Friends, as they say, are like the family you choose, and now there’s evidence to prove it. Studies into inter-personal connectivity have shown that friendships are the most important relationships we have in terms of our health and happiness, and cultivating them into old age could even help us live longer.
Researchers from Michigan State University looked at two separate studies—the first a survey spanning 90 countries and 300,000 people in various stages of life, from teenagers to seniors. It found participants who put time and effort into nurturing friendships over the years self-reported as happier and healthier.
The second was a US survey distributed among 7,481 middle-aged participants, focusing on how understood, accepted and supported they felt by their inner circle. When the researchers followed up with the participants at a later date to check the status of their health, they discovered the quality of people’s friendships appeared to have had a strong affect on their wellbeing—much more so than their relationships with their spouse or children. When people reported having stressful friendships their risk of disease rose, and when things were harmonious they were generally thriving.
Unlike familial bonds, which often come with particular responsibilities and expectations, friendships are solely joy based. When we select our friends we look for those who share similar qualities and interests, people to whom we can reveal our realest selves without fear of judgement or rejection.
Unlike spousal relationships there is no obligation to stay—we do so because sharing triumphs and dramas makes life lighter and more easeful. Friendships, when they’re good, are more important than any other connection we have. One study even suggests they help us live longer — in fact the only thing that has more of an impact on lifespan is whether or not we smoke.
So how do you go about building friendships that will make you happier and healthier? Having fun is the easy part, it’s navigating each other’s complexities that’s challenging.
Listen and advise, but don’t be angry or offended if your friend doesn’t follow your instructions. Air issues before they fester and turn into resentments. Make spending time with one another a priority, because that’s what you do when something (or somebody) is important to you. And try not to be too judgmental, even if you don’t agree with their actions, because mistakes are their own form of progression.
Like any relationship, friendships require work, but if you can maintain close bonds the rewards are monumental.