This last weekend Thom and I drove to Carlsbad to visit with our friends John and Michelle. It took some gas money to get there, but once we arrived, we hunkered down with a couple of bottles of wine, a great dinner that Michelle prepared, and talked for hours, and hours. We eventually went to bed (lucky for us they have a guest room) and then got up and talked and laughed over breakfast before returning home to the desert. Once the overnight bag was put away, it occurred to me that our brief trip was one of those priceless moments with friends that takes relatively little money but offers huge returns. In fact, cultivating deep friendships may be one of the SMARTest things any of can do on a regular basis to live a great life.
Friendships are important. Humans are social beings who relish connection with others. While most of us realize this from the pleasure we get when we get together with friends, there is actually scientific proof that friends are necessary for a happy and balanced life. This morning I sat down and identified at least five big benefits we all receive from developing and keeping friends throughout our lifetimes.
1) They will make you healthier. Sheldon Cohen, PhD at Carnegie Mellon University did a study exposing adults to the common cold virus. He found that subjects with the least variety of social relationships were 4.2 times more likely to catch a cold. Harvard research shows that breast cancer participants are four times as likely to die from the disease than those with ten or more close friends. Also, notable in this study, proximity and the amount of contact with a friend wasn’t associated with survival—just having the friend was beneficial. It can lower blood pressure, protect against dementia and reduce depression.
2) It will keep your brain sharp: A recent study by Oscar Ybara PhD at the University of Michigan, showed that people who chatted with friends for 10 minutes did better on cognitive tasks (Like memory and logic exercises) than those who didn’t. Friends, especially those who like to learn and explore new ideas, will broaden your perspective and challenge you to think in new ways.
3) You’ll live longer. Researchers have proven that socially connected people live an average of 3.7 years longer than those without. In fact, loneliness elevates the chance of premature death as much as high blood pressure, lack of exercise and obesity. It is estimated that individuals who lack social networks are two to three times more likely to die from any cause than people who have lots of friends and relatives.
4) You’ll be happier. Authors Ed Diener and Robert Biswas-Diener say, “Happier people tend to have good families, friends, and supportive relationships.” But, according to them, it’s not enough to be the life of the party if you’re surrounded by shallow acquaintances. “We don’t just need relationships, we need close ones that involve understanding and caring.” People from around the world consistently report higher degrees of happiness whenever they have a strong social network of friends.
5) Not only can they make you laugh and think, they can help you deal with trauma and disappointment. Friends can offer mental health support in a way that touches every day of your life. Everything from encouraging you to try that new recipe to losing that extra five pounds can be only a phone call away. Friends can pick up a carton of milk at the store if you are stuck at home with the kids or take you to happy hour when you’ve had a tough day at work. The huge number of benefits that comes from close friendship is impossible to calculate but should never be underestimated.
Okay so this isn’t rocket science—we know that friends are important. Unfortunately, in our culture we are constantly working so hard or over committing ourselves in so many ways that we frequently complain that we “don’t have time for our friends.” Certainly, those with young families, with two working parents, are often stretched to capacity. But what about all the rest of us? The truth is that we make time for what we think is important in our lives. If we truly value our friendships then we go out of our way to continually connect with those we care about. Every day we actually choose what we will spend time doing—maybe it’s time we chose our friends for a change?
Plus, I spend a lot of time here on this blog encouraging us all to live in a way that is sustainable and financially responsible—by cutting back on work, reducing debt and getting back to what’s important. Some of the feedback that I get is that people are worried that they won’t have the money to do what brings them pleasure so they feel they must work so hard to keep up. Cultivating deep friendships is one of the most “priceless” ways to increase the value of your life without extra work or more money. Face it, getting together with good friends and sharing food and conversation is one of the least expensive, yet most enjoyable things any of us can do.
Of course, there is another side to friendship that is less obvious, but still deserves notice. That perspective is that friendships, much like with family or our relatives, challenge us to learn to live with, accept, and love others in ways that might not come as easily. Sure, we can pick and choose our friends, but even the closest friends will sometimes do things and say things that we don’t agree with or condone. But learning to cooperate, forgive, still love, and move on is a lesson that is necessary for individual happiness as well as from a universal perspective for the survival of the human race.
We’ve known our friends John and Michelle for over 15 years now. We don’t live in the same city and often go several months before we see or talk to them. There have even been a couple of times and experiences when we clashed and disagreed—what friends don’t? But the vast majority of the times we do get together, just like with our other close friends, we experience the many benefits that friends bring to a meaningful and joyful life. We think that’s SMART to keep in mind.
“At the end of your life, you will never regret not having passed one more test, not winning one more verdict, or not closing one more deal. You will regret time not spent with a husband, a friend, a child, or a parent.” ~Barbara Bush
“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.” ~Kurt Vonnegut, Jr.
“Most important in a friendship? Tolerance and loyalty.” ~J.K. Rowling