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Ten ways your friends can help boost your health

Isolation can be as harmful to your well-being as smoking, but friendships can reduce stress levels and increase happiness, writes Julia Molony

Social support: having friends, like in the hit TV show, gives us a sense of belonging that can protect us from mental health issues
Social support: having friends, like in the hit TV show, gives us a sense of belonging that can protect us from mental health issues
Good company: from left, Courteney Cox and Jennifer Aniston in Friends

A growing body of evidence suggests that feeling lonely and isolated is bad for our health. According to some reports, loneliness is the equivalent, in health terms, of smoking 15 cigarettes a day.

The habit of building and maintaining enduring, supportive friendships over our lifetimes can, literally be a life saver.

Here's how good friendships help us stay fit and well.

1. They foster resilience and good mental health

"Having friendships and good relationships around you increases your feeling that you can cope with stressful events," explains psychologist Dr Ann-Marie Creaven, who specialises in the study of how our social relationships influence health.

"Friendships are sources of social support, so they will help you when you need it.

"But even if you don't access that help from friends, feeling it is there if you need it can help you cope with stressful events if they occur."

2. They help keep you sharp of mind and body

Good social connections may help keep cognitive decline at bay as we age, say researchers from Northwestern University, who examined the social relationships of a group of so called 'superagers' - people in the over-80s age group, who have maintained extraordinary cognitive ability beyond middle age.

They discovered that the superagers were more likely to report "positive social relationships" than cognitively average-for-age peers.

The authors wrote: "Emotional support from a social network are positively correlated with cognitive function in older adults, predict reduced rates of cognitive decline and are associated with reduced risk of mild cognitive impairment and dementia."

3. They can reduce the risk of death and disease

We all know that stress has a negative impact on health. So channelling our energies into relationships that help mitigate stress can have a significant, measurable effect on our risk of mortality and disease.

"If you are in a healthy, positive relationship with somebody and not a toxic relationship, then your levels of stress will be reduced," says clinical psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy.

"Or the alternative, if you are in a toxic relationship, your levels of stress will be increased. With stress, our immune system is impacted and that impacts on our quality of physical well-being," he adds.

"People who are lonely have higher levels of stress, which impacts on their immunity.

"And with lower immunity, there is an increased risk of getting cardiac disease and also cancer."

4. As we age, friends become more important to our well-being than family

A study carried out by researchers at the University of Michigan and published last year compared the importance of friendships with family relationships as predictors of good health and well-being among older adults and found that friendships were particularly beneficial for older adults.

Spousal, child and friend relationships were related to greater subjective well-being, the authors noted, while familial (non-spousal, non-child) relationships did not affect health or subjective well-being.

5. They can foster healthy habits

We tend to pick up the same behaviours and habits of those around us through a process psychologists describe as 'social influence'.

"Friends are a source of influence over your behaviour, and they also set social norms," Dr Ann-Marie Creaven explains. "Without being aware of it necessarily, they set an expectation - this is how we spend our time. So you end up falling into that norm."

Friends can be crucial then in helping us to turn our good intentions about getting fit and eating well into long-lasting habits. "If you engage in physical activity with your friends, it's probably more easy to become a habit for you," says Dr Ann-Marie Creaven.

"It might be easy to take up a new hobby by yourself, but you'll be more likely to keep going if you have friends with you."

That's great if all your friends are the sporty, healthy-eating kind.

But it becomes problematic if your social norm is going for pints every night, she says. That's why it's worth trying to examine the circles of social influencein which you are enmeshed.

"If your friendships are with people who are obese, you have a 70% likelihood of being obese," warns Dr Eddie Murphy.

6. They can help to save your marriage

Having a strong network of supportive friends helps married couples weather the hard times together, according to a paper published in the journal Social Psychological and Personality Science, it found that spouses who reported being more satisfied with the availability of friends and family had lower levels of cortisol in their blood during times of marital conflict.

According to Lisa Neff, who led the study, having a satisfying social network buffers spouses from the harmful physiological effects of everyday marital conflicts.

7. They provide a sense of purpose in your life

It's not just what friends provide for us, but what we provide for them that does us good, explains Dr Creaven.

"Friendships are an opportunity for you to be a good friend to someone else. By doing something kind for somebody else you are strengthening a friendship and you are also often boosting your own sense of self-worth," she explains.

"Being there for somebody else, so long as you are not overburdened by them, can also be good for your health and well-being. It gives you a sense of purpose and you see someone who is important to you becoming happier because of it which give you a positive feeling," she says.

8. Quality counts more than quantity

Not all friendships are equal when it comes to our health. "Good friendships are not when people are enmeshed or too close or too distant," says Dr Eddie Murphy.

"There has to be a healthy boundary. A healthy friendship means I can say no to you or disagree with you, and you might get upset with me, but we carry on. We are able to get over that bridge," he adds.

The best friendships provide emotional, practical and informational support. There are certain characteristics that define a good quality friendship, Dr Murphy says, and these include empathy, trust, selflessness, shared interests and fun.

9. They can encourage personal development and growth

According to Dr Murphy, it can be a real boon to have friends who come from different perspectives and backgrounds.

"That can allow us to grow, in terms of learning and development, regardless of the age and stage you are in life," he says.

10. A sense of belonging is vital to our well-being

"Primates, humans and birds thrive better in the presence of social connections," says Dr Murphy.

It seems that we are just wired that way. "If you have friendships, that is associated with a sense of belonging," explains Dr Ann-Marie Creaven.

"And that can protect you from the development of mental health issues like depression, and loneliness in particular."

It's not just having individual friendships that matter, but interconnected circles of friends.

"We also know that belonging to multiple social groups, and identifying with those is important. It's not just that you are part of a group, but that you identify as part of that group that gives you a sense of belonging," she says.

Dr Ann-Marie Creaven is a psychologist from the University of Limerick specialising in the study of how our social relationships influence health

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