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How Your Friendships Can Make You A Healthier Person

In today’s fast-paced culture of busyness, it can be hard to carve out a few minutes for yourself every day, let alone time to connect with friends. But if you want to be a healthier person—mentally, emotionally, and physically—it turns out, making friendships a priority is one of the best things you can do.

“Friendships have started to be viewed as a ‘luxury’ in our society; as something we get to [experience] if we have left over time in our schedules,” says Gina Handley Schmitt, therapist, friendship coach, and author of Friending: Creating Meaningful, Lasting Adult Friendships. “However, more research is revealing that meaningful friendships are actually supremely important for…our mental, [physical], and emotional health.”

In honor of National Friendship Day, let’s take a look at some of the ways your friendships can make you a healthier person and how to cultivate stronger friendships (and become happier and healthier in the process):

Happy friends can increase your happiness

Happiness is a key element of health—and when it comes to friendships, happiness is literally contagious. A Harvard study found that when a person becomes happy, their friends’ chance of experiencing happiness increases by 25 percent. And the happiness impact doesn’t stop there; the same study found that one person’s happiness can spread through their network by up to three degrees—impacting their friends, their friends’ friends, and even their friends’ friends’ friends.

So, not only can your own friendships make you a happier person, but the ripple effect of your friends’ friendships (and your friends’ friends’ friendships) can give you a happiness boost as well.

Friends can help you make healthier choices

When you spend time with your friends, their habits and behaviors tend to rub off on you—including the choices they make that impact their health. One 2019 study found a statistically significant link between an individual’s health and wellness (for example, stress levels, diet, and exercise habits) and their social network’s health and wellness.

Or, in other words, if your friends live a healthy lifestyle, you’re more likely to live that healthy lifestyle right along with them.

Friendships give you a sense of belonging

People want to feel like they belong to something meaningful and bigger than themselves—and strong friendships can provide that sense of belonging. “Friendships…provide us with a place of connection, belonging, and community. People to laugh with. People to cry with. People to celebrate with. People to play with. People to share the best and worst of life with,” says Handley Schmitt. “We need these people in our lives to provide encouragement, solidarity, and care.”

The experience of belonging you get from solid friendships can also have a positive impact on your mental health. Research has found that a sense of belonging can decrease feelings of depression and hopelessness.

Friendships keep loneliness at bay

“Feeling estranged and alienated from others can have a negative impact on our mental health,” says Glenda D. Shaw, author of the upcoming book Better You, Better Friends: A Whole New Approach to Friendship.

And not only can loneliness be tough on your mental health, but it can also wreak havoc on your physical health and overall well-being. Research shows that loneliness and social isolation are correlated with a significantly higher risk of early mortality—between 26 and 32 percent. And research outlined by the Health Resources & Services Administration found that loneliness can be as detrimental to your health as smoking 15 cigarettes per day.

Clearly, loneliness can take a toll on your health. But when you have friends that love and support you—and spend time with you—it can help keep loneliness (and the negative health impacts that go along with it) at bay.

Tips for navigating friendships as an adult

Clearly, making friends—and maintaining those relationships—is a must if you want to be your happiest, healthiest self. But it can be hard to find time to make new friends—or to prioritize the friendships you already have.

Here are a few tips to help you navigate friendships as an adult (and reap the health-boosting benefits in the process):

Put yourself out there with like-minded people. Friendships typically flourish when you have something in common. So, if you’re on the market for new friends, try putting yourself in situations where you’ll meet people you have a lot in common with. “It’s important, at any age, to form new friendships with people who reflect our personal interests and hobbies,” says Shaw. “If you love books, join a book club through your local library; [if you love] hiking, become a volunteer guide at a local park; [if you love] acting, offer your skills at a local theater company.”

Make an effort. It doesn’t matter how great a friendship is; if you don’t actively work to keep the friendship moving forward, eventually, it will disappear. If you want to keep your friendships going strong, you need to make an effort. “To keep…friendships strong, you have to maintain them,” says Shaw. “Connect regularly, return calls, and respond to emails.”

Prioritize the right friendships. Not all friendships are created equal—and not all friendships are going to make you a healthier person. Prioritize the friendships that make you feel loved, appreciated, and supported. And the friendships that don’t? Do yourself (and your health!) a favor and let them go. 

“It’s important to acknowledge that not all friendships contribute in healthy ways to our lives,” says Handley Schmitt. A friend “who regularly makes us feel devalued, disrespected, or in danger is not someone who is contributing positively to our lives—and we have permission to take a step away from any relationship that is chronically unhealthy.”

This information is for educational purposes only and is not intended as a substitute for medical diagnosis or treatment. You should not use this information to diagnose or treat a health problem or condition. Always check with your doctor before changing your diet, altering your sleep habits, taking supplements, or starting a new fitness routine.

Deanna deBara

Deanna deBara is a freelance writer based in Portland, OR. She covers a wide range of wellness topics, including fitness, nutrition, relationships, and mental health. Her work has appeared on Greatist, Men’s Health, Ravishly, The Fix, What’s Good by The Vitamin Shoppe, and more.

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