavor, and how to maintain the relationships we already have.

Positive social relationships

By taking time to reconnect with my grad school friends, I not only impact my sense of well-being but also build up physical benefits that may help keep me from catching colds, bolster my efforts at healthy lifestyle changes, and possibly increase my longevity.

Scientists have long wondered about the biological mechanisms linking friendships and better living. Many studies point toward lowering stress levels. In these studies scientists measure the amount of the primary stress hormone cortisol in the blood stream. People with more friendship connections have lower levels of cortisol in their blood. This means they have lower stress levels, which is linked to better overall health.

Friends for better health

Even something as physiologically fundamental as our heart rates can be affected by our friends, as a Canadian study showed last fall. Jean-Phillipe Gouin and colleagues found that international students had more changes in their heart rhythms when they started college in a new country than those students who were able to make social connections within the first few months.

Variation in the rhythm between heartbeats is a good thing. It shows that the heart is adaptable and cardiac health is good. A decrease in variability isn’t. The international students all showed a decrease when they first moved abroad. But after some months, that decrease subsided for students with more friends. Their social connections were, in essence, protecting their hearts.

The chicken or the friendly egg?

With all of these studies there is some question of causality. Is it possible that people who are healthier are likely to attract more friends just as our friends are likely to keep us healthier? Absolutely. But science is incrementally proving just how social interactions affect our well-being. It is a continuing reminder of how important it is to nurture our friendships so that they can continue to nurture us.


Meredith Knight is a science journalist based in Austin, TX.

 

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