How Your Friends Make You Healthier

friends supporting each other's wellness

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.”

Take it offline

And although plenty of us have hundreds, even thousands, of social-media “friends,” Dr. Gillath adds that digital interactions don’t provide the same emotional glue as real-life ones do. For instance, opening up to a friend in person typically increases intimacy, but his research has found that an emotional disclosure on Facebook actually has a negative effect on the relationship. “For the majority of people in our studies, we see that [social media] ties aren’t close, so they tend to be superficial,” he says. “The important relationships are close, intimate, and meaningful.” In other words, think face time — not just FaceTime.

If you’re looking to expand your social circle (say, if you’re new in town or you’re simply looking for more companionship) Dr. Gillath advises joining community groups and activities that meet in person as opposed to “meeting” online. 

Or, if you’ve drifted apart from an existing friend, a coffee date may be all that’s needed to right the course. “Put yourself out there and try to have open lines of communication,” Dr. Gillath says. “If you actually look someone in the eye and share your feelings, there are good chances that this friendship will last.” So goes the friendship, so goes the long life.