Friends are good for your health
A new report confirms what many suspected – face time is a lot better for you than Facebook, writes FIONOLA MEREDITH
IN THESE days of fleeting online connections, it’s easy to overlook the importance of real friends: the flesh-and-blood variety who provide companionship, fun, advice and a shoulder to cry on when things fall apart. Now a new piece of research confirms that a wide circle of friends is vital to our psychological wellbeing, particularly as we move onwards in life – and it’s the people we see regularly who really count.
The major study, published in the Journal of Epidemiology and Community Health, traces the lives of more than 6,500 Britons born in 1958, questioning them when they were aged 42, 45 and 50. The results show a significant association between the number of regular social contacts people had and their psychological wellbeing, across both sexes. The findings were consistent, irrespective of whether the participants had a partner, a job, or had experienced mental health problems in the past: what mattered was having plenty of close friends around them.
While men’s sense of personal contentment was also influenced by the size of their family network, women appeared to be strikingly influenced by the number of their close friends, flourishing if they had lots of contact and suffering if they had fewer encounters.
Perhaps it’s hardly surprising that psychological wellbeing was especially poor, in both men and women, among those with no relatives or friends at all.
Study author Noriko Cable, a senior research fellow at University College London, emphasised the fact that it’s face time with friends that counts, not Facebook encounters, when it comes to boosting our sense of mental wellness.
This is not the first time researchers have found strong links between friendship and emotional wellbeing, particularly as we age.
Previous studies have found that strong social connections can promote brain health in later life, and perhaps even mitigate against early death. A 10-year Australian study found that older people with a wide circle of friends were 22 per cent less likely to die during the course of the research than those who had fewer contacts.
The latest study does not explore why or how these social relationships sustain us, but Roger Bailey, a clinical psychologist in Belfast, says friendship is self-evidently beneficial.
“It’s about feeling less alone in the world. You share history, memories and experience with the people around you and when they respond, it strikes a chord within you.” He says this kind of reciprocity is the key, particularly in old age, when reminiscence becomes important.
“I suppose it’s about the need to find a compass really. Friendship helps us understand ourselves, helps us share ourselves. It reassures us that we are not really drifting apart from the world, but that we have a recognised place in it. Friendship is about regrounding, finding an anchor, so that you can come back to yourself.”
Michael Paterson, also a clinical psychologist, who studied friendship networks for his PhD research, says social support is an important buffer against the stresses of life: “Human beings are basically herd animals, and we need and enjoy the company of others. Having a friend provides support and meets some of our needs: love and acceptance, certainty, variety, and often significance.” Patterson notes that simply knowing that support is there, without necessarily availing of it, has a protective effect against stress.