Cultivating and maintaining friendships is a time and energy consuming undertaking. Though the immediate pleasures and fun of being with others is irrefutable, some people give keeping connections alive a low priority in their otherwise very busy lives. Yet, both medically and emotionally friends enrich and extend one’s life and should be considered as an essential part of one’s health plan.
We are aware of the benefits of a healthy diet, exercise, drinking in moderation, cessation of smoking, sufficient sleep, and stress reduction. Regrettably, the need for friendships has not been as emphasized as part of the healthy regimen, despite mounting evidence of its value.
In the last thirty years many research findings have documented the health benefits of friendships. For example, Dr. Berkman and colleagues of the Department of Health Services in California, who studied seven thousand men and women found, (as early as 1974 and substantiated over seventeen years), that people with the strongest social ties had significantly lower disease and premature death than those who were poorly connected. Dean Ornish, M.D. in his book Love and Survival cited many national and international studies confirming these results.
So how could something as life enriching be underemphasized? Perhaps it is promoted well enough – but is resisted because it requires energy and its benefits are not immediately evident.
Emotionally, every person who has shared a good conversation, fun activity and closeness with another being, is able to attest to the wonderful feeling he/she experiences during this exchange. Being with friends helps reduce stress, affirm our worth and helps us feel supported and connected.
Stress reduction occurs between friends through shared ideas and emotions. Being able to discuss any worry or concern alleviates the burden of holding it in. Speaking one’s mind helps the individual turn the internal, often frightening and circuitous self-dialogue into an external issue to be cooperatively addressed. For example, if one is concerned about a health, financial or relationship problem, his/her capacity to see a greater perspective may be limited. The worrier may think of all the possible dreaded outcomes as his fear and anxiety mount. Once the concern is shared with another person, a supportive and soothing friend may offer a perspective that reduces the cycle of doom and re-engages the possibility of hope. “I can see that there is a way to think about it differently and I already feel better.”
Feeling valued is the most affirming state of being – created through intimacy with another person. In sharing similar opinions, enjoyable activities and a sense of acceptance and worth, you can reinvigorate your sense of well being and personal merit. Mattering to another is healing and accentuates your significance and contribution. It also reinforces your wholesomeness, despite faults and frailties.
Feeling supported and connected provides safety. Isolation creates a fear of being unimportant and accentuates the risk of perishing. Being accepted by another allows you to have greater self-acceptance and forgiveness. Receiving compassionate responses empowers your capacity to deal with adversity and cope better with painful, unchangeable situations.
Twelve step programs are healing since they provide a safe environment among understanding peers to share your hardship without fears of scorn or judgment. Friends can also provide the support in validating your humanness. Having your friends participate in your joyous life events makes the celebrations even more meaningful.
• Add time with friends as an important category to your self-care and health plan.
• Carve time, even if it is infrequent, to get recharged by the love of those who care about you.
• Be a caring and compassionate friend. It benefits you as well.
• Engage in pleasurable activities, humor and laughter with your friends. These experiences reduce stress and increase your capacity to handle life.
• Listen empathically to your friends. Abstain from judgment or unsolicited advice. Affirm your friends’ difficulties with kindness.
• Select your friends carefully. If you do not feel better about yourself after being with them, they may not be the best friends for you.
• Tell your friends how much they matter to you.
• Be present at your friends’ joyous life-events. As busy as you may be – your presence is imperative to their sense of being celebrated.
• Realize that as you age you may need your friends even more. The best way to have friends later is to cultivate them now. Calls, emails, cards and visits (even brief ones), keep the friendship flame burning bright and your life a healthier, happier journey.