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.
That is certainly the experience of hairdresser Declan Hegarty (55), from Ireland and now living in London. He says his circle of three close male friends, all of a similar age, has long been a source of quiet satisfaction. “I’ve known my mates since way back, and – bar a couple of years, when I was away working in America – we’ve met up for a drink at least once every two months. I never really thought about what it means to me, but I know I look forward to those nights more and more as I get older.
“It’s not that we talk about deep, heavy stuff. In fact it’s not about the talking itself at all, more about how it makes me feel.” And how is that? “Important, in a funny way. It makes me feel like I belong somewhere, that these people understand me. Not that I’d ever tell that to the guys. It’s not that kind of friendship.”
Perhaps this light, bantering style of relationship is more typical of male friendships, while women are expected to thrive on intense, soul-bearing disclosures.
One of the most curious features of the latest study was the emphasis that women placed on the psychological benefits of relationships with their close friends, rather than on those with their family.
Cable speculated that this could be because a woman might experience pressure from her relatives, while her friends were more likely to support her own choices.
However, when relationships go wrong, or are mishandled, the results can be painful. Michael Paterson points out one of the pitfalls: “Friends can be at different levels of trust, ranging from acquaintance to confidant. This becomes a problem if someone habitually places too much trust in others and gets let down consistently.
“These people have a drive to be accepted. They then generalise to the assumption that ‘I can’t trust anybody’ and can end up friendless.”
Artist Judith McCrossan (42) says she feels disillusioned by the whole idea of wide “friendship networks”: “mostly they are a let down, fraught with competitiveness, angst and pretence. When you’re younger, these networks can be fun, but as we grow older we owe it to ourselves to become fully fledged, happy and balanced individuals without having to rely on those kind of connections.
“Somewhere along the way we have forgotten to learn how to be good at being ourselves. Reading and educating oneself, thinking more and thinking quietly, reflecting and making really true friendship choices – that’s what’s important.”
When it comes to friends, perhaps it is a matter of quality as much as quantity – or ideally both.
At its best, friendship can be empowering, stimulating and deeply reassuring. As the writer CS Lewis put it, friendship has no survival value: “rather it is one of those things that give value to survival”.
KILKENNY HEALTHY TOWN: UPCOMING EVENTS
Today: Dr Tony Bates from Headstrong – The National Centre for Youth Mental Health – will give a talk on Believing that you’re worth it, at 7pm in Langton’s Hotel. This will be of interest to anyone who wants to learn to improve their self-esteem and mental wellbeing.
Saturday, October 20th: Mayor’s Walk from the Parade at 11am.
For details of The Irish Times/Pfizer Healthcare healthy towns initiative, see irishtimes.com/healthytowns