Friendship makes us feel good – and science is here to prove it

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You don’t have to be part of Central Perk’s umbrella-toting crew to know that friends are the lifeblood of being. When your job’s a joke, you’re broke, your love life’s DOA – well, you know who’ll be there for you. 

Great pals are the living, breathing equivalent of a strawberry punnet on a supermarket aisle; there to make your life lighter, brighter and altogether more fragrant (yes, even after a night of 3-for-1 rosé bombs). And it’s not just hearsay: science is clear on the fact that close friendships make you happier and healthier; reducing stress to the point that they may well prolong your life

Here’s a closer look at the logic behind why strong social bonds are a prescription in support of lifelong wellbeing and glowing good health. 

Friends help you live longer

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Remember this the next time you skip the gym for a boozy night in the pub with your pals: having a good social network could have a greater effect on your life expectancy than a regular spin class or treadmill session.

One review by researchers at Brigham Young University looked back on 100 years of friendship across 48 previous studies, and found that a healthy social life could boost longevity by as much as 50%.

The paper reported that maintaining good bonds with friends, family and even colleagues was as good for long-term survival as giving up a 15-cigarette-a-day smoking habit; and perhaps even more important than exercising or beating obesity.

Friends act as a buffer in stressful situations

Co-author Julianne Holt-Lunstad said there was strong evidence linking social relationships to lower blood pressure and a stronger immune system. Robust social ties may even reduce inflammation and help heal wounds, she said.

Friendship is thought to be such a force of good because it acts as a buffer in stressful situations, and helps build healthy habits.

Friends fuel the power of empathy

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A 2013 study from scientists at the University of Virginia established that the bond between close friends is so strong, we actually experience each other’s pain or fear.

Read more: Do you have the adventure gene?

The group studied brain scans from 22 different people who were under threat of receiving small electrical shocks to either themselves, a friend, or a stranger. They found that the brain activity of a person whose friend was in danger was essentially the same as the feelings they experienced themselves in face of the threat (the same wasn’t true of the strangers, however).

James Coan, leading the study, said: “People close to us become a part of ourselves, and that is not just metaphor or poetry, it’s very real. Literally we are under threat when a friend is under threat.”

Happiness is contagious

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Being happy is as infectious as a cold, according to a 2008 study from Harvard Medical School. The researchers concluded that happiness spreads through social groups, with one person’s endorphin-high triggering a chain reaction that ripples through to friends’ friends and their friends – meaning someone you have never met could be putting that smile on your face.

Happiness spreads through social groups as a ripple effect

The study looked at the happiness of nearly 5,000 individuals over a period of 20 years and found that when an individual becomes happy, a friend living within a mile has a 25% increased chance of also becoming happy.

And the joy you get from a contented friendship pool isn’t just a fleeting pick-me-up; the glow can last as long as a year.

Friendship boosts your immune system

Forget the vitamin C and kale smoothies – friendship not only spreads like the common cold, it can also help you fight off the sniffles, too. 

Several studies have shown the immune-boosting benefits of pals. One 1997 experiment gave people a shot of a cold virus and sent them away to a hotel for a week while the researchers sat back and waited to see who got ill.

The participants who were regularly in touch with a wider social circle – including parents, partners, colleagues and their fellow virus-infected volunteers – were less likely to come down with a cold.

Friends make the hill worth climbing

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Scientists have proven that friendship can make the insurmountable look far less challenging, quite literally. A study from the University of Plymouth discovered that friends actually made a hill seem less steep. How’s that for a metaphor.

Read more: My Flash Pack trip to China sparked a relationship that changed everything

Participants in the 2008 experiment who were accompanied by a friend estimated a hill to be less steep when compared to participants who were alone.

And there’s a placebo effect at play, too: friends don’t even need to be by your side to make you feel better. The study reported that people who simply thought of a supportive friend during an imagery task saw a hill on less of a gradient.

Friends are good for your career

Colleagues are more than just people to have a pint with on a Friday night at the end of a long week – they can actually make you better at your job. A survey by Gallup revealed that people with a particularly good friend at work were more than twice as likely to be engaged as a result. Meanwhile, it concluded that US companies with a higher ratio of workplace friendships generated 12% higher profits. Let that be an excuse for a post-work drink (or three).

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