Think for a moment about one of your best friends (perhaps someone that you have been friends with for ages, or got to know more recently and just ‘gelled’ with)…visualise their face …imagine the sound of their voice…maybe looking forward to a planned meet up, or thinking of getting in touch with them very soon…

The chances are that you currently have either a smile on your face, a warm feeling in your heart centre, or both. This physiological response clearly demonstrates that experiencing positive emotions – such as those felt when thinking about close friendships – can trigger the release of ‘happy hormones,’ which are good for your health!

Friendships can bring sadness too if, for example, trust has been broken, you have grown apart, loss of friends through distance or bereavement, or if you don’t have someone you can call a best friend. This can spark sadness, anger, or hurt and even feelings of guilt for not staying in touch when life gets too busy and there just isn’t enough time…

But why are friendships so important to health and wellbeing?

 Friendship and 21st Century life

As parents we encourage and support our children in making new friends and ‘fitting in’, but don’t always recognise the importance of seeking out new friendships as adults. Friendships can dwindle as people move house, job, or grow apart. The pace of 21st century life and raising a family can mean we don’t have the time, energy, or money to socialise, so social network sites such as Facebook have become an important communication channel for many people. But do Facebook friends count?

Relationships are the most important overall contributor to happiness. Close relationships (strong ties) provide love, meaning, support and increased self-worth and people who have strong social connections are happier, healthier and live longer. Wider social connections (social capital) promote a sense of belonging, so strengthening relationships and forming new ones is essential for health and well-being.

Social capital is defined as “the sum of the resources, actual or virtual, that accrue to an individual or a group by virtue of possessing a durable network of more or less institutionalized relationships of mutual acquaintance and recognition” (Bourdieu & Wacquant,1992, p.14) and is linked with better health, financial status and lower crime rates across communities.

Vitak, Ellison and Steinfield (2011) describe ‘bonding’ social capital (close relationships such as with family and friends) and ‘bridging’ social capital (weaker ties between groups and networks). Whilst social media sites can help to maintain connections and provide a sense of inclusion (although often with weak ties), it is bonding social capital that is linked with positive relationships and well-being (Ellison, Steinfield & Lampe, 2007) and  in my book there is no substitute for face-to-face contact with friends. Also, when you meet in person you can have a hug: hugging releases oxytocin – the connection hormone – and you can’t get that on Facebook!

 Pruning friendships and cultivating new ones

So friends are good for your health…but what if you have been really good friends with someone for ages and your lives are entwined, but being around them drains you, or you just don’t get on anymore? Do you stay in touch because you should, you don’t want to offend them, worry what others might say, or from fear that you won’t have enough friends if you end the relationship?

Having let go of a long-term friendship relatively recently, it’s tough but feels better and more honest. As with many long-term relationships things change: interests, opinions and circumstances alter and you can grow apart. For me, having similar interests and values is really important: feeling that ‘they get me’ and respect me even if we don’t agree on everything. Letting go of friends that no longer nourish you can lead to guilt… but if it can’t be salvaged, accept it, remember the good times and let it go with forgiveness and love. I appreciate other friends even more and feel more motivated to strengthen these bonds and have made new friends since.

What do you love most about your friends? Why not tell them next time you see them, it can strengthen the bond.

Do they nourish you? Sometimes pruning social contacts is better for your health

Is there someone that you would like to cultivate a new friendship with?

 Looking forward

When children leave home, families’ separate, or retirement approaches, less regular contact with others can lead to loneliness and even depression, so it’s also important to have a sense of purpose and direction – things to look forward to. Research shows people often feel happier in their 70’s than when they were younger and there are many factors associated with positive ageing. Broadening social connections, maintaining a positive approach, keeping active, helping others, learning new skills and appreciating the world around you can help you to look forward and to maximise your health and wellbeing. You’re worth it…and so are you friends!

References

Bourdieu, P., & Wacquant, L. (1992). An Invitation to Reflexive Sociology. Chicago:  University of Chicago Press.

Ellison, N., Steinfield, C. & Lampe, C. (2007). The benefits of Facebook “friends:” Social capital and college students’ use of online social network sites. Journal of Computer-    Mediated Communication, 12; 1143-1168. Doi:10.1111/j.1083-     6101.2007.00367.x

Vitak, J., Ellison, N. & Steinfield, C. (2011). The ties that bond: Re-examining the relationship between Facebook use and bonding social capital. Proceedings  of the 44th Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences.

About the Author: Maggie Bevington worked in conventional and holistic medicine before achieving an MSc in Applied Positive Psychology (MAPP 2014). She now delivers Upward Spirals workshops: a unique, integrative, research-based approach to health and wellbeing – combining Positive Psychology, mindfulness training, nutrition, exercise and sleep – for individuals, groups and organisations. Website: www.upwardspirals.org.uk

 

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