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Research: 5 Ways Friendships Help Us

By February 24, 2021Blog
Research: 5 Ways Friendships Help Us

Friends.

Loving, thoughtful friends.

Those who see the good in you that others miss.

The patient saints who overlook your bad points with grace.

Listening to you talk about the same thing over and over, never letting you know they are bored or irritated by it. They’re just there for you. Listening. Laughing. Making you laugh. Making you cry. And you need it, you need all of it.

They help you to lighten your mood and refocus on the positives with the laughter. They create fun times with you, nourishing both your souls and self-image.

They let you release the pain with their compassion and empathy. They hold you emotionally so that you don’t suffer in silence.

They re-energise you so that you regain what you’ve lost during the lows and they empower you so that you achieve more than you could alone. Happiness, success, health.

We need the good people in our life to survive and thrive, and good friends are one of the most vital of these. For some they are even better for their health and happiness than their family: partner, children, siblings, parents.

#1 Time with friends boosts our well-being

Recent research into how happy we are spending time with our friends compared with our family revealed that people actually report higher levels of well-being when spending time with their friends than with their romantic partner or children [1].

But before you go sneaking out the door, there’s a good reason for this. Don’t worry, you don’t secretly hate your partner or kids.

Researchers looked at:

  • how the participants spent their time – eg. commuting, shopping, housework;
  • who with – e.g. no one, romantic partner, friend, and co-worker;
  • and how they felt about those experiences – by rating their level of happiness, satisfaction, anger, sadness, frustration, worry, and a sense of meaning, on a scale of 0-6 (0 being not at all and 6 being very much).

Whilst the participants (aged 19-92 years) experienced greater well-being around their friends than when with their family (partners, children), the results highlighted that this was down to the nature of the time spent together. With friends it’s a case of less chores, more fun.

Their results also suggested that people have greater positive emotions when they spend time with loved ones such as friends, children and romantic partners than when with other relationships such as colleagues, bosses, and extended family, or when alone. Plus, they find those experiences more meaningful.

Therefore, if you do not have a romantic partner or children, and maybe don’t have siblings/parents or aren’t particularly close with them, time with friends is just as helpful and important for keeping your well-being on track.

#2 Friendships – like morphine – increase our pain tolerance

Turns out, the better connected we are socially, the more we are able to tolerate pain [2]. How interesting is that! Talk about the power of the human connection.

We are human. We need to be connected. That’s our thing.

But you ordinarily think of members of your social network giving you support in tangible ways, such as:

  • emotional support in times of emotional distress;
  • physical help when you need to move house, or need a lift to your destination;
  • practical help by way of contacts for fixing your car or getting a reliable tradesman;
  • financial help when you borrow money off a loved one for investing in a business.

You tend not to think, ‘Hey, at least I know if I break a leg it will hurt less if I have more friends out there in the world than if I’m lonely.’ But that may be the case according to this research.

Healthy adults aged 18–34 years old took part in the study. They were asked information about their two innermost social networks: individuals contacted on a weekly basis and individuals contacted on a monthly basis. Participants were also asked questions to elicit information about their personality, health, and their subjective view of their fitness and stress levels.

They then had their pain tolerance tested by being asked to squat against a wall with knees at a 90° angle and a straight back. They were asked to remain in this position for as long as possible, enduring the discomfort for as long as possible.

The result: those who were able to endure the pain for longer tended to have larger social networks.

Though at this stage the research does not explain what causes this correlation, the researchers consider one explanation might be that ‘individuals leading lives rich in social interactions may release higher levels of endogenous opioids and/or have elevated receptor expression.’

They also note how previous studies have also found a connection between pain tolerance and ‘the endogenous opioid system in human social bonding activities such as music-making, dancing and laughter’.

Endorphins are an endogenous opioid – they are our body’s natural painkillers which also give us feelings of pleasure.

In other words, being socially connected somehow affects our brain’s natural opioid (painkiller) system which in turn enables us to tolerate pain more easily, or you could say, gives us a higher pain tolerance.

#3 Empathic friends make us feel safe and supported

Instinctively, we know this. But you know that saying – ‘When the going gets tough, the tough get going’ – it is also true that when the going gets tough, the tough get going at it alone. Sometimes it’s simply because they don’t want to burden others with their worries and heartache.

We also know that people can isolate themselves when they are suffering from things like depression and anxiety disorders.

But research suggests we should connect with our empathic friends to feel safe and supported [3].

The study was conducted with 193 college freshmen at Stanford University living across four separate freshman-only dormitories.

The researchers found that whilst people high in well-being (i.e. life satisfaction and positive emotions) were sought out for fun – makes sense – people who were empathic were sought out for trust and support.

The researchers state: ‘Our findings suggest that empathic individuals help other network members through stress buffering’.

And very often, that’s the exact feeling we have when we speak to our close friends vs. ‘fair-weather friends’ (those a bit further out from our inner circle). With the close ones, you know you can speak to them in confidence, they usually won’t judge you, they will believe you, and they will strive to support you however they can.

As close friends choose to be in our lives, they happily pay the toll charge to traverse the journey of life with you. Whereas, sometimes, family and/or members of your outer circle can be more inclined to travel a different route from you until the sun comes out again.

So if you want to feel supported and safe, seeking out your empathic close friends is probably best.

#4 Supportive friendships help us to be resilient

Life is full of challenges. Sometimes they are big, sometimes they are small.

Sometimes you’re motivated to overcome them. Other times you might use them as an excuse for not doing something; really that’s because deep down you weren’t motivated to anyway.

But maintaining resilience helps us to keep going through the tough challenges life has thrown at us, expected or unexpected. And when life throws a punch, whatever your age, sometimes it’s the people around you who, like the boxing ring ropes, stop you from hitting your head on the ground.

Though we have different people in our social network that support our resilience in different ways – big thanks to all of them – friends can be hugely helpful. Plus, even if you have a small social network, it’s most likely you have at least one good friend, and if you don’t (you’re not alone in that and it is something I help clients with), you can usually go out and make friends more quickly and easily than, say, find a supportive romantic partner, or create and raise a child to an age where they are emotionally supporting you.

Research on 409 socioeconomically vulnerable British adolescents aged 11 to 19 years, found that even just one single supportive friendship can aid a person’s resilience [4].

These single friendships provided the youngsters with a place to seek support and actively cope with challenges, and there was a positive association between perceived friendship quality and resilience.

Therein lies that important point again: it’s about quality not quantity. It’s about supportive friends who truly love you and care for your well-being, not fair-weather friends who seek you out purely for their well-being.

#5 Friendships help prevent high blood pressure, and thus, related health problems

Sometimes we joke about someone raising our blood pressure. Rarely, however, do we think about how our social connections actually keep our blood pumping around our bodies at a healthy force. Apparently, though, they do!

In a study looking at the connection between social integration, social support, and systolic blood pressure and hypertension risk over time (of adults aged aged 57-85 years at the start), researchers found that over about five years (Wave 1: 2005-2010; Wave 2: 2006-2011), social connections affected both systolic blood pressure and risk of hypertension [5].

Systolic blood pressure (the force with which the heart pumps blood around the body) was used to assess physiological functioning whilst hypertension was used to measure disease risk.

Social integration was measured on the basis of how many people the study respondents were connected to and in what way, e.g. marital status, religious attendance, frequency of socialising with family, friends, neighbours, and frequency of volunteering. Social support was measured by how they felt about the quality of their social ties.

People with low social support went on to have increased systolic blood pressure while people with low social integration tended to go on to have an increased risk of hypertension.

Persistently high blood pressure can increase your risk of a number of serious and potentially life-threatening health conditions, such as: cardiovascular disease, heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and…death.

According to the NHS website, ‘Around a third of adults in the UK have high blood pressure, although many will not realise it’, whilst the researchers of this study state, ‘Approximately 2 in 3 older adults in the U.S. have high blood pressure…’

To prevent such grave health outcomes, friendships are one type of social connection that can help us prevent high blood pressure and the associated health risks. So as the study suggests, just having friends in your inner and outer circles can considerably help keep your blood pressure healthy, perhaps particularly as you age.

And if that doesn’t concern you right now, maybe it’s something you’ll want to encourage in older loved ones.

Friendships help us – big time!

Clearly, friendships help us.

A lot!

In many ways!

In ways we wouldn’t even consider.

Friends can be of varying degrees of closeness and still help our happiness, health and resilience.

Friendships. One of the best natural remedies out there.

References

1. Hudson, N. W., Lucas, R. E., & Donnellan, M. B. (2020). Are we happier with others? An investigation of the links between spending time with others and subjective well-being. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 119(3), 672–694. https://doi.org/10.1037/pspp0000290

2. Johnson, KA., Dunbar, R. (2016). Pain tolerance predicts human social network size. Scientific Reports, 6, 25267. https://doi.org/10.1038/srep25267

3. Morelli, S. A., Ong, D. C., Makati, R., Jackson, M. O., & Zaki, J. (2017). Empathy and well-being correlate with centrality in different social networks. PNAS Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 114(37), 9843–9847. https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1702155114

4. Graber, R., Turner, R., & Madill, A. (2016). Best friends and better coping: Facilitating psychological resilience through boys’ and girls’ closest friendships. British Journal of Psychology, 107(2), 338–358. https://doi.org/10.1111/bjop.12135

5. Yang, Y. C., Boen, C., & Mullan Harris, K. (2015). Social relationships and hypertension in late life: evidence from a nationally representative longitudinal study of older adults. Journal of Aging and Health, 27(3), 403–431. https://doi.org/10.1177/0898264314551172