Is it possible that having close connections to good friends, old and new, is good for your health? Research suggests that if you cultivate a strong inner circle of friends—people you can count on through thick and thin—you may indeed gain an abundance of health benefits.
Not only do strong friendships make you feel happy and close to other people, these connections have several built- in health pluses. Beyond the emotional connections and good vibes that quality friendships offer, strong social connections can reduce stress, boost our immunity, and ward off memory loss and depression. Here’s how friends make the best medicine:
Buddy System Benefits Scientists have found that those positive feelings you have after hanging out with your best friends are not just emotionally based. Good friendships actually affect your serotonin, a neurotransmitter which sends signals from one area of the brain to another.
Although serotonin is manufactured in the brain, where it performs its primary functions, some 90% of our serotonin supply is found in the digestive tract and in blood platelets. Of our approximately 40 million brain cells, most are influenced either directly or indirectly by serotonin. When you interact with friends, serotonin is believed to influence your mood, behavior, sleep, memory, and learning.
Longevity Link Strong friendships also have another interesting benefit. Can friends help you live longer? Turns out they can do just that. Studies have shown that strong social networks can give you a 50 percent better chance of living a long life regardless of your age or gender. That conclusion was based on a study that followed 300,000 people for more than seven and a half years.
Another study, the 2005 Australian Longitudinal Study of Aging, also found that people with good supportive relationships were 22 percent more likely to outlive their peers who had the smallest number of good friends.
As you would expect, there’s a lot of excitement over studies like these because they suggest you can modify your life and tap into similar health benefits. The message is clear: If you have good friends, you can boost your overall brain health.
Quality vs. Quantity Is there such a thing as having the “right” amount of friends? If you have 3,000 friends on Facebook does that count as having a strong social network?
Studies have suggested that it’s not the number of people who have “befriended” you or like you on the Internet or you see on a regular basis that counts when it comes to health benefits. What is important is quality over quantity.
So trust your instincts when it comes to making close friends. If you are someone who prefers to interact on a one-on-one basis and get to know people that way, that’s fine. Maybe you prefer to get together with people in small groups. That works too, as long as you have a several close friends you can count on to be there for you when you need them.
Some psychologists have suggested that friends from different backgrounds, with varying hobbies and life interests, actually give us an increased number of health benefits. In terms of brain fitness that makes sense. Our brains need to be challenged. We need to stimulate our minds with a variety of experiences, especially as we age.
Find friends that you can have insightful conversations with, friends who enjoy similar books, art and movies. Like any muscle, the brain needs regular exercise to remain strong. A diverse set of friends will help your mind stay active and enjoy learning late into life.