How Friends Make Life Better | Omega

Despite dwindling numbers of adult friendships, research says having more friends is good for your health and happiness.

Abbott and Costello. Laverne and Shirley. Kirk and Spock. Bert and Ernie. Thelma and Louise. Chandler and Joey. Harry and Hermione.

These iconic fictional friendships, depending on our age, hold special places in our memories. Whether these duos helped us laugh or had relationships we wanted to emulate in our own lives, they illustrate the value we find in friendship.

Friends can offer a listening ear, a hand to hold, or hug when you need it. But friendships are fading these days.

In 1985, the average American had about three close friends, according to national data from the General Social Survey. By 2004, the number had dropped to two close friends, and the number of people who said they had no close friends almost tripled.

“In general, the role of friendship in our lives isn’t terribly well appreciated,” Rebecca G. Adams, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina, Greensboro, told the New York Times. “There is just scads of stuff on families and marriage, but very little on friendship. It baffles me. Friendship has a bigger impact on our psychological well-being than family relationships.”

Adults face many challenges in establishing quality friendships. After years of school, most people jump right into full-time work. At least 40 hours of the week is spent in a professional setting where most interact in a structured, formal way. Marriage and children take up most nonwork time and leave people little time for maintaining friendships.

But research now shows the benefits of friendship and how it helps us succeed in life.

Friendship Is Healthy

As humans, we are social animals. From the beginning, we thrived in groups: tribes, clans, villages, communities, and civilizations. Our highest form of punishment is to isolate someone from everyone else by putting them in prison. 

Without social interaction, we can feel like a prisoner in solitary confinement—isolated and lonely. This, in turn, can lead to feelings of depression or a sense of emptiness.

And what affects us emotionally also affects us physically. Psychologist John Cacioppo, in his book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, details many of the physical issues that come from a lack of friendship. Stress hormone levels increase, as does blood pressure. Learning and memory can be adversely affected, and quality of sleep deteriorates. Loneliness can also lead to alcoholism and increased suicide risk.

In the Nurses' Health Study from Harvard Medical School, researchers found that women with more friends were less likely to develop physical injuries as they aged and more likely to lead a happy life. The results were so significant that the scientists concluded not having close friends could be as detrimental to your health as smoking.

Studies also report patients with a support system of family and friends have a higher success rate with medical procedures compared to those going it alone.

Face-to-Face Over Facebook

What about social media, a relatively new way to connect with each other?

While it is considered an accomplishment to collect as many friends and followers as you can online—numbers in the thousands are not uncommon—many people still feel alone. It seems there is still something missing within these digital friendships. Is it possible quality has been replaced by quantity?

study by the International Center for Media & Public Agenda (ICMPA) looked at habits of young social media users and found that people who spend more time building their online social networks actually experience a decrease in the quality of their real-life relationships.

Another study that tracked changes in adult friendships found that generally, “Internet users do not have fewer offline friends than do nonusers,” and heavy Internet users tend to have more offline friends than people who don’t use the Internet at all, suggesting that social people thrive in any social environment.

While people still report offline friendships are higher quality, researchers have found that mixed-mode friendships, or those originally formed online that move offline to phone or face-to-face communication, are perceived as similar in quality to offline friendships. In this case it doesn't matter how you make friends, just that you maintain contact offline.

An old saying goes, “Wishing to be friends is quick work, but friendship is a slow-ripening fruit.” Whether your friendships are online or in person, taking time to nurture them is important to your health and well-being, as well as your sense of community.

© 2015 Omega Institute for Holistic Studies