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5 Surprising Ways Your Friends Benefit Your Health

Friendships and other social relationships are great for our mood and well-being, and it turns out they’re healthy, too. Here are five reasons—that may surprise you—to nurture and treasure your friendships.

1. You’ll sleep more soundly. 

Researchers have repeatedly linked having strong and healthy relationships to better overall health, and one reason may be that social ties help us sleep better at night. This makes evolutionary sense: Our ancestors relied on being safely embedded in a group for security against predators. A 2017 study1 of young-adult twins confirmed that feelings of loneliness were linked to more fitful sleep—maybe because the subjects were unconsciously being vigilant against threats. And a 2015 study2 found that supportive relationships were correlated with better sleep—and negative or strained ones with worse sleep. 

If your best friend is also your spouse or sleeping partner, you’ll get even more benefits. Cuddling in bed releases oxytocin—“the love hormone”—a brain chemical that reduces stress and produces feelings of relaxation, empathy and trust.

It’s important to note that friendship and sleep form a virtuous circle: Having good friends helps you sleep, and better sleep helps you have good friends. According to Dr. Robert S. Rosenberg, medical director of the Sleep Disorders Center of Prescott Valley, Arizona: “Good sleep promotes positive emotions, but sleep deprivation inhibits them. After a poor night’s sleep, the amygdala—which is the emotional center of the brain—is hyperactive, and the prefrontal cortex—the area of the brain that allows us to have conscious control over our emotions—is depressed. So good-quality sleep through promoting positive emotions may also significantly improve our relationships.”

2. You’ll feel less pain. 

“Social pain”—like loneliness, loss or exclusion—activates the same areas of the brain3 that respond to physical pain. But there’s also some evidence that it works both ways: The support of a good friend helps people deal better with physical pain. An experiment4 on undergraduate subjects showed that when someone supportive was nearby, they reported feeling less pain while completing a task than those who did the task alone.

3. You’ll find physical challenges easier. 

Having good friends is a great antidepressant,5 which means you may have more energy and enthusiasm for life. But research shows it can actually affect your perception of how difficult a physical task is. In a pair of experiments,6 people who walked up a hill with a friend estimated it to be less steep than those who walked it alone. And even thinking of a supportive friend, rather than a neutral or disliked person, had the same effect. 

4. You’ll stay mentally sharper. 

Good friends keep you on your toes, challenge you, keep you talking—and also help you keep your brain in shape as you age. An ongoing study of “SuperAgers”,7 who have reached at least their 80s with their memories in great shape, shows that they have one big difference from their peers: satisfying friendships. On the flip side of that finding: Feeling lonely can put you at increased risk for dementia later in life.8

5. You’ll even live longer. 

A meta-review9 of studies on friendship and mortality show it convincingly: Good social relationships are tied to a longer life. The reasons are complex and multifaceted, but friendships have behavioral, psychological, societal and sociological effects that all add up to reduced risk for many diseases, including cardiovascular disease,10 the leading cause of death in the United States. And even social integration via online social networks11 are associated with lower overall mortality—so if you can’t see your friends in person, connecting over Facebook may be the next best thing.

References:

1. “Sleeping with one eye open: loneliness and sleep quality in young adults,” Psychological Medicine, September 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5551384/

2. “Social Relationships and Sleep Quality,” Annals of behavioral medicine: a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, December 2015. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4636437/

3. “The pain of social exclusion: Physical pain brain circuits activated by ‘social pain,’ ” ScienceDaily, February 2014. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2014/02/140227101125.htm

4. “Social Support and Experimental Pain,” Psychosomatic Medicine, 2003. https://journals.lww.com/psychosomaticmedicine/Abstract/2003/03000/Social_Support_and_Experimental_Pain.14.aspx

 

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