Reasons why close friends are good for your health

Here are just a few more reasons why you should prioritise your pals

UMNIA SHAHID July 12, 2015

What is one of the best kept secrets to good health and a long life? Having a robust social network that includes solid friends. As compiled from Reader’s Digest, Self and Health magazines, here are just a few more reasons why you should prioritise your pals.

Women with best friends are happier

“Smaller networks actually predict positively for mental health,” says Laura L Carstensen, PhD, director of the Stanford Centre on Longevity in California. “Pruning superficial friendships is part of the process of figuring out who you are and who you want to be around. The ones who have your back are likely to be there for life.”

But how many pals does it take to feel happy and loved? Fewer than you might think. In Carstensen’s studies of older people, it seems that it’s best not to dip below three. In other words, three people who are central to your well-being and who will drop anything for you in a crisis. “Once you go below three,” Carstensen warns, “you’ll be more vulnerable to loneliness, anxiety and depression.”

Friends make hills seem less steep

And not just in a metaphorical sense. In a fascinating study published in the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, participants estimated a hill to be less steep when they were accompanied by a friend than when they were alone. What’s more, the longer the friends knew each other, the less steep the incline seemed. Beyond the hill, having a strong social network of friends can help you encounter life-changing circumstances, such as divorce or the death of a family member. Studies have shown that close friends can make the “healing process” much easier.

Friends make you look more attractive

A detailed study from the University of California, San Diego, suggests that the cheerleader effect—the idea that you look more attractive in a group than you do alone—might be true. When researchers asked 139 college students to rank the general attractiveness of people in a group photo, then to rank one person from the group when shown his/her photo individually, the individual photos were ranked 5.5 per cent less attractive. This proves that if you go out with close friends, you could be perceived as more attractive by onlookers.

Buddies help you battle cancer

In a 2005 study published in the journal Cancer, women with ovarian cancer who had adequate social support (a lot of friends) had an average of 70 per cent less interleukin-6, a blood protein that can reduce the effectiveness of chemotherapy, than patients with fewer friends. When Julianne Holt-Lunstad, associate professor of psychology at Brigham Young University analysed data from nearly 150 studies of social relationships for a paper published in PLOS Medicine, she uncovered that a weak social circle can take a toll on you if you have cancer—comparable to smoking a pack of cigarettes a day. “We need to start taking our social relationships more seriously,” Holt-Lunstad said in a statement. “The effect of this is comparable to obesity, something that public health takes very seriously.”

Close friends share DNA

You might wish your best friend could be your sister or brother; now a recent study suggests that close friends share about one per cent of their DNA, making them as close genetically as fourth cousins. Researchers from Yale University and the University of California San Diego analysed data from nearly 2,000 people and found that the “chemistry” that draws friends together may stem from shared DNA. This could help explain the evolution of close friendships. In other words, close friends are comparable to siblings and may in fact come to your rescue when you need a shoulder to cry on or when you need financial help.

Women with best friends live longer

A study in the American Journal of Health and Behaviour reports that socialising with friends can have as positive an impact on health as quitting smoking, working out or eating right. And in a 10-year Australian study, researchers found that subjects who had a solid group of friends were 22 per cent less likely to die earlier than those who had few close pals to depend on. However, if your friends are more like frenemies, they may be leading you to gain weight. Based on studying monkeys, researchers at Wake Forest University School of Medicine have found that social stress can lead to belly fat. If your friends don’t truly have your back and aren’t making your life easier, happier and more fulfilling for you, they’re actually contributing to your tummy pooch! So dump the toxic friends and you’ll dump pounds as well. 

Published in The Express Tribune, July 13th,  2015.

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