November 13, 2019

Writing for the New York Times' "Smarter Living," Tara Parker-Pope shares some of the unexpected health benefits of friendship—including less stress and longer lifespans—and offers some tips on how to be a good friend.

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The health benefits of friendship

According to research, friendship comes with a whole host of health benefits—so many, in fact, that researchers believe friendships have a more significant impact on our health than do romantic relationships. For example, one 10-year Australian study found that older people with a bigger circle of friends were 22% less likely to die within the study period than those with a smaller circle of friends.

Another study of almost 3,000 nurses with breast cancer found that women without any close friends were four times as likely to die from breast cancer as women with the same disease who had at least 10 friends.

Friendship also has an effect on cardiovascular health, according to a six-year study of 736 middle-age Swedish men. The study found that having a life partner had no effect on a person's risk of heart attack or fatal coronary heart disease, but having friendships did. In fact, the researchers found that a lack of social support was as bad for a person's cardiovascular health as smoking.

Having friends also can help you deal with stress, Parker-Pope writes. In one study from the University of Virginia, researchers stood at the base of a steep hill and asked people walking by if they'd help with an experiment. The participants were then given a backpack filled with weights equal to about 20% of their body weight and asked to estimate how steep the climb up the hill might be.

The researchers found that the participants who were alone estimated the hill to be steeper and thought it would be more difficult to climb than the students who were standing next to a friend. The researchers also found that, the longer the two friends had known each other, the less steep the hill seemed to them.

Similarly, another study found female students who were asked to complete math problems with a friend in the room experienced lower heart rates than the students who were asked to complete the problems alone.

Dan Buettner—a National Geographic fellow and author, who's studied the people of Okinawa, Japan, where average life expectancy for women is 90—said, "I argue that the most powerful thing you can do to add healthy years is to curate your immediate social network."

Specifically, Buettner advises people focus on three to five real-world friends, as opposed to online acquaintances on Facebook or other social media. "In general you want friends with whom you can have a meaningful conversation," he said. "You can call them on a bad day and they will care. Your group of friends are better than any drug or anti-aging supplement, and will do more for you than just about anything."

3 tips on being a good friend

To help you bolster your health, Parker-Pope offers three tips on how you can strengthen your existing friendships and be a good friend.

1. Make time for your friends. It's important to make time for your friends even when life gets busy, Parker-Pope writes, noting that consistency is more important than frequency. For instance, she recommends "[c]reating a tradition—even if it's infrequent" as "one of the best ways to sustain a friendship when life gets busy." One potential strategy might be scheduling friend dates, Parker-Pope writes, whether around your morning coffee or lunch so it doesn't take away from family time, or if possible, schedule a specific friends' night out once or twice a month.

Noting that even a few minutes of friendship is important, Parker-Pope emphasizes that you don't have to dedicate a large amount of time. But if life gets in the way, Parker-Pope offers a few ideas of small gestures that could matter a lot to your friends, such as texting photos of things that make you think of them, sharing news articles you enjoy, chatting at work, and making sure you're there for the big life events, like weddings and graduations.

2. Listen to your friends. When a friend is talking to you, it's important to really listen to what they're saying, Parker-Pope writes.

To help, Elizabeth Scott, a family therapist and author, shared a few keys to listening well. First, you need to "really listen" to their answers when you ask them a question, Scott said. Most people don't actively listen when they ask questions like, "How are you?" Scott said, so demonstrate you're paying attention to your friend by maintaining eye contact and showing them that "you're interested in what they have to say."

Second, repeat what you're hearing from them as a way to let them know you hear them, and make sure the focus of the conversation stays on them. Third, if you find yourself uncertain about how to respond to a friend, ask how he or she feels about the situation rather than interrogating your friend on the logistical details. And while Scott said it's fine to relate to them or share a few details of your own experiences, make sure you don't shift the focus of the conversation onto you.

Lastly, Scott advises you help your friend brainstorm to find solutions to their problems rather than immediately offering your own advice. To do this, you can ask questions like "What do you want to do about this?" or "How does that make you feel?"

3. Reveal more about yourself. Parker-Pope writes that self-disclosure "is the building block of intimacy and usually leads to the other person revealing something personal as well."

For instance, Arthur Aron, a scientist at State University of New York at Stony Brook, found that pairs of strangers became very close when they completed a questionnaire that asked a series of personal questions that became increasingly revealing, with at least one couple who completed the questionnaire eventually marrying. "One key pattern associated with the development of a close relationship among peers is sustained, escalating, reciprocal, personal self-disclosure," the study said.

According to Parker-Pope, the takeaway is that "we form our deepest connections with friends when we are willing to be vulnerable and venture into more personal territory in our conversations" (Parker-Pope, "Smarter Living," New York Times, accessed 11/12).

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