Friends Can Save Your Life

A close friend is a mirror and reminds you that you are not alone.

Posted Feb 05, 2013

Many fears are born of loneliness

My friend Y and I both felt anxious about living alone. We also don't go to offices to work: who would know if we fell and didn't get up? (We're middle-aged and saw our mothers fail).  So we came up with a new plan: Every morning, she sends me a text or calls. If she doesn't check in, I'll call her super, and if she doesn't hear from me she'll call mine. We both feel safer and happier this way.

We also love our morning check-ins when we have time to talk. 

My friend L also lives and works alone. She writes a blog and sends me a personal email most mornings. Lately she's been sleeping badly, so when I don't hear from her, I'll write, "How did you sleep?"

Our caring could save our lives. The importance of friendship shows up in health statistics. When researchers at Brigham Young University studied a sample of healthy adults over a 7.5-year period, they found that those with meaningful relationships had a 50 percent higher survival rate. Isolation is about as dangerous as alcoholism or smoking fifteen cigarettes a day.

A strong core relationship—not necessarily a marriage—causes blood pressure to dip more significantly while you sleep, says researcher Julianne Holt-Lunstad, lowering your risk of cardiovascular disease. Even just the fear of isolation can hurt you; other research has found that people who are afraid of being alone in life do worse on tests of logical reasoning.

There’s no need to feel ashamed of loneliness. Human beings are physiologically wired for more sociability and intimacy than modern life in the United States easily provides, psychologists agree. Meanwhile, surveys show that Americans steadily report fewer confidantes.

Loneliness depletes the body in a process akin to “premature aging,” University of Chicago psychologist John Cacioppo wrote in his groundbreaking 2008 book, "Loneliness." Cacioppo outfitted people with beepers that chirped throughout the day, prompting them to answer questions related to loneliness—while biosensors at their hips measured their cardiovascular status. He tested both college students and a group of people ranging in age from about 50 to 70, who participated over five years. Lonely people in both age groups rated their stresses as more severe and had poorer social interactions.

In a separate study of older adults, the lonely ones showed higher traces of stress hormones, as well as long-term changes in the circulation of cortisol, the body’s stress regulator.

It can be a mistake to focus too hard on dating and neglect your friends. In "Sixty and Single,” one of two dozen essays in the just-published collection, "Live and Let Love: Notes from Extraordinary Women on the Layers, The Laughter, and the Litter of Love," edited by Andrea Buchanan, Andrea Cagan tells the story of her fiftieth birthday. She awoke lonely, wanting a man, but none were calling. So Cagan, a glowing ex-ballerina, decided to concentrate on her female friends. She now speaks daily long-distance on the phone with her BGF. “We don’t lie in bed and hug or kiss like a romantic couple (I’m not a lesbian and neither is she), but we giggle and love each other and it fills me up,” she writes.

In his book, Vital Friends: The People You Can’t Afford To Live Without, Tom Rath reports that if you ask people why they became homeless, why their marriage failed or why they overeat, they often say they didn't have enough friends. They feel like outcasts.

Rath and a team of researchers did a huge study of friendship that revealed its power.


*If your best friend eats healthily, you are five times more likely to have a healthy diet yourself.

*People who say they have no real friends at work have only a one in 12 chance of feeling engaged in their jobs. But if you have a “best friend at work”, you are seven times more likely to feel engaged in your job.

Like anything worthwhile, friendship can require you to give up bad habits and develop good ones. 

Respect schedules. Don't overwhelm friends with too much contact and find the timing and method--email, IM, text, phone calls, visits--that works best for both of you.

Be honest about competition. Envy and competition don't mean you don't care about your friend, but you do need to minimize their effects. Confess your envy to yourself and perhaps to your friend.

Applaud. As Oscar Wilde wrote, “Anybody can sympathise with the sufferings of a friend, but it requires a very fine nature to sympathise with a friend’s success.”

Take care of yourself. Self-criticism, complaining, health and money problems resulting from neglect, can all put a strain on your friends. Talk to your friends about how you can change the parts of your life that make you unhappy.

Laugh. Save up humorous anecdotes to share.

Listen. Ask your friends what's going on in their lives.

Avoid advice, unless your friends ask for it.

Don't judge. Give your friends space to change, grow and make mistakes. Encourage your friends to freely express their emotions.

Respect privacy. Keep confidential any personal information that your friends share with you and don't ask questions that embarrass them.

Devote time. Friendships should not always take second place to family or work. Find ways to see each other regularly, perhaps by buying tickets to events in advance, or joining your friend's book group (if she wants you to), rather than one that may seem more convenient.

 Be there. A friend in need is a friend indeed. Be a friend.

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