If there were a product practically guaranteed to lengthen your life, improve your memory, and ward off disease, would you be interested? Great news: Friendship does just that, and it doesn’t cost a penny. Everyone knows that it feels good to have a close-knit circle, but a growing body of research links social connection with overall well-being.
Friendship can help you live longer
In Okinawa, Japan, home to one of the world’s largest centenarian populations, each child traditionally joins a moai, a tightly knit handful of people who become a second family. The moai grows together, meeting regularly and providing companionship from childhood until death — and helping its members feel respected, valued, and loved well into old age.
This phenomenon is similar to findings of the Harvard longevity study, ongoing since 1938. “It followed a group of young men for more than 70 years,” says Omri Gillath, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Kansas, who studies attachment styles within relationships. “It showed that the most important thing we have in our lives is our close relationships.” Among other things, the study found that the 50-year-olds who were most content with their relationships went on to be the healthiest at age 80.
It also strengthens your mind
Study after study shows that strong social connections are a brain’s best friend. So, along with providing an immediate mood boost, today’s lunch date provides long-lasting benefits: A 2010 study found that high-quality friendships not only protect against dementia, they also do so for up to 15 years.
What’s more, a tight social circle could even trick your brain into thinking it’s younger. A 2017 study sought to understand why a subset of super-aging octogenarians had the memory recall of people 15 to 30 years younger. Having an overall positive attitude helped, but only one variable made a difference across age, race, gender, and education: high-quality social relationships. Super-Agers reported having greater levels of warm, close relationships than their peers — and had younger-acting brains, too. (Thanks for the memories, indeed.)
Think fewer, better
Of course, maintaining friendships takes time and effort—and, says Dr. Gillath, the greater the quality of a relationship, the greater its benefits. “It’s not about just having a bunch of friends,” he says. “It’s about having friends who will be there for you — friends who are respectful, supportive, and sensitive.”