[Level 2: Comfort]
In 1985, when the General Social Survey polled Ameri- cans on the number of confidants they had in their lives, the most common response was three. In 2004, the same survey indicated that the most common response was zero.
I think that we should pay at least as much attention to the state of our relationships as we do to our diets since having too few friends or too many bad relationships appears to be as detrimental for you as a poor diet.
The role that friends play in our lives has only recently became more prominent in the world of psychology. Historically, most of the research regarding friendship relates to children and adolescents. Adult friendships have been grossly under-researched. More recent research indicates that humans are social creatures and that our relationships with our fellow humans are critical to our well-being.
The causes of many social problems such as divorce, homelessness, and obesity are often considered to be related to poverty, stress or unhappiness. Of course, this may well be correct. Nevertheless, some researchers have suggested that friendship may also be playing a significant role.
The philosopher Aristotle said, “In poverty and other misfortunes of life, true friends are a sure refuge. They keep the young out of mischief: they comfort and aid the old in their weakness, and they incite those in the prime of life to noble deeds.”6
Effective friendships take time to develop and can- not be artificially created. Simply knowing someone doesn’t constitute a friendship. What is a real friend? And what impact does that friendship have on your well-being?
The Gallup Organization’s director, Tom Rath, researched friendship for his book Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford to Live Without. He makes the point that, when asked why their marriages failed or why they overeat, homeless people blamed the poor quality or lack of friendships. They felt outcast or unloved.
Rath’s research uncovered some interesting statistics: “If your best friend eats healthily, you are five times more likely to have a healthy diet yourself. Married people say friendship is more than five times as important as physical intimacy within marriage. Those who say they have no real friends at work have only a one in 12 chance of feeling engaged in their job. Conversely, if you have a ‘best friend at work,’ you are seven times more likely to feel engaged in your job.”
The idle chatter among friends at work is likely to be a good predictor of happy and productive employees. This is the opposite of the behavior that was encouraged in the Industrial Age when employees were encouraged to effectively shut up and get on with their jobs.
Rath recommends conducting a “friendship audit” in order to recognize which friendships provide you with the different things you need. Then consider how to work on improving these friendships. It is important to note that it’s not necessarily appropriate to judge friends in a detached what-can-you-do-for- me the way. Friendship is not necessarily bad simply because you can’t identify its obvious rewards. In some cases, the benefits of friendship may not be identifiable, but that does not mean that the relationship has no benefits. Many close relationships are valuable for absolutely no reason other than that they are close.
Jane Collingwood, in her article “The Importance of Friendship,” writes: “Aristotle made the point that it is better to give than to receive in friendship. Aristotle also believed that friendship can only arise indirectly, like happiness. It comes with living what he called the good life, including strong personal values such as honesty, character, and passion.”
The Industrial Age skewed our views to overemphasize commercial matters, but that era is behind us. As the philosopher, Epicurus said, “The noble man is most involved with wisdom and friendship.”
The limited research that has been completed on the subject of loneliness has revealed the health risks of loneliness and the benefits of strong social connections. Laura Carstensen, Ph.D., who directs Stanford University’s Center on Longevity, says, “For years and years… People speculated that if you felt alone or lived alone or you were alone a lot, you wouldn’t eat good meals, you wouldn’t exercise as much, nobody would take you to the doctor. But I think what we’re learning is that emotions cause physiological processes to activate that are directly bad for your health.”
A lacking social circle is considered to be a significant health risk according to some research. In her article “Friends Want- ed,” Anna Miller writes: “In one meta-analysis of 148 studies that included more than 308,000 people, a Brigham Young University psychologist found that participants with stronger social relationships were 50 percent more likely to survive over the studies’ given periods than those with weaker connections—a risk comparable to smoking up to 15 cigarettes a day and double that of obesity.” The researchers suggest that the risks are likely even greater because their analysis did not consider the quality of the participants’ social connections. Miller also cites a study in Psychological Bulletin (2013), involving more than 177,000 participants, which reveals that people’s circle of friends has gotten smaller in the last thirty-five years.
Another study, conducted by Andrew Steptoe, Ph.D., of the University College London, tracked 6,500 British men and women aged 52 and older, and researchers found that both feel- ing lonely and being socially isolated raised the risk of death. 7
However, psychologist John Cacioppo, Ph.D., co-author of the 2008 book Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection, researched data from a 2012 study involving 2100 adults aged 50 and older. He discovered that, over a six-year period, feelings of loneliness were correlated with increased mortality. Further, marital status, the number of friends and relatives living nearby, and health factors such as smoking did not impact the results. Cacioppo says, “it’s not being alone or not” that affects your health, but rather “you can feel terribly isolated when you’re around other people.”
Other research, conducted by psychologist Lisa Jaremka, Ph.D., and colleagues at the Ohio State University, involved studying 200 breast cancer survivors and found that the lonely women experienced more pain, depression, and fatigue than those who had stronger connections to friends and family.
Psychologist Steve Cole, Ph.D., at the University of California, Los Angeles suggests that genes may play a role in how our social lives impact our well-being. His research team analyzed the gene expression profiles of chronically lonely people and found that certain genes in white blood cells were associated with feelings of loneliness.
Other benefits and risks
A 10-year Australian study that researched the effect of social networks on survival in very old Australians found that older people with a circle of friends were 22 percent less likely to die during the study than those with fewer friends.8 A 2007 study that focused on the spread of obesity in a large social network over 32 years revealed a 60 percent increase in the risk for obesity among people whose friends had gained weight. Research conducted by Harvard indicates that stronger social networks may have a positive impact on brain health as we age.
I think I have made the point regarding the importance of friends, particularly as it relates to our mental and physical health. However, I will leave you with one final piece of research that indicates that the benefits of friendship extend even further.
Researchers at the University of Virginia conducted another study that involved asking 34 students to stand at the base of a steep hill while wearing a weighted backpack. Some of the students stood next to friends while others were alone. When they were asked to estimate the steepness of the hill, the students that were standing next to friends provided lower estimates than the students that were standing alone.
It appears that being among friends makes challenges seem to be easier! And if the perception is a reality, then the challenge is easier.