Strong, stable friendships may be beneficial to your physiological health, a study suggests

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Good friends and good physical health may be even more closely related than previously thought, new research has found.

Researchers have found that positive social experiences affect not only a person’s stress level and ability to cope, but also markers of physical health, according to a study published Monday in the journal Society for Personality and Social Psychology.

The study followed more than 4,000 people over three weeks as they checked their smartphones or smartwatches every three days regarding their positive and negative experiences with their closest social connections, as well as estimates of their blood pressure, heart rhythm, stress and coping.

Having more positive experiences in social relationships was generally associated with better coping, lower stress and lower systolic blood pressure, or spikes in blood pressure under stress, according to the study.

But social relationships that often jump between good and bad can often be unhelpful. When there’s a lot of volatility, negative experiences seem to have a greater impact on a person than positive ones, said lead study author Brian Donn of Oakland University.

“Both positive and negative experiences in our relationships contribute to our daily stress, coping and physiology,” Don said in a statement. “Furthermore, it’s not just about how we feel about our relationships as a whole; ups and downs are important too.”

The results aren’t surprising given that previous studies have also documented the link between healthy relationships and healthier bodies, said Dr. Kathleen Mullan Harris, a sociology professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Harris was not involved in the study.

But looking at how friendships affect specific aspects of physical health adds to the scientific understanding of the relationship, she said.

The research, conducted from 2019 to the end of 2021, may also offer insight into the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, which has strained social relationships for many people, Don said.

“Because the COVID-19 pandemic has created significant strain, turmoil and variability in interpersonal relationships, it may indirectly alter stress, coping and physiology in everyday life, all of which have important implications for physical well-being,” he added.

It’s important to remember that the study can’t prove that good relationships lead to better health, Don said.

But it shows that physical health and social relationships are often intertwined, he said.

And the association can work another way, Harris said.

“People who are in better health often have better relationships with people because they’re not gloomy, they’re not whining, they’re not in pain, they’re not worried,” she said.

Don hopes that future studies will expand the areas being investigated.

“It would be useful to examine other physiological states, such as neuroendocrine or sympathetic nervous system responses as outcomes of daily positive and negative relationship experiences, which may reveal different patterns of associations,” he said.

If hearing about the importance of good social relationships makes you lament that you might not have enough, you’re not alone, said Adam Smiley Poswolski, a workplace belonging expert and author of Friendship in the Age of Loneliness.

Many people may feel lonely and want closer connections, but the prospect of making new friendships — or strengthening existing ones — can be daunting, Poswolski said.

“It’s scary to think about friendship in adulthood, and often the overwhelm prevents us from even trying,” he said.

His suggestion? Start small. Text a friend you haven’t spoken to in a while, commit to meeting one new person a month, host a dinner party, or join a class.

“If you do just one thing, make a list of five people in your life that you care about and call one of them,” Povolski added. “The most remarkable friendships often begin with the smallest moments of connection.”

Remember, you probably won’t create a strong relationship overnight, he added.

Research shows that it takes 90 hours of time together to consider someone a friend and more than 200 hours to consider them a close friend with whom you have an emotional connection, he said.

“In our fast-paced world, we need to put our friendship on the calendar and engage in recurring activities,” Poswolski said.

But studies also reveal that it’s not just about having relationships—the quality matters.

There may not be just one definition of a good friendship, but most strong relationships share some similar qualities, he said.

They tend to prioritize laughter, joy, excitement, courage, vulnerability, affirmation and non-judgment, Poswolski said. And good friendships are often two people helping each other become better versions of themselves, he added.

“Even when — especially when — their friend is struggling or going through something difficult,” Poswolski said. “You know someone is a true friend when they look after you, when you’re sick, when you lose your job, when you make a mistake, when you’re going through a breakup, when you’re stressed, when I’m sad.”

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