The science of friendships: how and why they can make us feel good

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Great friends are there to make your life lighter, brighter and altogether more joyous. And it’s not just hearsay: science is clear on the fact that close friendships do make you happier and healthier.

Having a good social network could also have a greater effect on your life expectancy than a regular spin class or treadmill session. Researchers at Brigham Young University in the US, 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-a-day smoking habit; and perhaps even more important than exercising or beating obesity.

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Friendship is thought to help build healthy habits

Further to this, 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.

A 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. 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).

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Happiness spreads through social groups

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.”

In another survey from Harvard Medical School, being happy was found to be as infectious as a cold. 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. 

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 becoming happy, too. 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.


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Friendship can make the insurmountable less challenging

Friendship not only spreads like the common cold, it can help you fight one, too. Several studies have shown the immune-boosting benefits of pals. One 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.

Scientists have proven that friendship can also 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. Participants in another experiment who were accompanied by a friend, estimated a hill to be less steep compared to those participants who were alone.

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Workplace friendships generated higher profits

And there’s a placebo effect at play, too. Friends don’t 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.

And, finally, colleagues are more than just people to have a pint with 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 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. Now, if that’s not a clear reason for a post-work drink – or three.

Join Flash Pack today to prioritise friendships on an adventure and meet with other like-minded travelers.

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