Old friends pass away, new friends appear. It is just like the days. An old day passes, a new day arrives. The important thing is to make it meaningful: a meaningful friend – or a meaningful day. —Dalai Lama
“How many Facebook friends do you have?” There’s only one group of people to whom that question’s answer actually matters: Marketers. They look at the number of friends as a ratio for the number of people you influence. You like something, they are more likely to like the same thing. You buy something, they may buy something similar. Marketing looks at a friend not as a relationship but as leverage for selling.
You know was well as I do that social media “friends” or “followers” aren’t actually relationships, though. Those people, or the numbers, might make us feel a little better about ourselves but they’re not going to come help you move. That sympathetic online friend isn’t likely to buy you the drink you really need. The random Twitter follower isn’t likely to lend you the money you need to fix the car. While there might be the occasional exception, most online friends typically stay that way: online. We don’t develop real relationships with them.
The people who are really our friends, though, have a bigger impact on our lives than we might have thought. Mainly, the depth of those relationships and the number of them we have, help us to live both longer and healthier lives. Being my friend, in real life, is good for you, even if I’m occasionally a pain in the ass. What’s more, there’s actual science to prove it.
Everybody Needs A Friend
I’m drawing results from the longest-running study of human wellness and development, the Harvard Grant Study. The Grant study started in 1938 with 730 men. Half were Harvard sophomores. The other half were young men from the slums of Boston. For over 75 years, researchers followed these men through their lives, through war, through marriage, through various employments, and into retirement. They looked at everything, including their health. They even did brain scans. And what was the top takeaway from all that research? Friends, good, strong relationships, keep us healthier and help us to live longer lives.
This goes beyond just having a best friend, though that is definitely a strong factor. The larger one’s real-life friend network is, the more likely they are to live longer and be more satisfied with the content of their lives. Having friends who share experiences, who are sympathetic and supportive, and who just “hang out” are all important. These are the relationships that stay with us. A friend that is with us at age 50 is more likely to still be our friend at age 80 and beyond.
What’s important about this level of friendship is that a friend is encouraging. Friends that create and promote conflict are not helpful. Relationships that are constantly in turmoil actually do us more harm than good. Divorce can be healthier than living in a high-conflict marriage. Yet, where we have a friend on whom we can depend, a friend that makes us smile, we are more likely to be healthy.
What is equally important to realize is that just as quality relationships prolong our lives, the absence of them shortens our lives. At any given point, on any day you choose, one in five Americans says they’re lonely. Loneliness kills. Those who are isolated from society are more likely to die sooner. Those who do not have a friend to whom they can talk are more likely to develop terminal diseases that lead to death.
By contrast, one should note that it is not merely the presence of friends that keeps us healthy, but the depth and quality of those relationships. A line that seems to be important is the age of 50. Prior to reaching middle age, friends are more numerous but they are also more likely to come and go with some frequency. As we get older, however, the number of friends begins to solidify. The relationships that matter get deeper and have more meaning in our lives.
This does not mean that having more friends makes life easier. The Grant Study started in 1938 and right away a majority of the participants were flung into World War II. Some who were well off and privileged plunged to the depths of poverty. Some who were raised in Boston tenements rose to the top of social standing. The ranges of experience varied dramatically. What remained consistent is that those with a good friend, those with strong relationships, weathered the storms better.
Friends Protect Our Brains
I find it especially interesting that having multiple strong relationships not only helps us live longer, but they also help protect our brains. Looking at study participants who are now in their 90s, those with a healthy dose of friends experienced the effects and diseases related to dementia at a much slower rate and later in life than those who did not have a strong friend network. Having friends keeps our brains functioning more strongly, helps our memory recall, and keeps our brains more nimble.
When we are young we collect more friends to help us feel a part of society. We surround ourselves with those who are like-minded in an effort to validate our own opinions and lifestyle. As we get older, however, we begin looking for that friend who is going to be there long-term, even if they are not physically close. The friend who we may not see every day but is there to talk with even on the boring days is invaluable. Having friends who don’t judge, with whom we can be ourselves, keep us healthy and happy.
Interestingly enough, among the 60 study participants still living, which happens to include one former US President (think about it), every last one of them has repeatedly confirmed over the years that friendships are a dominant factor in their happiness than either money or fame. Some have done well financially, others are barely getting by, but they all agree that it is those deep, abiding relationships that make life worthwhile.
I don’t know about you, but I’m always open to more friends; the real ones. Let’s do coffee. Perhaps we’ll both live longer.