Human beings have a built-in need for friendships. Friends help us through the pressures of everyday living and the havoc that stress can wreak on our health. Especially around the holiday season, we often draw closer to friends and family.
“Humans are predisposed to bond emotionally with significant others [because] our brain cannot survive without friends,” says Stephanie Cacioppo, PhD, director of the Brain Dynamics Laboratory at the University of Chicago.
“We bond with people who have similar deep values and empathy [and who] put others before themselves,” she says.
Friends are a buffer to stresses big and small. “[Friends] give us not only a reciprocal sense of emotional support and a purpose in life, but they also have health benefits,” Cacioppo says. “For instance, knowing you can count on friends during trying times — even if they are at a distance — lowers your stress level, improves your immune system, your attentional focus, your physical and mental performance, your sleep and your level of motivation.”
Good friendships can help relieve stress and its negative impact on our health, says Alexandra Solomon, PhD, a licensed clinical psychologist at The Family Institute at Northwestern University.
“In good friendships we can drop our masks and be our authentic messy, quirky, imperfect selves and be loved for who we are, so it makes sense that [friendship] is good for our health,” she says. A good friend will listen in order to understand, instead of listen in order to respond, she says. Also, a good friend will ask what the other friend needs from them, instead of making assumptions, she explains.
Deep-seated friendships like these play an invaluable role in our well-being. “They provide a sense of meaning, belonging and continuity that are good for us,” says Solomon, the author of Loving Bravely: Twenty Lessons of Self-Discovery to Help You Get the Love You Want.
Without friends, we may feel isolated. In fact, loneliness is so pervasive that former Surgeon General Vivek H. Murthy, MD, called loneliness an epidemic.
A recent Cigna study found that 46 percent of American adults sometimes or always feel alone. Being alone can be restorative when it’s a choice, Solomon says. But research shows that loneliness can be as risky to one’s health as smoking or obesity. It is associated with cardiovascular disease, dementia, depression, sleep disturbances, substance abuse and suicide.
We bond with people who have similar deep values and empathy [and who] put others before themselves”
Friendship is a powerful antidote to loneliness and the negative impact loneliness has on our physical and emotional health, Solomon says. But making friends is not necessarily quick and easy.
“Friendship requires active cultivation. Research shows that it takes 200 hours of being together, sharing, talking, making memories and reminiscing about memories to go from being strangers to being good friends,” she says.
Instead of experiencing the fight-or-flight response when under stress, some people go into a mode called “tend and befriend,” Solomon says. For our ancient ancestors that meant protecting their offspring (tending) and cooperating with others (befriending) for mutual help.
“Women, especially today, go into the tend-and-befriend mode instead of the flight-or-flight response,” Solomon says. “They reach out and connect with friends, which buffers the stress.”
In today’s digital world, social media plays a huge role in friendships, but it’s important to interact in person, too. “If you use [social media] only as an observer to watch strangers having a social life but never connect with anyone who is significant to you, you can be extremely lonely,” Cacioppo says. “But if you use it as a way station to connect at a spiritual and intellectual level with an old good friend, or to meet your friends, then [it’s] beneficial for your health and well-being.”
After all, we all can get by with a little help from our friends.
Erin O’Donnell is a freelance health and science writer, parent, and graduate of Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism. Walks by Lake Michigan make her happy.