Maintaining positive relationships should rank up there with healthy eating and exercise as a necessary investment in your health. Not only is spending time with friends fun but it also yields a multitude of long-term physical and emotional health benefits.
“As a medical doctor, I wish I could prescribe friendships for everyone,” says Kelli Harding, MD, an assistant clinical professor of psychiatry at Columbia University Irving Medical Center in New York City.
But before we get into the many ways a strong social network promotes health and well-being, it’s important to point out that not all relationships are equal. Just like you can make unhealthy choices around diet and exercise, you can certainly make unhealthy choices when it comes to the friendships and relationships you spend time on.
A healthy friendship is a two-way street. “When we're only thinking about having our needs met and we're not thinking about our friends' needs, then the relationship is probably unhealthy,” says Marisa Franco, PhD, a psychologist based in Washington, DC, whose research has focused on friendship and relationships.
A true friend is there for you always, not just when it’s convenient. “Showing up in moments of need is really important in friendships,” Dr. Franco says, adding that if a friend calls with a crisis at midnight, a true friend won’t opt out. “If you're in crisis, I have to wake up,” she says. “Unless I’m in crisis, too, I’m going to show up.”
It's also important to acknowledge that not everyone’s social support network looks the same. Your network could be made up of a partner, family members, friends, coworkers, teachers, or neighbors, Dr. Harding says. “The benefits are with anyone in your life that provides positive social support,” she says. No matter if your network of friendships looks like a partner and a lot of close family ties, or if it's filled with people who aren't related to you biologically, every type of positive social support is beneficial, Harding says.
How a Strong Social Network Supports Physical and Emotional Health
So what does the science say about why strong social ties are good for health and well-being? Here’s what we know:
- Friendships Promote a Sense of Belonging
No matter what unites you with your group of friends, simply feeling included — like you belong to a particular group — is beneficial, says Mahzad Hojjat, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Massachusetts in Dartmouth, who has led research on friendships, the benefits of close relationships, and marriage. A sense of belonging fulfills an important emotional health need and helps decreases feelings of depression and hopelessness, according to a study published 2015 in in Psychiatry.
- Friends Can Help Boost Self-Esteem
Friends can improve your self-confidence and self-worth. A good friend is your cheerleader. “You want to have friends to share in your success who are happy for you,” Dr. Hojjat says.
According to a study published in May 2015 in PLoS One, belonging to a social group goes hand in hand with increased self-esteem because people take pride in these relationships and derive meaning from them.
- Strong Social Connections Help Offset Stressors in Your Life
“Friendships go a long way in helping us buffer stress,” Hojjat says. “As we go through difficult periods of life, friends can help.” Unloading the details of a bad day onto a friend can relieve some of your own stress, she says.
Physical touch can make a difference, too. A study published in October 2018 in PLoS One found that receiving a hug relieved negative emotions like stress. “Positive and welcome physical touch is great for connection and health,” Harding says. The pandemic has made that tricky, of course. “Skin hunger, or touch starvation, is a real thing, which makes boosting emotional closeness especially important during the pandemic,” Harding says.
- Friendships May Help Protect Cognitive Health
Research involving elderly women found that having a large social network offers a protective effect over cognition and reduces the risk of dementia, though more research is needed to say why that is.
Another study published in August 2021 in JAMA Network Open found that having someone to have good conversations with may part of what’s protecting brain health. The data showed that in a group of 2,171 adults who had participated in the Framingham Heart Study, those who reported having someone in their lives they could count on as a good listener were more likely to have higher levels of cognitive resilience (a measure of brain health known to be protective against brain aging and disease, like dementia).
- Friends Help Us Cope With Grief of All Kinds
Think about the last time you faced a challenging situation, such as a death in the family or loss of something else important to you (like a job, a pet, or a relationship). Having friends you could lean on likely helped you pull through. “People who are lonely have more difficulty bouncing back from life’s challenges,” Harding says.
A small study published in the July–August 2015 issue of the Iranian Journal of Nursing and Midwifery Research found that mothers who experienced a stillbirth relied on social support to escape loneliness. “Having people in our lives and social support is probably the No. 1 thing helping people get through traumatic times,” Franco says.
- Friends Can Encourage Healthy Behaviors
Having positive relationships with people who make healthy choices can motivate you to make similarly healthy choices, Hojjat says. “If friends are into physical activity, you may be drawn into that.”
They can also speak up if they’re concerned about you. “If you’re engaging in unhealthy behavior, friends are the ones who see it if you’re drinking too much or you’re gaining too much weight, because they’re seeing you and they’re interacting with you every day,” Hojjat says.
According to Keck Medicine of the University of Southern California in Los Angeles, experts suspect that relationships have this effect on physical health because of the body’s stress response. Feeling isolated and lonely can increase chronic stress, which can negatively impact health, while the flip side — maintaining positive friendships — can keep you healthy.
- Staying Socially Connected to Others May Lower the Risk of Long-Term Health Problems
“Our ability to have social connection is so essential to our ability to live a healthy life,” Franco says.
A review published in May 2020 in Neuroscience & Biobehavioral Reviews found that social isolation and loneliness may be linked with inflammation. Unhealthy levels of inflammation can be dangerous and may lead to heart disease, arthritis, stroke, or Alzheimer’s disease, according to Harvard Health Publishing.
Having strong social ties has also been linked with a lower risk of depression and healthier blood pressure and body mass indexes, according to Mayo Clinic.
- Strong Relationships May Help Us Live Longer
A review published in PLoS Medicine found that there was a 50 percent increased likelihood of survival for participants with strong social relationships.
“The difference in mortality risk didn’t come down to age, gender, or even medical problems but positive social connections with others,” Harding says of that research. “Those who have more social integration — as measure by marital status, number of friends, involvement with friends — had the biggest health boost.”
- Healthy Friendships Tend to Make Us Happier
A study published in June 2019 in PLoS One found that a strong social circle (as measured by study participants’ cellphone activity) was a better predictor of happiness and general wellness than fitness tracker data, such as heart rate and physical activity.
It helps if you associate with happy people, especially if they live close by. Research involving more than 4,000 adults showed that having a happy friend who lives within a mile from you increases your own likelihood of being happy by 25 percent.