Struggling with your healthy lifestyle? It’s okay, grab a friend instead for health benefits
Caitríona Mc Bride
Whether it is laughter, love, loyalty or all three you get from a friend, treasure them and let them treasure you, it’s good for your health. Photograph: Thinkstock
The feeling of being your whole self with another person is one of the best things about friendship.
The comforting exhale in knowing that you can unfold and be vulnerable and messy, funny and kind, truthful without judgment with another person, and that it works both ways, is one of the great joys in life.
You chose them and they chose you. It differs entirely to the kinship that comes from a romance or the birth bond from family, it is a chosen connection based on who we are and the company we have chosen to enjoy.
The bond we make bartering squashed sandwiches with school pals can last a lifetime if we are lucky.
But as we grow, we change and so do our interests. New jobs, new cities, new brothers and sisters-in-law mean embracing new friendships.
So what has this got to do with our health? Do we really live longer, better, healthier lives with friendship?
Dr Keith Gaynor, senior clinical psychologist at St John of God Hospital, south Dublin, says we do, and that friendship benefits our health as it helps build our confidence, self-esteem and gives us a sense of belonging.
“We absolutely, 100 per cent, need friends for a healthier life and there are huge mental health benefits to friendship.
In practically every psychological treatment, building friendships are crucial to the success of the therapy.
Every treatment has a worse outcome without friendship and there is less chance of someone overcoming something like depression without friendship.”
As human beings we are intrinsically social and need connection from others, particularly during times of struggle, says Gaynor.
“If we get isolated, or isolate ourselves, it can be detrimental to our mental health. The feeling ‘I’m not alone’ is so important if you start a new job, if you move, have an exam.
“While your friend might not physically be beside you, you feel they are with you and this reduces anxiety.”
But what is a friend? The person we are completely ourselves with? The person to whom we can open up to without fear of judgment? The one we can laugh with until we snort, and cry with until the tears are soothed?
Gaynor says there is no one definition of friendship but it is definitely not romantic.
“Friendship is a close relationship in which both people get support, enjoyment and it is equal, but it is not romantic.
“While of course you can say ‘I love this amazing person who I married and I am so close to, they feel like my best friend’, friendships are a different thing.
“Friends are not asking the same commitment or demands from you as in a romantic relationship.”
There have been many studies to confirm friends are good for your health. A study published in the Annals of Behavioral Medicine in 2007 found that young men and women discussing rough patches in their lives had lower blood pressure and pulse rates when they had a supportive friend at their side.
Another study conducted in Australia over 10 years found that older people with a large circle of friends were 22 per cent less likely to die during the study period than those with fewer friends.
However, just as a friend can be good for your health, a “toxic” friend can be as detrimental.
Gaynor says it can be difficult to “break up” with a friend but advises that much like in a romantic relationship, when it stops being good it is time to let go.
“There needs to be a 50-50 interaction and if it does not feel like that for someone in the friendship, that person can feel resentful and think she’s always moaning, it is always about her.
“There is a time limit to how long someone can usually put up with that.”
Bereavement, break-ups and illness can all show us who our friends are and friendship is vital in helping us cope.
She returned to Ireland from the US and was struck by the huge difference in how American society supports families going through separation and divorce in comparison to Ireland.
“Married people are simply seen as mainstream and more acceptable in our couple-orientated culture in Ireland. In 1994 there was little or no support when my marriage broke up, other than private counselling and mediation.
“The only family member who supported me was my dad and I was lucky to have three good female friends close by.
“The loss of the majority of ‘couple friends’ was enormous and unexpected.
“What became apparently shocking was the (perceived) threat I was to my married friends’ husbands.
“This hugely diminished my social life – I was no longer invited to their homes for social and dinner occasions. The paradox was my ex-husband was still invited, while I was a pariah.”
She says good friends are “life-savers” for anyone going through separation or divorce and that most of her clients, sadly, lose friends in the process.
“Divorce can change the dynamics in any relationship, and particularly in friendships. A lot depends on when you became friends. ‘Friends before marriage’ tend to remain your friends.
“Whereas, friends obtained while married face a more difficult dilemma because you became friends while you were part of a couple. Now they don’t know how to relate to you in your new situation.”
In tough times
Lynn McDevitt and her husband, Eamonn, live in Donegal and are both cancer survivors.
They organise a bus for patients who have to make the journey from Donegal to Galway for cancer treatment.
The service is funded entirely through their Good and New charity shop in Letterkenny and donations.
Lynn says her husband was her “rock” during both cancer treatments and that her friends were also a great comfort, both old and new, especially those made during treatment and the bus journey has forged many friendships.
“We have a motto, if you live in Donegal and get cancer, you travel or you die. You get on that bus weary and before the journey’s over you have made two or three friends, it’s incredible.
“People help and support each other and life-long friendships are formed on the bus.”
When it comes to maintaining friendships, Gaynor says women are, in general, better than men and it is typical for men to lose friendships when they get married.
“A wife can often take on the role of keeping her husband’s friendships going by organising Sunday lunches, the child’s birthday parties, or weekend get-togethers.
“Men just aren’t as good at remembering to text or organising something at the weekend or giving each other a call. Work and family can take over.”
There is a lot to be learned in a good friendship – like forgiveness, patience, thoughtfulness and empathy – but also in knowing what we need and asking for that from friends. This, as Gaynor points out, is not selfish.
“It is very good mental health practice to call a friend because you know that you have had had a bad day at the office and need a 10-minute vent to know you will feel better. It is not selfish.
“You don’t come home from work and think I’m hungry but I’m not going to make dinner because that would be selfish.
“It is a need and is perfectly okay to know what you need to cope. Real friends will be there to support you with that.”
Whether it is laughter, love, loyalty or all three you get from a friend, treasure them and let them treasure you, it’s good for your health.