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The power of friendship

The power of friendshipThey cheer you up when you're blue; they're always at the end of a phone and, according to the experts, friends notch up significant health benefits too.

Imagine, if you will, friendship as being a sort of ‘ship’ containing friends. What sort of vessel would that be in your life, right now? A little dinghy with only room for one or two close pals? A luxury yacht, sailing deep waters with lots of interesting and supportive people? Or perhaps she'd be a priceless but ageing craft, paint starting to peel, just crying out for some renewed attention and a little refurbishment!

Most of us, when asked to think of all the benefits of having friends, will come up with things like companionship, good laughs, support, conversation, sharing meals together and so on. But there's one big perk that is often overlooked and worth considering: friends will increase your chances of living a longer and healthier life.

It starts with the heart. It's probably no accident that it is often referred to as more than a muscle pumping blood and as a source of love, friendship and soul. Research shows that social isolation or a lack of friends puts you at higher risk of cardiovascular disease, and will cut your life expectancy.

US cardiologist Mimi Guarneri, Medical Director of the Scripps Centre for Integrative Medicine and author of the ground-breaking book The Heart Speaks (Fusion Press, £10.99), advocates good friendship and support groups as important medicine to her heart patients. ‘Research shows that those who participate in patient support groups, or who have friends to talk things over with, have a statistically significant decrease in cardiovascular disease following bypass surgery. I have come to believe that the “i” in illness stands for isolation and the “we” in wellness stands for we,’ she says.

Friendship is a protective barrier against minor illnesses too, including the common cold. When Sheldon Cohen, a Professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University, exposed volunteers to experimentally administered cold viruses, he found that those who had less regular social contact were four times more likely to catch a cold than those who reported a high level of friendly relationships in their lives.

Stress-reduction appears to be at the heart of many of these health benefits, according to Professor Ron Eccles, Cardiff University School of Biosciences, and director of its Common Cold Centre. ‘Research shows that strong social support from friends and family will reduce stress and therefore strengthen the immune system, which will offer protection from a wide variety of stress-induced illnesses. This is a fascinating and important new area of research that is only just beginning to be understood,’ he says.

So it seems that feeling warmly connected to others, being able to hug someone and having the opportunity to get things off your chest seems to help people feel instinctively that there are enough threads in their network to support them. This will lower stress levels and help to take the strain off the immune system and heart, resulting in big health pay-offs.

A growing body of research into human happiness also points to the vital role that friends play in boosting our happiness quotient. Heather Summers and Anne Watson, co-authors of The Book of Happiness (Capstone, £9.99), which explores practical ways to improve happiness, worked with the University of Lancaster to find out whether different age groups had different beliefs about what constituted happiness. One of their key findings was that the most powerful source of happiness, at any age, is human contact within close relationships such as friends and family. But the study found that the older people got, the more important their friendships became, and the greater the impact these friendships had on their happiness. Says Heather: ‘Seventy per cent of the over-50s believed that feelings of “not belonging” made them unhappy, compared to only 20 per cent of 26 to 49 year olds. We tend to make fewer new friends as we grow older, so it's important to check that the friendships you have are ones that add to your happiness, and that you make an effort to keep in touch with good friends, especially if they move away or circumstances change.’

So with all the benefits – physical and emotional – what's the secret to cultivating and keeping a thriving honey pot of friends to sustain and nurture you through the years?

Carole Stone, a media consultant and the author of Networking: The Art of Making Friends (Vermilion, £7.99), says that it pays to remind yourself that friends are made, they don't just happen. ‘New friends really are out there, but you have to go at least halfway to meet them, because, like you, other people can be shy, uncertain and afraid of being rebuffed. One friend can lead to another, and if you want, you'll soon have a stock of friends, each having something different to offer – in the same way that you have different things to offer each of them,’ she advises.

‘Be open to finding friends everywhere – even in the most unlikely of places,’ suggests Marianna Csoti, author of Overcoming Loneliness and Making Friends (Sheldon, £7.99) ‘I made friends with two women in hospital, and we've stayed in touch and met up since being discharged. We all had a sense of humour about the circumstances we found ourselves in, and enjoyed chatting,’ she says.

It helps to remind yourself that all of your friends were once complete strangers and if you could transform strangers to friends in the past, you can do it again!

5 Friendship tactics

  • If you care about someone, be sure to let them know. Pay them a compliment, send them a text, email or little note, suggests Marianna Csoti. ‘Too many people are “passive valuers” – they keep positive feelings to themselves, which is a shame, because we are all programmed to like people who like us. If you show other people that you like them, most will respond very favourably, and friendships will become stronger.’
  • Make friendship a priority. With our hectic lives it's all too easy for ‘friend time’ to be squeezed out and pushed down your priority list. Don't let it happen. Schedule time for friends in your diary just as you would a dental appointment or a date. Make the time sacred and don't cancel unless there is a true emergency. If your friends are many and the time slots in your diary few, think about bringing some friends together!
  • Brush up on your listening skills. There's no greater gift you can give a friend than your undivided attention, lots of eye contact, and the time and space for them to talk about what's on their mind, knowing you are going to support and not judge them.
  • Friendships, like any relationship, can become stale if you're not paying attention. Inject fresh life into them by doing something different and surprising. Change the place and frequency of meeting. Arrive with a bunch of flowers if you don't normally, and do things on the spur of the moment!
  • Shy at parties? Worried about how you're coming across? It may be time to place your ego to the side and exercise your ‘curiosity muscle’, simply by taking a genuine interest in others. All the research shows that it is the art of being genuinely curious and attentive that makes someone come off as a brilliant conversationalist, rather than having lots of clever things to say!

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