Find your people: why friendship could be key to better mental health

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It’s no secret that the past few years have wreaked havoc on our mental health. The pandemic alone – with its myriad of problems around loneliness and stress – has sparked a 25% increase in anxiety and depression worldwide. Then there’s cost of living, political upheaval and global conflict to contend with. Amid the chaos, however, we’ve developed a newfound appreciation for community and the people we love.

Friendship, it turns out, is not only a “nice to have” but also a vital source of support and energy in harder times – a truth that social scientists have known for many years. There’s a huge body of research that points to the fact that, while the quantity of friendships each person typically falls from the age of 25, their quality increases. 

Friends are a vital source of support and energy in hard times

As we get older, we tend to prune our social circles to reflect the people we really want to hang out with. Toxic friends can make you physically ill; but the kind of trustworthy pal you can rely on will spark health and happiness for many years. 

In other words, it’s the type of friends that you have in life, rather than the number, that counts. Social research shows that small yet solid social networks will always trump a larger number of relationships that are less satisfying (which run the risk of “feeling lonely in a crowd”). 

Having the right kind of friends by your side is no panacea – mental health issues won’t magically fix themselves thanks to your loved ones – but research suggests that their presence does help navigate bumps in the road. Here’s how. 

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Close friends boost your self-esteem

Good friends will always have your corner and talk you up – so much so, that the effects of this can be measured by science. A 2019 study from the University of Bern found a direct link between positive social support and the development of self-esteem. 

Intriguingly, this relationship works both ways, too. So, the more people’s close friendships foster their self-esteem, the more this quality influences their ability to make other close friendships. 

What’s more, this cycle gains pace throughout major life stages, from the age of 4 to your mid-70s and beyond. “The reciprocal link between self-esteem and social relationships implies that the effects of a positive feedback loop accumulate over time and could be substantial as people go through life,” study author Michelle A. Harris, of The University of Texas, tells Science Daily

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Close friends act as a buffer to stress

According to a 2011 study published in the journal Developmental Psychology, being around a best friend decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol and increases feelings of self-worth in the face of negative experiences.

The results were taken from a childhood survey, but similar patterns have been observed among adults, too. For example, a study released by the Beckman Institute for Advanced Science and Technology last year found that communicating with female friends decreases stress hormone levels for women across their lifespan.

Being around a best friend decreases levels of the stress hormone cortisol

“Women have evolved an alternative mechanism in response to stress,” says Michelle Rodrigues, an assistant professor at Marquette University, leading the study. “We can see that friendship has that same effect throughout the lifespan. Familiar partners and friendship buffer stress, and that’s preserved with age,” she adds. 

In the same study, researchers also discovered that older women (aged 62+) are better at communicating with strangers than their younger counterparts. This suggests that our ability to make friends may become more refined as we age. In the pursuit of forming a more intimate, tight-knit circle of friends, we connect more effectively with strangers – as well as the people we know. 

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Friends are more important with age

It’s just as well we’re hard-wired to connect with people more as we get older; since psychologists have also found that friends become more important to our mental health as we progress through life. According to 2017 research published by Michigan State University in the journal Personal Relationships, having supportive friendships actually outweighs strong family connections when it comes to predicting health and happiness in later life. 

Heading from the halcyon days of our 20s to our 30s, 40s and beyond, we tend to edit the friendships that feature in our inner circles. Unconsciously perhaps, but nevertheless wisely, we start to prioritise those friendships that matter most to us; making room for the people who have weathered tough times by our side. 

The important thing is having people you can rely on

“You have kept those people around because they have made you happy, or at least contributed to your wellbeing in some way,” William Chopik, assistant professor of psychology at Michigan State University tells Time. “Across our lives, we let the more superficial friendships fade, and we’re left with the really influential ones.”

“The general point is that the more support, the more positive interactions, the better,” he continues. “The important thing is having people you can rely on, for the good times as well as the bad.”

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Friendship: the road ahead

Life right now may seem like a riot of uncertainty. Maybe you’re plotting a new career path, untangling yourself from a bad relationship, finally getting started on that long-planned novel or starting over in a new country. With challenges – even the good ones – looming, we need the friends of substance by our side. 

This includes people we know, but also new faces, ideas and inspiration. How do you tap into this rich source, and meet new friends? There are so many options, from joining a local coworking space, signing up to a running club, or learning new skills. 

As we get older, we tend to prune our social circles

With the world at your doorstep, travel is also a great way of connecting with like-minded people across the world. When you adventure the world together with fellow travellers at a similar age and life stage to you, the foundations for friendship are already set. Minus the distractions of daily life, and with the ability to share incredible experiences together – from sharing a 12-course “royal feast” in South Korea to horse-riding the plains of Chilean Patagonia – you’ll bond with people quickly. 

Who knows, you may even make a friend for life; that awesome person who “gets” you and whom you can rely on, come what may. 

Flash Pack is a group travel company that specialises in small group adventures for solo travellers in their 30s and 40s. Find out more about how we work, and our mission to build a global community of friendships

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