The Science of Friendship

Let’s face it – everyone craves companionship. As relationship-oriented creatures, human beings are hardwired for connection, and loneliness isn’t our natural state. We actually need companionship to survive, and increased isolation due to social media, a global pandemic, and a major spike in mental health issues has led to a loneliness epidemic, which is harming our individual and societal health. [1] 


Summer SolsticeAmerican culture places a high value on romantic relationships, and while romance can be an important, meaningful part of our lives, the benefits of friendship and platonic relationships cannot be overlooked. In the past 25 years, various studies have researched the connections between social relationships and mortality risks, and these studies have concluded that stable, healthy friendships are crucial to our well-being and longevity. EQ recently explored the themes of friendship, community and social connections and how these factors contribute to our overall health and happiness (more on that here), so we’re going to dive a little deeper into the science of friendship, how it contributes to our happiness, and how we can embrace community and incorporate the theme of togetherness more into our everyday lives.


What exactly is the Science of Friendship?


Destress with EQIn our Science of Happiness article, we explored a big question: What actually makes us happy? This very question was also explored in the Grant Study, which aimed to reveal clues as to how we can lead healthier and happier lives. This 75 year-long study tracked the lives of hundreds of men from different backgrounds, periodically surveying them about their work, home lives, and relationships, as well as their health status and mental states. [2] In short, the Grant Study concluded that wealth, fame, or other modern definitions of success are not the factors that lead to true happiness; instead, it is the quality of our social connections and close relationships that really matter. This study ultimately found that people who are more socially connected are happier, physically healthier, and live longer than people who are less well connected and isolated from others. On the contrary, the research participants who reported being socially isolated and involved in unhealthy or stressful relationships experienced an earlier decline in their physical health, displayed poorer memory and brain function, and actually lived shorter lives. [3] Additionally, a study published in 2020 determined that people who have close friends and confidants are more satisfied with their lives and less likely to suffer from depression, [4] and another study concluded that people with these same close relationships are less likely to die from all causes, including heart problems and a range of chronic diseases. [5] While these may seem like huge claims, the research is there – friendships and close platonic relationships really can help us live longer, healthier, happier lives! 


Friendship through the ages


As we move through life, our societal functioning changes, and our relationships with each other evolve. When we’re very young, our primary social relationship is with our parents, guardians or caregivers – but when kids go to school, they begin forming deeper friendships outside of their home environments. Then, as we make our way through adolescence, creating friendships can seem like a breeze (when you’re thrown into an environment with a group of like-minded people within a similar age group, the pool of potential friends is big!) During this time, our adolescent brains are as attuned to social connections and signals as they will ever be, and we become really hyper-interested in social activity. [6] However, as we move toward full-fledged adulthood, most of us go through major transitionary periods where it can be more difficult to make and keep friends. New jobs, marriages, moving away from your support system, having children – all of these huge life changes can really force you to put your friends on the back burner. But although it can be difficult to prioritize platonic relationships as we grow older, research shows that it is crucial to keep the lifelong endeavor of friendship at the forefront of our minds throughout our lives, because these relationships can impact us in greater ways than we think. 


How does friendship change our brains and bodies?


It’s no secret that friendships can make our lives better and help improve our social skills, but it may be surprising to hear that forming deep social connections can actually have a huge impact on our mental, physical, and emotional health. Neuroscientist Natalie Geld states, “Having a supportive social network can help you live longer with less anxiety and fewer health problems… and relying on friends for connections that are truly fulfilling can help a person to develop healthy brain cells and strengthen positive neural pathways in the brain.” Geld also explains that when humans get lonely, a genetic cascade of changes happen in the body: loneliness increases inflammation and turbocharges your fight-or-flight stress response, which stresses you out, causing your immune system to become weaker. [7] When it comes to our emotions, our bodies naturally create a powerful cocktail of oxytocin, dopamine, serotonin, and endorphins, and our friends can inherently trigger these positive chemical reactions. These “feel good hormones” work to elevate our moods, and optimize our hormonal responses to stress. [8] 


According to University of Oxford psychologist Robin Dunbar, our friends may also be making us smarter. One study found that the biggest predictor of a primate’s brain size is the magnitude of its social group, and Dunbar attests that friendships could be responsible for human’s massive brain size, since we need all of that neural power to keep track of our various complex relationships. [9] 


And while sometimes your friends may feel like the death of you, research has shown that friendships can actually help us live longer. An article exploring the connection between friendships and longevity points to research involving elderly individuals and friendship, stating “… studies have shown that older people with friends are more likely to live a healthier, happier life than those who do not have many close friends. Older people without close friends are more likely to develop chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and depression than their counterparts.” [10] 


How can I foster more positive, healthy friendships?


Just like how a strong, positive relationship is good for you, a negative or ambivalent relationship can be, you guessed it… bad for you! While it’s not surprising that a toxic relationship can take a toll on our health, research shows that relationships that are categorized as ambivalent can also generate cardiovascular issues and other kinds of health problems. [11] An ambivalent relationship is a relationship where you have positive feelings and negative feelings about the person or about your interactions with them, and that’s true of a lot of our relationships—almost half. [12] So how can we foster strong, healthy friendships? Well, the first step is simply prioritizing those friendships! We know, sometimes that can be easier said than done, but realizing that everyone lives busy lives, yet continuing to make an effort to connect with your friends regularly can make the biggest difference in forming and maintaining these important relationships. 


The Challenge:


How to Find Your Happy - A Quickie Primer

We’ve put together a little challenge to help you invest in your friendships, and in turn, your health and wellness. Simply choose a friend – it can be an old friend, a good friend, a friend you haven’t spoken to in awhile… as you were reading this article, a friend or two probably came to mind!

Now, invest in your relationship with that person. It can be something simple, like buying them lunch, or paying for a round of drinks or coffee. For long-distance friends, try sending them a postcard or handwritten letter, or call up a friend you haven’t spoken to in awhile. Show your commitment to the friendship – if you can’t squeeze the activity in this week, put it on your calendar and stick to it! Use this challenge to help you build more fruitful and fulfilling relationships, because you and your friends deserve it.