Humans are social creatures — we just don’t do as well on our own. Friends and family aren’t just great company; they can be strong support networks that help you stay healthier, cope with tough times, recover better from illness, and possibly even live longer.
When you feel like you’re part of a supportive community, it helps you manage stressful situations and cope with crises such as unemployment, the loss of a spouse, or serious illness. People with supportive companions have a lower risk of depression and anxiety, as well as a lower lifetime risk of suicide.
Friendships seem to boost your immune system as well. Older adults with good support have sharper brains than lonelier people, performing better on mental tests over time. Studies also show that a strong support network can help reduce the risk of dying from diabetes, heart disease, cancer and other serious conditions.
Scientists don't understand exactly how friendship keeps you healthier. Having support from friends seems to lower stress and inflammation, which are involved in heart disease and other conditions. Or maybe when you have friends looking out for you, it helps you have healthier habits and make better decisions. It might be a little of both.
Tips for making and keeping friends
You don’t need a huge network. All you need is a few close friends or loved ones to share good times with, and help you with any tough situations or hard decisions.
- Stay in touch with the people in your life. Get together as often as you can; if you’re too far away, make sure to call, email, or text them.
- Let your friends and family know that you appreciate them.
- Be a good listener, and do your best to be there for others.
- If you want to meet more people, try volunteering, taking a class, or joining groups of people who share your interests.
- Hold on to people you can count on. Don't invest a lot of your time in people who keep disappointing you or make you feel bad.
- If you're going through a stressful situation, like a serious illness, you might want to find a support group so you can talk to people who are dealing with the same things.
- That said, don’t stretch yourself too thin. Sometimes it’s OK to say no to your friends or family when you’re overscheduled, but let them down gently and explain why.
- Facebook and other social media sites are good ways to stay in touch with people you know, but they can’t replace real-world contact.
Whether you meet your friends for coffee, chat with your sister on the phone, or host a potluck dinner for your neighbors, make time in your schedule for your friends and loved ones. Your heart and head will thank you.
Mayo Clinic Staff. Social Support: Tap This Tool to Beat Stress. Mayo Clinic website.
American Psychological Association. Stress Management: How to Strengthen Your Social Support Network. APA website.